Themba Nyirenda was lying in bed at about 7 a.m. one morning this May, checking email on his laptop, when he got news he’d been hoping for since 2015.
He immediately called his girlfriend, despite the early hour.
“You cannot believe what I’m looking at,” said Nyirenda, a 26-year-old data analyst who was living and working in Nairobi, Kenya, at the time.
He was looking at an acceptance letter. And it was one that could be a game-changer, in terms of Nyirenda’s career, personal values, and life path.
The letter said Global Health Corps had named Nyirenda as a Fellow for its 2018-19 class. He’d join more than 130 other dynamic young professionals in the yearlong leadership development program, which focuses on providing health care for all and places fellows with partner organizations in Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and the U.S.
The letter meant Nyirenda would have to resign from his job, apply for a visa, travel to the U.S. in a month, and move back to his native Malawi for a year.
He accepted right away.
Nyirenda will work with Partners In Health in Malawi’s rural Neno District, where PIH provides comprehensive care for more than 160,000 people through a network of hospitals, health centers and clinics.
As part of the medical informatics team for Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo, as PIH is known locally, he’ll help develop software to better track and manage patients’ medical records and data.
Nyirenda has been working in informatics for several years. He’s from Karonga in northern Malawi, near the Tanzania border, and has a degree in business information technology from the National College of Information Technology in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.
He was working for an IT service provider in Lilongwe in 2015, he said, when he became disillusioned with his professional track. Learning about Global Health Corps around that time gave him a broader view of career options.
“I just came to realize that there should be more to my skills than just going to work and making profits for someone else,” Nyirenda said. “I didn’t really believe in it. I decided that I was never going to work for a private company again.”
He decided to leave his job and go to the University of Malawi, for a master’s degree in informatics. He started the degree in late 2015 and expects to complete it by the end of this year.
Nyirenda also applied for Global Health Corps in 2015. He wasn’t accepted—competition is steep; the nonprofit had more than 5,500 applicants for this year’s group of 134—so Nyirenda said he worked on his studies and continued to look for fulfilling professional opportunities.
He moved to Nairobi to check out the IT industry, in the bustling tech hub that’s been known for a decade as “Silicon Savannah.” An internship at an information technology company turned into a full-time job, mining social media data to help clients raise their brands’ profiles online.
“Data is what I’m passionate about—to see the way everything comes together,” he said.
But, of course, that was another private company. Nyirenda still was not satisfied with his work, and decided to reapply for Global Health Corps.
This time around—after two shortlists, three interviews and some nervous waiting—he made the cut, and got an email that May morning.
“That’s where the journey begins,” Nyirenda said.
Although his job in Nairobi wasn’t fulfilling, Nyirenda said, his co-workers there felt like family. That made it difficult to leave, especially so quickly.
“The last days were not easy,” he said.
Nonetheless, he packed up and took a bus from Kenya to Tanzania, then got a rental car. He had a tight schedule for a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe, and drove hundreds of miles in two days to reach the Malawi capital.
Some logistical hurdles arose, as can happen with international travel. But about a month after that fateful email, Nyirenda found himself in New Haven, Conn., in the U.S. for the first time, attending a three-week leadership training on the campus of Yale University.
The training included community service work, group discussions and plenty of motivation.
“I realized that leadership is not about the skills. It’s about the values that are in you,” Nyirenda said. “I was really inspired by the speakers that were there.”
Emily Wroe, chief medical officer for PIH in Malawi, said Nyirenda will help create positive change in Neno District.
“He’s joining the team during a huge and key time for growth. Very exciting work is happening with informatics,” Wroe said. “I just emailed the team today on what a big difference in patient care some of the recent improvements made. Themba looks ready to go.”
Ellen Ball, a software engineer on PIH’s medical informatics team, said she was very impressed by Nyirenda’s desire to work for social justice and determination to be part of Global Health Corps.
“He kept wanting to do more for the people of Malawi,” Ball said. “I love the persistence, and am looking forward to all we will learn from him.”
Nyirenda visited PIH’s Boston office in early July, just a few days before flying back to Malawi to begin his fellowship.
“I feel that this is the beginning of my career in this field,” he said. “As for what comes next, I do not know. But what I hope to be doing is continuing what I do with PIH.”