How did a kid from Finneytown become the leader of a movement in rural Tanzania that has engaged hundreds of Cincinnatians? 

Dr. Christopher Lewis grew up in Finneytown. Today, he is a physician with UC Health, assistant dean of the UC College of Medicine and the founder and leader of Village Life, an initiative to improve the quality of life for 5,000 people who live in three villages in northwest Tanzania. His journey to leadership is a reminder that leaders are made, not born, and lots of people have a hand in the making.

From the beginning in the 1950s, developers imagined Finneytown as a middle-class community made up of hundreds of modest ranch-style homes. The community is built around its school system. In fact, as part of Springfield Township, the school boundaries are Finneytown’s only official identity. 

Chris grew up in one of those middle-class households. His father had a ninth or 10th grade education, started as a semi-pro boxer and ended as real estate agent. His mother had some college experience at UC and worked at Holmes Hospital on the UC campus. His parents encouraged Chris “to think beyond myself.” They volunteered as a family at the Drop Inn Center and they introduced Chris to the story of Muhammed Ali and his interest in Africa, the journey of Nelson Mandela and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. 

At Finneytown High School, his social studies teacher Steve Elliott built on the family foundation, getting his students to engage with others through Our Daily Bread and encouraged them to think globally. 

Chris began medical school at UC wanting to specialize in pediatrics, but learned from Drs. Barbara Tobias and Harry Stagaman that family medicine might open a wider range of opportunities to serve. 

Interested in global medicine, he worked overseas for the first time in rural Honduras through the Shoulder to Shoulder program sponsored at the med school. In his third year of residency at UC, he wanted to go abroad again and selected Tanzania. In the process, he transformed his life. 

His original goal for going to Tanzania was to work in an environment where technology did not dominate the practice of medicine, in the hopes that the experience would “make me a better doctor here in Cincinnati.” He also hoped to change the lives of Tanzanians, but quickly came to understand that “the only life I changed was my own.” 

One of his first patients was a pregnant woman who was hemorrhaging. She walked eight hours from her rural village to the hospital. Both she and her baby died. That experience informed his decision to take health care closer to the people. In 2004 he founded Village Life Outreach Project to focus on the needs of the rural villages of Roche, Nyambogo and Burere in northern Tanzania. 

Since its founding, Village Life has exposed nearly 500 Cincinnatians to life in Tanzania through work trips. On almost every trip, the pattern is the same. Whether doctors, nurses, architectural students from DAAP or engineers, they arrive full of hope that they are going to change the lives of many is some fundamental way. By the fourth or fifth day, having come face-to-face with a kind of poverty Americans rarely experience, a deep discouragement sets in. That’s where years of experience allows Chris to help people process their experience, realize that it is them who are being changed and that they are part of a bigger effort that stretches across decades. 

Since 2004 Village Life has distributed 13,000 mosquito nets. Clean water is the No. 1 issue that villagers want solved. Village Life has worked with village water committees to develop educational programs and introduce a sustainable technology for household-size sand filtration systems. 

Students with the UC chapter of Engineers Without Borders have helped villagers learn better construction techniques as they rebuild schools. Architectural students from DAAP under the direction of Asst. Professor Michael Zaretsky immersed themselves in the culture before designing the Roche Health Center, the first project in a projected 14 buildings vision. 

For Dr. Lewis, success is not measured in the number of buildings built, but in the “love spread across continents.” It is shared learning. Americans convey better ways to do things. The Tanzanian villagers are exemplary in the way that the villagers go out of their way to take care of each other.

Chris has learned that to get anything significant accomplished, he has to not only rally his medical colleagues, but reach out across an often-fractured campus to architecture and engineering faculty and students to marshal talent he needs. What’s more, he has learned to bring those who taught and inspired him with him on the journey. Steve Elliott, his high school teacher, is now on the board of Village Life. He is a colleague on the UC faculty with Dr. Barbara Tobias and others mentor/professors. 

And he is ready to mimic his parents by exposing his daughter to the world. She is only 14 months and won’t go to Tanzania until she turns five (and better able to withstand malaria). But clearly, her world will be global and she too will be called to leadership.