By: Kate Miller | @_Kate_Miller_
Like those of his native country, graduate architecture student Bakary Suso always has a smile on his face.
“The Gambia may be the poorest in the world, but one thing I know about them is their resilience,” Suso said. “You can see somebody who doesn’t have much, but they’re always smiling. That makes me really want to do a lot of things because people smile no matter what [in the Gambia.] And that lights a fire to keep me going.”
Suso, the founder of the nonprofit KINitiative, is currently working to bring affordable and sustainable health care centers to the African country of the Gambia. The nonprofit aims to bring community centers like health clinics and playgrounds to rural areas of the country, as well as employment and empowerment for residents of the area.
Suso, who lived in the Gambia until he was 18, founded KINitiative as a response to his own childhood experiences in the country. Growing up, Suso lacked a public playground, explaining that he and his friends played in the streets — the same streets through which traffic ran every day.
“Growing up, I didn’t have that protected space,” he said. “Granted, growing up, we were able to be kids and run wild, and we were given that playtime. But we were not in a protected area.”
Suso’s main focus in founding KINitiative was to create those spaces for the people of the Gambia. He wants to build playgrounds that also double as youth centers.
“Last time I was in the Gambia to do my research, in terms of playgrounds, we only had two public playgrounds for 1.8 million people,” he said. “So, I think this is something that I will pursue eventually, but through architecture, I’m trying to see how I can help not just Gambia, but Africa as a whole.”
Currently, KINitiative is in the process of building and designing a Reproductive Child Health (RCH) center for communities in the Gambia. Suso said this project came out of his recent visit to the Gambia, where he saw the lack of available health services for people in rural areas.
The healthcare system of Gambia is divided into three sectors: hospitals, health centers and RCH centers. The 280 RCH centers are located in rural areas of the country without access to other health care.
Suso said two health care providers visit each RCH center once a month to cater to women in need of prenatal care and children under five. The conditions are far from ideal.
“The spaces they go to sometimes are almost falling apart,” he said. “Some of them are pretty much nonexistent. Some of them have a nurse assistant sitting under a tree, and there’s a long line. One of them was so bad, it had animal feces all over the floor. Some women actually have their children in these places. As soon as I saw that, I knew this takes more of my attention.”
Suso and KINitiative recently presented their proposals for a new RCH design to government officials in the Gambia. At this point, KINitative’s design is set to be the new standard for RCH centers in the country.
The new design aims to make the centers as sustainable and affordable as possible. While concrete is the usual construction material in the Gambia, it is too expensive to maintain for the poor living in rural areas. Suso said a bag of cement can cost $10, while the typical monthly salary for a Gambian in this area is $30.
In addition, the new design will provide a community space when it’s not in use as a health center. Because the Gambia can lack accessible electricity, Suso wants the centers to provide a guaranteed area for children to work on homework. A playground will also be built around the structure.
“I talk to [the community] about the ideas and what these spaces should look like,” he said. “It’s not me just imposing my ideas but listening to them. We can design together. Our goal of KINitiative is to involve communities in this design process. We want to empower them.”
KINitiative is composed of several University students and alumni, with several professors acting as advisors. Eddy Tavio, an architecture student who graduated with his master’s in 2012, is Suso’s co-founder.
“[Bakary] definitely has a way of keeping things calm,” Tavio said. “It’s kind of a crazy process; it’s very chaotic in that we’re not only trying to figure out how to do the work but also how to manage it.”
Tavio, a native of Venezuela, shares with Suso the desire to empower the communities KINitiative serves, not to just impose their own ideas.
“We want to talk about solutions,” Tavio said. “We want to be perceived as an organization that provides support.”
When Suso graduates in May, he looks forward to continuing with KINitiative. He will continue to oversee the design and construction of his first RCH center in the Gambia this semester, as he anticipates sending the final designs at the end of April and receiving the estimated cost for the building. After that, the fundraising process begins.
Suso said he is extremely thankful for the opportunity that his studies at the University have provided. Coming to study in the United States from the Gambia has given him an even greater appreciation for education than he had in the Gambia.
“Students don’t know the power they have,” he said. “I wish I thought about this three years ago rather than just last year because as a student, people are willing to help. People are really willing to listen to you because they see themselves in you, or they see themselves and something they wish they could do. It is good for students to really take leadership roles and be passionate about something. Students have more power than they know they have.”