Mercy Chikhosi Nyirongo's work in her African nation of Malawi is a compelling story about how one person's inspiration and resourcefulness can improve the well-being and everyday lives of many rural women and children.
A graduate of Africa University, Nyirongo spoke recently about her grass-roots approaches to community health in Malawi to students and health professionals at another United Methodist-affiliated institution, Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
Nyirongo, who works full time as project manager at an orphan empowerment program in one Malawian district, founded an organization called Wandikweza in another district 200 miles away that uses community health workers she trains to assist government health workers. A non-governmental organization (NGO), Wandikweza was started with seed money from its board members and well-wishers.
"Our vision is to develop communities that are healthy, strong, sustainable and equitable, and our mission is to support best practices in public health and community development, transforming communities from within – one village at a time," she said.
Nyirongo used the concept of task shifting, which she learned while attending a 2014 nursing symposium hosted by Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health in Nashville, to develop Wandikweza. She worked with the Dowa District commissioner and people in area and village committees to learn the best ways to strengthen and extend the work of government nurses and midwifes by assigning duties to less specialized workers so more people in need can benefit.
Wandikweza, which means "the LORD has lifted me up" in the Chichewa language, now has 30 community health workers who received two hours of training each Saturday for 20 weeks from Nyirongo.
"The community health workers use grassroots, community-based approaches to community health with a special focus on empowering girls and women," Nyirongo said. "They are trained to provide basic health services targeting prevention care and to offer general support within the communities."
In addition to her talk at Meharry, Nyirongo also spoke to students at Vanderbilt University and Belmont College in Nashville, along with church groups in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Indiana and Texas.
Cynthia Bond Hopson, assistant general secretary for the Black College Fund and Ethnic Concerns at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said she sees logical linkages ahead between Meharry and Africa University.
"Anytime we have a conversation about the work that is happening on the Continent, we can see possibilities," Hopson said. "I just think the conversation will continue because the missions are the same – empowerment and making a difference to populations that need special attention."
Ways to connect the people and resources of the two United Methodist-affiliated institutions are already in discussion, including a maternal health project in collaboration with the United Methodist Women, Hopson said.
"We've got some of the best and brightest medical students and researchers at Meharry, and I think they can be a great asset to join forces with the amazing students that we have at Africa University for the benefit of both universities. I just think it's a win-win," Hopson said.
Nyirongo earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from Africa University in 2010 and a master's degree in public health online from Walden University in the United States in 2014. She is project manager at ZOE, a ministry of the Malawi United Methodist Church that provides orphans and vulnerable children ages 15-20 who were formerly street kids, prostitutes and school dropouts with skills and resources to overcome poverty.
"I just want to say thank you to Africa University. I think if it wasn't for Africa University I would not have been where I am today," Nyirongo said. "They have empowered me. They have always been there for me – during my studies at AU, after my studies and they keep on tracking what I am doing and supporting what I am doing.
"I know that there are a lot of graduates of AU out there, but the fact that they keep on tracking me, it doesn't make me special, but it's an honor to me. So I just want to say thank you to Africa University," she said.
Tom Gillem, freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tenn.
One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the Africa University Fund transforms Africa by educating and empowering students from across the continent through Africa University, the first fully accredited, United Methodist-related educational institution on the continent. The Africa University Fund supports the general operating expenses of Africa University including faculty and staff salaries and vital infrastructure. Please encourage your leaders and congregations to support the Africa University Fund at 100 percent.