Blessings Banda stood at the lectern in the atrium of the Harvard School of Public Health, wearing a black vest and white dress shirt with a Malawian flag draped over his shoulder. It was late July, the end of his first trip to the U.S., where he had spent the sticky summer weeks crammed in a classroom digesting case studies as part of an intensive program in global health delivery. Now, with his final exam completed and a few dozen peers, instructors, and friends standing in front of him, Banda wanted to lay bare exactly what the course meant to him.
“If the Global Health Delivery program was introduced in 1994, I wouldn’t have lost my mother who died of TB as a result of AIDS in 1995,” he said. “If it were introduced in 1992, I wouldn’t have lost my father from cancer in 1993. And if it were introduced in 2000, I wouldn’t have lost my uncle in 2003 to a disease that I do not even know yet.”
Banda, 27, was born and raised in Lilongwe, the largest and capital city of Malawi. In 2011, he moved to the district of Neno in the southwest region of the country and began working for PIH’s Malawian sister organization Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo (APZU) to support its malnutrition program.
“People were like, ‘are you seriously going to Neno?’” Banda recalled during a recent interview. “I knew of Neno as the district that had been abandoned, where nobody cared what happened.”
Malnutrition is pervasive throughout Malawi—nearly half of all children under 5 years old are “stunted.
Malnutrition is pervasive throughout Malawi—nearly half of all children under 5 years old are “stunted,” meaning they are abnormally short for their age. In Neno, the situation is more severe. A quarter of all children under 5 are underweight. Severe acute malnutrition, an advanced state of the disease that can be lethal, afflicts 1.5 percent of children in Neno.
Soon after Banda arrived in Neno, the Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit opened at the nearby district hospital. On opening day of the facility, he admitted three kids who were severely malnourished. Banda quickly realized that it wasn’t just that kids didn’t have enough food—they weren’t getting the right food. Some children ate sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes for 30 days straight. And between September and March, “it’s hard to get food; they really don’t have anything,” Banda said.
While the burden was staggering, Banda and his APZU colleagues worked steadfastly on a treatment program that spanned from increasing malnutrition screenings to improving agricultural practices to bolstering family planning. The approach wasn’t new. APZU started working in Neno in 2006, making significant inroads on malnutrition and HIV. But Banda’s aura of compassion and ingenuity stands out, allowing him to connect with staff and patients while helping bring new partners into the fold.
“He really cares about interacting with patients. His style is very social, so they feel comfortable and open to counseling,” said Chisomo Kanyenda, an antiretroviral therapy officer at APZU who works regularly with Banda. “He is also very good at motivating staff. He is a self-starter. He sets a strong example for other staff members to respect the dignity and privacy of patients.”
Banda’s commitment has paid off. In the first half of 2012, APZU achieved a 95 to 100 percent cure rate among children in various stages of malnourishment. The cure rate among severely malnourished children in Neno for the same period was 97.4 percent, compared with 89 percent nationally. The results were so impressive that APZU was tapped to take a national leadership role in addressing malnutrition, and Banda was named one of eight national facilitators for a program designed to cut the number of children whose development is stunted.
Never one to bask, Banda attributes the success to his staff, particularly the village health workers who live in the communities they serve and actively seek out new patients. “They screen each and every child,” he says. “Each day every month, they’re going out and making sure everyone in need of care is getting it.”
Standing at that lectern in the Harvard School of Public Health, Banda was able to step back from his day-to-day efforts in Malawi and close on a broad message for his classmates who’d soon be returning to Sierra Leone, Mexico, Canada, and South Africa, among other places, to fight a plethora of health challenges.
“Evil goes where good people do nothing,” Banda said. “We are the good people.”
To learn more about PIH's work in Malawi, click here.