In this week’s volunteer interview, 1Day Africa newsletter editor Namunji Matale discusses public health issues she’s passionate about and her responsibilities and projects as the former president of the University of Zambia Medical Student Association.
Gavriel: Can you tell me where you’re from and a little about yourself?
Namunji: I live in Lusaka, Zambia. I’ve lived here all my life. I completed medical school literally just over a week ago. Other than medical school, I am a part-time baker and own a small baking business. I love to travel, I love sight-seeing, I love writing and I am a big time foodie. Wining and dining are my thing.
Gavriel: How did you have the time to start a bakery in medical school? That sounds really difficult!
Namunji: I would say baking is my passion! It’s something I’ve been doing from childhood but only started taking it seriously in one of the busiest years of medical school. It was a stress reliever more than anything.
Gavriel: Congratulations, I hope your business flourishes! How did you learn about 1Day Sooner?
Namunji: I learned about 1Day Sooner from a medical school alumna. At the time I was president of the medical student association at my university [University of Zambia Medical Student Association, or UNZAMEDSA]. A former president of the student association approached me and said he’d like me to meet Zacharia Kafuko, so we could create a link between the student association and 1Day Sooner. I read up on it and said, “Oh, this is pretty interesting–it would be a good link to have.” We had an online meeting and from then on I was hooked. I became a volunteer and linked the student association to 1Day Sooner. Even after my term of presidency came to an end, the new executive in charge of the association co-hosted a webinar with 1 Day Africa about Protecting Front Line Workers.
Gavriel: Can you go into more detail about what kinds of things you do for 1Day Sooner right now?
Namunji: I’m the chief editor of the quarterly newsletter for 1Day Africa. That entails writing articles, editing graphics and going through other people’s articles to be included. I help link 1Day Africa to key stakeholders, particularly ones in my country. For example, in the recent past with regards to the agenda of vaccine equity, we needed to team up with the West African Health Organization to push the agenda of vaccine equity at the recent UN summit. I got to help link the 1Day Africa chapter manager with officials from our Ministry of Health and the Zambian Medical Association. I like to play a role in linking us to important stakeholders as well as writing potential partnerships. I’ve had the opportunity to write some partnership frameworks and then the chapter manager goes through it and makes necessary adjustments.
Gavriel: Well, we’ve got you to thank for a lot of the open letter initiative! I didn’t know previously how those connections with stakeholders were made. How do you approach those conversations? How do you prepare?
Namunji: It hasn’t been a difficult thing for me, because having been student president of the oldest medical school in Zambia, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of these officials. A lot of us were already on email and phone number basis, so I would just give them a call and let them know about challenge trials and vaccine equity, and they would jump on board almost instantly. I wouldn’t say it was too complicated, because we already worked in the same circles and knew one another.
Gavriel: What did your other responsibilities as the student president involve?
Namunji: It was a two-year term of office. The job involved looking into the welfare of the medical students and safeguarding their interests. Additionally, I played the role of representing the medical student populace to university administration and the community at large.
Gavriel: What types of public health changes would you like to see or what public health policies would you like to advocate for?
Namunji: First of all, definitely on a global front, vaccine equity. I am huge on vaccine equity because as they say, no one is safe until we’re all safe. I know some people are not particularly happy about certain stringent measures with regards to COVID vaccine. For example, in certain places one is not allowed to enter specific buildings minus a vaccination card. To be honest, I’m all for that because the less people are vaccinated, the less the efficacy of each vaccine we produce. I’m not for the idea of forcing people, but as long as we prevent the community from developing herd immunity, our efforts are almost useless. I believe in humans joining hands to fight the COVID pandemic together because being antagonistic is not going to help anyone, we’re just going to move backwards. If there’s one other thing I’m passionate about aside from fighting COVID, I would want the issue of gender-based violence to be addressed as a public health problem. I believe the world has always perceived it as a problem that only affects a few people but really I believe that it’s a public health crisis and I would like it to be addressed as such. It’s not like a pandemic that’s passed on from one person to another, but its repercussions are horrible and it’s a lot more common than we think.
Gavriel: What is the COVID situation and the atmosphere like in Zambia right now?
Namunji: Currently Zambia is being hit with the fourth wave and numbers are on the rise. Out of all the tests that were done, we have a 7% positivity and this number is on the rise. Unfortunately, people aren’t really taking the pandemic seriously. By law, people are supposed to be masked up in public places and they have no problems masking up in public. However, you’ll find that people are still attending huge gatherings unmasked. There’s a laissez-faire attitude towards it. I’m anticipating more stringent measures to come in. So far a restriction has been placed on how many people can attend certain gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Guest lists must be no more than 50 people.
Gavriel: What made you interested in the problem of violence against women as a public health topic?
Namunji: It’s something that’s irked me since childhood. Thankfully I’ve never been a victim of sexual violence but it doesn’t take being a victim to hate it. As I got older, I realized if I want to help curb this problem, I have to be active about it. I am a gender-based-violence activist. My dissertation was based on sexual violence cases at a local hospital where I was rotating. During my presidency, I embarked on a lot of projects where I would go on the radio and sensitize people and make people aware of the problem. Last year, during the 16 days of activism against gender based violence, I got to feature on local radio stations to discuss GBV as well as record voice overs to be played during commercial breaks. I’d always thought to myself “if I’m going to not be part of the problem, I need to do something about it, whether it’s raising awareness or doing a paper.” I has the privilege of writing an article about GBV in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Certain places in the world recorded virtually no cases of GBV, not because it wasn’t happening, but women and children were left in dire situations such as having to stay home with an abusive spouse for longer than usual, or not being able to get help due to a strict lockdown when emergency services aren’t easily accessible.
Gavriel: What would you like to do with your medical degree in the future? How are you hoping to move forward and influence the culture and medical landscape?
Namunji: From a public health perspective, I want to study health systems and health policy, so that I can be in a position to influence local and international health policy on the GBV front, public health front, and also public health nutrition. In terms of personal career development, I’ve always had an interest in human nutrition. I would also like to go into some kind of clinical research. I’m not sure what type; probably I’ll get to discover more as I get exposed to the specialties out there. Sports medicine interests me a whole lot, just to make money and have fun traveling with sports teams.
Gavriel: What’s a problem you think you could work on and think you personally could have an impact?
Namunji: I have organizational skills. Having been exposed to the health system briefly during medical school opened my eyes to the problems faced at a local level with regard to how things are set. I would say our current system is very centralized when it comes to ordering drugs. For every health facility in the country, including the most distant provinces, supplies have to come from one source, the capital. There’s a bit of a lag in how things are done with the centralized system. I think decentralizing the health system will make a world of difference with regards to procurement and getting things where they need to be on time. When it comes to the health system, I would like to categorize sexual violence and gender-based violence as a public health issue. I would like to see a whole division dedicated to that. I would want to see a change where we have a different approach to supporting survivors of sexual violence, having safe spaces in hospitals for them, having completely safe spaces when it comes to reporting to the police, because unfortunately it’s so hard. There tends to be a sense of shame that survivors carry and it’s not easy to come out and report an assault, more especially where there is no privacy at a police station. I believe there should be no statutes of limitation when it comes to reporting. The unfortunate thing is, when a sexual violence survivor has to take their case to court, it’s like they are put through a meat grinder. There tends to be friction between the medical practitioner and the legal practitioner when really they’re on the same side and their job is to represent the survivor and make sure the case goes well. I’d like to see a change in our medical-legal system and the way it handles sexual violence cases. If it means defence lawyers are trained to be a lot less harsh with their approach, especially when dealing with children, then so be it. It’s not their job to run a 14, 15-year-old girl through a meat grinder like she’s lying. I understand there are some people who come up with fake stories, but really I would suggest a more amicable approach. I spoke to my mentor about it recently. I suggested to her that in 2022, we should have a workshop for medical practitioners who represent these victims, as well as legal practitioners. We’re going to call it the Bridging the Gap Workshop, where we just bring them together and teach them that they’re on the same team.
Gavriel: That’s a really good idea. What sorts of projects have you worked on in the past that you were really proud of?
Namunji: One thing that made me very happy was the free clinic we got to run for female inmates at the local prison in the vicinity of my school. We (the student association) did some resource mobilization and got sponsors and donors to give us medical supplies to run the free clinic. We drew up a proposal for the sponsors and wrote to the wardens to tell them what we wanted to do, and we were able to do health checks. That’s something that made me so, so happy. Hopefully in the future I will be able to facilitate that with new sponsors. Another project that made me proud was starting what I called the Student Association Media Committee. That had to do with the radio programs I mentioned earlier. We sought two local radio stations who gave us free airtime on radio to discuss common local health problems. Senior medical students, sometimes accompanied by a practicing doctor, would discuss local health problems, raise awareness, give prevention tips, and how to go about seeing a doctor. The last one was preparing a refresher course for the people who help teach junior students clinical skills. Just to give a bit of background, everything that you see that happens to you in a hospital from being asked about how an illness started; where it hurts; being examined; receiving an injection, are all clinical skills. At the University of Zambia, we have a peer-based approach to teaching clinical skills, where senior students teach junior students in a warm, comfortable, unintimidating environment. Academic assistants are the senior students that volunteer to teach clinical skills. I arranged a refresher course in clinical skills led by visiting team anesthetists who were coming from the UK for a whole other program. After we met, they agreed to come through and teach a refresher course so our information would be up-to-date to pass onto the juniors. Those were my three proudest moments as president.
Gavriel: Fantastic projects, wow. What’s something you love about where you live?
Namunji: Firstly, the weather! The majority of the year is warm. If people want sunny weather, they should come to Zambia. Second of all, our food is amazing. Most of what we eat here is very organic and it tastes amazing. For people who love fresh healthy food, Zambia is the place to be. I love the nightlife here. Anyone who wants to visit fancy clubs should visit Lusaka. Zambians are very warm and receptive of visitors; we’re probably among the friendliest people in the region. You’ll never get a welcome like you would in Zambia.
Gavriel: What languages do you speak?
Namunji: My mother tongue is Lozi, and I speak Nyanja. My parents and I come from the Lozi people, which is a tribe based in the western province. Nyanja is more spoken here in Lusaka and in most parts of the country.
Gavriel: What are some things you’re curious about or love to learn about outside of your studies?
Namunji: I would definitely want to go to culinary school! I’m a big-time foodie. All things food amaze me, or amuse me at least. I’m embarrassed to say I can’t swim, so I definitely want to learn how to swim. It’s on my bucket list for 2022. I would love to visit Paris and see the Eiffel Tower for myself. I want to visit Amsterdam and I would like to see Italy to visit those gigantic churches. My parents are Catholic; I’m not; so I guess the interest comes in genetically. I would want to see the Vatican and the Roman culture and most importantly, taste Italian cheese!