The simple act of visiting the sick and bringing them food became a calling for Isabelle Kamariza.
The defining moment was an ordinary evening in 2010 when after a group fellowship, Kamariza was invited by Mama Zouzou, a fellow worshipper to accompany her on a hospital visit to deliver food to patients from vulnerable families.
Kamariza made the CHUK hospital in Kigali, and as she gave soup to one of the patients, she had a eureka moment, and right there she knew that she wanted to feed the sick.
Kamariza was at the time facing an existential crisis, having completed her studies in Belgium and returned to Rwanda, and not knowing what to do with her life other than the scripted search for a job, get married and have children.
The first visit to the hospital lit a fire in her heart. She was inspired enough to mobilise a few friends, pooled some money and cooked a meal enough to feed three patients on her second hospital visit.
She did this for a while through contributions from her friends, but the need was too big, so she decided they should initiate an organisation and expand operations. But there was one problem. They didn’t have money.
Together with two friends, they started Solid Africa, an organisation that is now known for feeding vulnerable patients.
“We didn’t even have money to pay for notary services at the time, but the urgency of the need pushed us to go ahead,” said Kamariza.
Through fellowship member contributions and donations from well-wishers, Solid Africa was feeding at least 60 patients one meal per day, by the end of 2011.
Simple things kept her going. Kamariza says she will never forget one old woman she interacted with at the hospital in the early days.
“She told us, I know I am going to die, but my last wish is to have a meal with beans that are fried dry with onions, if I can only have that.” It was a simple touching request.
She says those early days showed them how many patients were food insecure. “There was a patient who would always carry a plate with him and explained that since he didn’t know where his next meal would come from, he had to be ready for the moment whenever some food showed up so that he wouldn’t miss out for lack of a plate.”
Solid Africa prepared all meals in members’ homes and then delivered it to the hospital. They operated this way until December 2019 when the organisation constructed a kitchen, big enough to cook food for up to 15,000 people, thanks to funding from Imbuto Foundation and the King Mohammed the 6th Foundation.
Three months after the opening of the kitchen, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
Until that time, Solid Africa was feeding only 400 patients with one meal per day at the CHUK hospital.
Vulnerable patients in other hospitals around Kigali also depended on food provided by other groups and individuals, but after the country went into the first lockdown, a twin problem of inability to travel and diminished incomes made it hard for groups and individuals to provide meals to patients.
“We started getting desperate requests from a number of hospitals that had problems getting food for patients, and we had to do something. So we moved from feeding 400 to 800 patients per day,” Kamariza said.
The organisation was now feeding patients from three more hospitals -- Masaka, Muhima and Kibagabaga -- all in Kigali with at least one meal a day. Then hospitals treating Covid patients got overwhelmed by numbers.
“The government was feeding all Covid patients but I think it was overwhelmed by the numbers, and hospitals asked us to help with feeding vulnerable Covid patients.
"We had to adapt quickly to respond to the need and it was not easy. We needed resources, and to hire more people. All we knew was that it had to be done.”
As the pandemic decimated livelihoods and incomes of already fragile families, the number of vulnerable patients also increased, since families could not afford to care for their own sick in hospitals.
When I visited Gatenga Hospital, I met Mukadusabe Beatrice, a nutritionist, who was returning from fetching food for Covid patients from Solid Africa.
Gatenga is one of the hospitals where Covid patients are treated in Kigali. She told me before they called on Solid Africa to help feeding the vulnerable patients. “Solid Africa came in at the right time. The Covid patients now wake up knowing someone will provide them with a hot meal, they are happier and many are getting better,” she said.
Solid Africa now feeds up to 1,000 patients daily, including Covid patients in all hospitals where they are treated, providing them all with three meals, prepared according to their nutritional needs.
Hospitals provide them with lists of vulnerable patients in need of food and with specific dietary needs depending on what they are ailing from.
It helps that the organisation now grows most of its food which includes a variety of vegetables on 21 acres of land.
Besides meals, Solid Africa also pays hospital bills for poor patients, provides hygiene products and drinking water.
It also buys drugs not covered by the community health insurance and often run fundraising campaigns to pay for those for those who need complicated expensive surgeries.
Kamariza says there are hard days in this work, but seeing how the meals take way the burden of need and stress off patients and their families keeps her going.
Along the way she says she has met even stronger people who have inspired her to continue fighting for the sick and vulnerable.
She recalled a woman who sells tomatoes in Kimironko, and whose child was being treated for terminal cancer, and who befitted from Solid Africa’s meals.
“Her son succumbed to the cancer, but after burying him, this woman started bringing food to patients in hospitals. She said since someone fed her son in his time of need, she would likewise feed others.
‘’This woman inspires me, I don’t think if I was in her shoes I would have had the strength to do what she is doing,” says Kamariza. She says the organisation is able to do all this because of member contributions, support from some foundations, individual contributions and donations.
“We have observed that when we were providing one meal, patients were asking for big servings, but since we started offering three meals a day, they ask for less because they know there will be a meal in the evening. I am happy that we have taken that fear away from patients,” she said.
Solid Africa provided meals to an old lady in hospital once, her son was away, when he got back he looked for them and offered a donation. “He tried to describe how his mother and where we had assisted her but I couldn’t even remember her because we feed many patients.”
While Kamariza runs the organisation, she still delivers meals to patients.And more than a decade later, she still works with Mama Zouzou.
“Mama Zouzou is now in charge of field operations and patient care, where she assesses patients needs and creates relationships with patients, it comes natural to her,” she said.
Although they didn’t expect that a time will come when their services would be critically needed like now, they have a vision of serving all public hospitals in the country.
“We intend to go to other hospitals outside Kigali to implement small kitchens at hospitals where we can prepare meals for vulnerable patients,” is Kamariza’s vision.
Solid Africa currently employs up to 96 people, 48 of whom are farmers who grow the food.