Doing small things with great love – the magical Le Korsa story

The other day, Fast Company had a small story about a new maternity and pediatric hospital in a remote part of eastern Senegal that intrigued me. 

The maternity and paediatric hospital in Tambacounda, Senegal, designed by Manuel Herz
The maternity and paediatric hospital in Tambacounda, Senegal. , Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Le Korsa

The first thing was the idea that it had been effectively designed by the doctors; the second thing was that it was a beautiful and very African-looking building. And the third thing was that the design had been done at no charge by a Swiss architect, built by local contractors for $2 million, and funded by a foundation usually associated with design – the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

I wanted to know how all these people and groups had become connected – and as I explored further, it struck me that this was a wonderful example of what I think of as ‘neighbour to neighbour development’. A partnership of equals. And a really quite magical story of sharing and caring.

The connecting node is Nicholas Fox Weber, who is both the Foundation’s executive director and the founder of an organization called Le Korsa, which means ‘love with respect’ in the local language, Pulaar. His connection with Senegal began years ago through a chance meeting with French dermatologist Dr. Gilles Degois, founder of Le Kinkeliba (an NGO named after a popular Senegalese herbal remedy) whose goal was to bring western medicine to rural Africa in a way that respected local traditions and culture. 

The story was so interesting that Weber, who had never visited Senegal, arranged to travel there with Dr. Degois, and that was the start of a relationship that now has lasted almost two decades. Weber was fascinated to see what the French and Senegalese had achieved by working together, and he wanted to organize some American support.

“By having French dentists and ophthalmologists and other of his professional colleagues team up with Senegalese partners to bring modern medical practices to people desperately in need, by building modest but appealing facilities for this work, and by engaging successfully with the local populations, Dr. Degois showed how much can be done to make a demonstrable difference in the well-being and health of others.” 

As well as his medical work, he had created a library, kindergartens, a community farm, and Foyer de Jeunes Filles, a residential facility that allows young girls to continue their education. A few years later, when Le Kinkeliba ran into difficulties, Weber persuaded the Albers Foundation to provide some support, and then in 2005, he created Le Korsa, which still assists and supports some of Dr. Degois’ original projects while undertaking new ones.

It was four years ago that he first began to think about how to help Tambacounda Hospital, which was seeing 20,000 patients a year and served a rural region that covered multiple countries in west Africa “with little funding and overstretched resources”. The hospital, which serves an area of 1.5 million people, was so poor that instead of incubators, it used a discarded refrigerator tray with light bulbs on top of it.

The foundation launched a design competition for a new maternity and pediatric building. Manuel Herz, who lives in Basel, was invited to participate, but felt he needed to know more. So he visited Tambacounda to meet the doctors, medical staff, patients, and local officials and learn about their needs. A few months later, when he returned to present his plans, the local governor held a meeting with the entire staff to review the design.

“He asked everybody in the room to issue his or her opinion of the design proposal, and he listened for about two hours to every nurse, every doctor, every janitor,” Herz told Fast Company. With that feedback, Herz refined the design, and the governor approved the project. The graceful two-storey building has 150 beds, several incubators, two operation blocks and intensive care units and features a corridor wall that evokes traditional Arabic architecture.

Tambacounda Hospital, the only major hospital in a vast region, serves over 40,000 patients per year from an area that stretches across the borders into Mali and Gambia. The doctors had previously been working under exceptionally difficult conditions in overcrowded, dilapidated spaces. The new building brings coherence to the overlapping treatment of the Maternity and Pediatric units by adjoining them, and greatly improves the comfort of patients and their visiting families. Herz's two-story structure has a curvilinear form that is graceful and welcoming as well as functional, and that relates beautifully to the circular buildings already essential to the hospital design. Accommodating 150 beds, it increases the capacity of the hospital while facilitating the smooth circulation of staff and patients and accommodating multiple communal spaces.
An aerial view. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Le Korsa

Herz aimed to ensure the building was built using local labour and materials sourced largely from the region. “The only equipment that was imported were the medical arms for the operation rooms and some of the other medical technical equipment,” he said.

“Using local materials, finding creative and economically viable solutions to the soaring temperatures of the region (often reaching 115 degrees) Herz has adhered to the Bauhaus principle of functionality allied with aesthetic grace that was vital to Anni and Josef Albers,” says Le Korsa. “He has done justice to the Alberses’ goal of “minimal means for maximum effect.”

Before construction began, Herz wanted to build a prototype of the unusual curving perforated screen wall design which provides passive cooling. Dr. Magueye Ba, who directs the Sinthian medical centre, built the test facade in a small village 50 kilometers south of Tambacounda and then added three more walls and a roof; now it is the village school.

Herz got married while the hospital extension was being built, and he and his wife asked their guests, in lieu of gifts, to donate money to build a playground in the courtyard—the first playground ever built in the city and only the second in Senegal.

The new facility officially opened May 10, and Herz will showcase the hospital’s wide-ranging impact in Senegal with “The Many Lives of Tambacounda” at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale this month.

Weber says Le Korsa is now raising funds to build housing for the doctors and medical staff, which Herz also designed.

Le Korsa has worked on a range of other projects in collaboration with its Senegalese partners, Weber explained in a June 2020 radio interview. And it is an impressive list.

  • A kindergarten in the isolated village of Sinthian, and housing for the teachers.
  • Support for the Sinthian medical centre – the only such centre in a vast region – and providing electricity, running water, an ambulance and a maternity ward in a medical centre Dr. Ba built himself on the other side of the Gambia River.
  • The Thread cultural centre in Sinthian, designed for free by world-renowned architect Toshiko Mori and built at low cost with local materials.
  • A well and a pump in Dialico village that supports a women’s group that grows vegetables other than the peanuts and corn which are local staples.
  • In Tambacounda, Le Korsa buys medicine for infants and babies who are orphans or whose parents lack money, and funds needed evacuations of patients to Dakar, 12 hours away.
  • In Dakar, it supports a pediatric neurosurgeon, refurbished a pediatric unit, and provides accommodations for 20 scholarship students at the University of Dakar.
  • In Thiès, it rehabilitated classrooms at a school where Muslim and Christian children are educated together and provides scholarships to needy families.
  • Working with an American nonprofit that donates refurbished American hospital equipment and supplies, Le Korsa has brought more than $1.5 million worth of material to hospitals and medical centres with whom it works. 

“We know there is a limit to what we can do, but we succeed in stretching a relatively small amount of money in order to achieve amazing results,” Weber says. “Our hope is that, beyond helping to the extent we can, we will set an example of how much can be achieved with relative ease and at a low cost.”

Sources:

At this elegant new hospital, the doctors were the designers. Fast Company, May 6, 2021

Manuel Herz encloses curvilinear hospital in Senegal with lattice brickwork. de zeen, May 6, 2021

Nicholas Fox Weber – Le Korsa, on Inquiry, 90.5 WICN Public Radio.

Le Korsa Overview.

Perforated-brick school created from hospital test facade in Senegal. de Zeen, Jul. 23, 2020

In Senegal, a Transformative Hospital Steeped in Local Tradition. Surface, May 5, 2021

Josef and Anni Albers Foundation to unveil new maternity and paediatric hospital in Senegal. The Art Newspaper, May 4, 2021