By Richard Carroll
Photography: Dr. Thomas Lee DDS and Lita Lee
n a warm July afternoon in 2013 following a 32-hour flight, Thomas Lee,
a prominent Southern California dentist, and his wife Lita, first set
foot in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, a landlocked country in
central-east Africa with a populace in great need. The couple were beginning
a passionate, heartfelt mission along with the Lees' 17-year-old son
Nathan, five medical doctors, a nurse, pharmacist, four support staff,
and the Lee's pastor and his wife.
The Lee's were greatly aware, as is the world, of Rwanda's
appalling past. In 1994 a government-sponsored genocide unfolded during
which an estimated 800,000-plus ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were
killed by dominant Hutu forces, and some 300,000 children were left
Rwanda's stunning landscape
The Lees' first impressions of Kigali were of having
been propelled backward fifty years in time. They observed vast throngs
of people moving about on the streets, many clutching yellow plastic
water buckets, deftly evading swarms of chaotic motor scooters negotiating
for space, while a thick blanket of gray clouds combined with a choking
haze of dust and gas fumes covered the landscape.
Working tirelessly on the comeback trail from its horrendous
past, the Republic of Rwanda, bordered by Uganda,
Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is among
the smallest countries on the African mainland, and slightly smaller
than the state of Maryland. With few natural resources, the country's
economy is overwhelmingly based on subsistence agriculture. Coffee and
tea lead the major exports.
Rwanda boasts one of the highest population densities
on the continent, and yet the average life expectancy of men there is
just 54 years. The country lacks a concrete social and medical infrastructure
for the disadvantaged, which unquestionably contributes to the low life
expectancy and was one of the factors that drew the Lees to Rwanda.
The faces of Rwanda's future
The Lees were discussing a much-needed vacation from
their busy and demanding "Leading Edge" dental office in Granada
Hills, California. The office, designed by personable Dr. Lee, an avid
jazz aficionado and University of California Berkeley alumni, is reminiscent
of a boutique art gallery with rare photos of jazz musicians and posters
decorating the walls, along with some striking images of Rwanda.
Following a long work day and with jazz playing in the
background Lee remembers that "it was my 50th birth year, and our
25th wedding anniversary and I was discussing with Lita places to visit--possibly
someplace we've never been, do something off the chart, set aside two
weeks and climb Kilimanjaro, or go on a safari. Then in January, 2013,
on an unforgettable Sunday at church our lives were forever touched
when we listened to the testimony of Rwandan, Jean Claude Rwagasore,
and his incredible survival of the genocide as a 12-year-old-orphan."
Dr. Lee kneels in prayer with a young Rwandan boy
After a long pause Lee continues, "Jean Claude,
now an esteemed Rwandan attorney and Director of Best Family, shared
his life story about how he and three young orphan boys the same age
came together on the streets to share and survive. Quickly the orphan
group became eight and rapidly expanded, eventually becoming the starting
point of Best Family Rwanda" A stirring power today, Best Family
Rwanda is a ministry dedicated to making Jesus known to the orphaned
children in Rwanda through holistic development.
"Incredibly, during this time," Lee explains,
"another orphan came to Jean Claude and Best Family pleading for
help and was warmly accepted, though during the height of the genocide,
while Jean Claude hid in a closet, he watched the orphan's father murder
Jean Claude's father and sister; his mother was lost in the chaos on
"After all this," Dr. Lee said, "I quickly
put aside the safari, Kilimanjaro and all the rest, and realized I needed
to do something for those in need of help. I was struggling to ask Lita
if she would like to go to Africa, and to my surprise she mentioned
Dr. Lee begins his work as curious Rwandan children
Dr. Lee said that he had no clear ideas about Rwanda,
but it was like God was speaking to both him and his wife, a strong
voice from above calling out, and it was at that moment their hearts
were moved to travel half-way around the world to Africa to serve at
an orphanage and share the dental expertise Dr. Lee had to offer.
"We prayed, and decided with great fervor that
Rwanda would be our personal mission. My 50th birth year and celebrating
our 25th wedding anniversary would take place in Rwanda. I felt this
is what I was created for: to help the children of Africa.
Another confirmation took place when a church member
at the Garden Christian Fellowship in Chatsworth asked us if we would
be interested in a mission to Africa treating orphans."
On that memorable first trip to Rwanda, after a prayer
breakfast, Dr. Lee, along with his team, set up his portable dental
chair, surgical light and equipment, and organized a clinic in Kigali's
Nyarugunga sector. They connected with a pastor who is providing education
and Christian training at his small school for poor children who were
roaming the streets aimlessly, had no money for public school, and were
in great need. Moving to the Gasharu sector working with Best Family,
Dr. Lee treated widows and victims of the genocide.
Dr. Lee and his small dental staff
During that first two-week mission the Lees were floored
to see hundreds of people, many with throbbing pain in their mouths,
patiently waiting for help. In Gisenyi, close to the border of the Democratic
Republic of Congo, the team set-up in the Noel Orphanage which houses
some 800 children. The staff were so lacking in help that they asked
some of the team members to hold small children ages six months to one
year for 15-minutes in order for the children to experience meaningful
human contact. Regardless of the ongoing difficulties, the Lees found
the people to be calm, a smile on their face, quietly waiting in line,
exceedingly polite, soft-spoken, and considering their history, cheerful.
"I was seeing about twenty patients a day, and
despite the long days, if someone is in bad shape I can't just let them
walk away. A young man was in great pain suffering with an infected
wisdom tooth that was impacted sideways in the gums. It took almost
two-hours to extract, but it was a great feeling to see a smile on his
Dr. Lee performs a procedure on a stricken Rwandan
Dr. Lee treating another patient in need of
"At the tail end of the last day I noticed a lady
in her mid-20s, the left side of her face badly swollen, with a high
fever, and breast-feeding a two-year old baby. I removed two badly infected
teeth and administered antibiotics. If I hadn't been there for her she
would have died. She had nothing to eat in three days and was in appalling
shape. It was an incredible feeling to know that I saved someone's life.
With only 28 dentists in the entire country and with the average wage
two dollars a day, and the charge for a filling $40, dental care for
most Rwandans is out of the question."
July 2016 will see the Lees' third mission to Rwanda.
Together with the medical team, they will be providing medical and dental
treatment, holding a soccer camp for the children, teaching Bible-based
lessons, and scouting for a location to set up a community dental clinic
in a few years, which will be dedicated to providing free dental treatment
for the orphans, vulnerable children and widows.
Dr. Lee teaching a young
Rwandan how to care for
"Regrettably, sodas and candy are a special treat
in Rwanda," Dr. Lee said, "Therefore the country is badly
in need of preventive education. My goal is to find bright students
and send them to dental school to set up dental clinics and establish
a dental center to train dentists," Broadly smiling, "For
me, all of this is imprinting in Rwanda the footprints of God. I will
be striving to heal and bless the children though gospel-centered health
care ministry. This is my calling."
While the Genocide is forever a concern, the other side
of Rwanda, seen through the far-reaching eyes of tourism, is a land
of steep mountains, deep valleys, and numerous lakes, and is home to
elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras, leopards, and friendly people.
The country is a noted destination for those who covet the opportunity
to catch a glimpse of the rare mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National
Park in the far northwest of the country. The gorillas somehow survived
the war-torn period though other animals were not so lucky.
With Christianity the largest religion, and official
languages English, French and Rwanda's melodic Kinyariwanda, Rwanda
offers an opportunity for those planning a holiday to make very special
memories. Dr. Lee and Lita, who have yet to see the gorillas, have found
their calling there and feel enormously blessed.
Dr. and Mrs. Lee with the children of Rwanda, each
holding a toothbrush kit
His Hands On Africa
The Lee's through the newly established non-profit organization,
His Hands on Africa, are working towards providing scholarships
to dental schools, build free community dental clinics, establish a
superlative dental center to provide dental care and training for young
dentists who will be future leaders in Rwanda, and eventually send out
these dentists to other African countries in need of help. For more
information on how you can help the children of Rwanda please go to,
Mountain Gorillas in Uganda; Chimps
Ahoy: In Search of a Brother in Arms; Namibia
(Part 1): Where Arid Desert Meets Frigid Sea; Namibia
Part II: Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife; Uganda