Oscar Kashala: A Purposeful Life

Oscar-Kashala photo by Radio Okapi CC BY 2.0

By Martha Henry

You may ask why Dr. Oscar Kashala, who trained as a researcher at the Harvard AIDS Initiative (HAI), is running for president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Or you could ask why anyone would want to be president of a country most experts consider a “failed state.”

Established as a Belgian colony in 1908, the Congo gained independence in 1960, but has been marred by political and social instability. The country has a wealth of natural resources, but basic infrastructure has been neglected for decades. Over seventy percent of the people live in poverty. The civil war that ended in 2003 left more than five million dead.

Kashala was born in 1954 in Lubumbashi, in what was then called the Belgian Congo. The son of a retired military sergeant, he was an excellent student. At boarding school, he contracted schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease. For several weeks he had to have an injection every day at the local hospital. He decided he wanted to be a doctor like the doctor who was helping him.

He graduated from Kinshasa University Medical School in 1980 and trained in internal medicine and pathology. As a resident, he spent a lot of time in the ICU. He noticed that many of his patients had chronic diarrhea.

In 1981 researchers around the world were just discovering a new disease that suppressed the immune system. When Congolese living in Belgium showed symptoms of the disease, Belgian doctors visited the Congo to see what was happening. Many of the patients in Kinshasa that had diarrhea also had Kaposi’s sarcoma. The AIDS epidemic was just beginning.

Kashala wanted to understand the origin and development of Kaposi’s sarcoma. He moved to Switzerland for a fellowship at the World Health Organization (WHO) and then returned home.

When a delegation of American researchers was in Kinshasa to learn more about AIDS, Kashala was asked to translate because he spoke English and could show them around the hospital. One of those researchers was Dr. Max Essex, Chair of HAI. Though Kashala was already planning to go to Paris on another WHO fellowship, Essex invited him to visit Harvard. As Kashala remembers, Essex said, “Why don’t you come to Boston first and see what we’re doing. If you’re interested, maybe you’ll stay.”

A month later Kashala got a letter from Harvard and a ticket to Boston in the mail. He went and decided to stay on as a research fellow. “It seemed clear that Oscar was both very bright and a natural leader,” said Essex. “He was also a workaholic, extremely devoted to medical research.”

At Harvard, Kashala did pioneering work on Hepatitis B and liver cancer. With Essex and Dr. Phyllis Kanki, he helped establish HIV/AIDS programs in the Congo. The work was personal. His younger brother had died of AIDS.

Dr. Oscar Kashala at an AIDS meeting in the early 1990s
Kashala at an AIDS meeting in the early 1990s

After earning his doctorate in cancer biology from Harvard in 1992, Kashala spent the next decade doing clinical research in the pharmaceutical industry, working for Cambridge Biotech, Merck, Millennium, and others. With his wife Prudence, he raised a family of eight children.

Though he moved to the U.S. in 1987, Kashala frequently returned to his native country. He used his business connections to have much-needed medical equipment and supplies donated to Congo hospitals. He knew firsthand how poorly the healthcare system worked. His father had died because he was given the wrong type of blood. One of his sisters bled to death during labor and delivery. Another sister died of a hemorrhage during an operation. These deaths were heartbreaking to Kashala, especially because he knew they could have been prevented.

He had a growing feeling that he should do more to help. In 2005, Kashala and ten other Congolese established a new political party called the Union for the Rebuilding of the Congo. The platform centered around the rebuilding of security and critical infrastructure, development of democratic principles, improvements in the basic quality of life, and an expansion of global partnerships. Kashala was named party leader. “We in Africa have to show that we can create viable societies and be respected as credible partners,” he said.

In the 2006 national elections, Kashala ran for president of the Congo. During the brief campaigning period, his security staff and top advisors were arrested, his travel plans were disrupted, and his campaign materials were confiscated. Despite these setbacks, Kashala came in fifth out of a field of 33 candidates.

The next presidential elections are scheduled for November 28, 2011, though the United Nations has expressed serious concerns that the country will be ready. Undeterred, Oscar Kashala is running again. “Only by acting shall our life have a meaning,” he said in a recent interview.

Though now a presidential candidate, his time at the Harvard School of Public Health informs his platform. If elected, one of his first steps, he said, would be to rebuild the healthcare infrastructure and create water purification and distribution systems to decrease infant mortality.

“We need credible people who understand how to build a nation and to bring in partners to sit at the same table and say, ‘we are now on a new trajectory for the country. This is what we need to do.’”