Sometimes I wish I worked amidst the bustle of Nairobi. I imagine weekends hearing Maxi Priest perform in Kampala or exploring the beaches of Abidjan. However, I live and work in the much more low-key capital city of Zambia. My nightlife isn’t what I imagined, but the ability to make impact in public service is something I never expected. I love getting out of the capital of Lusaka- not down south to the majestic Victoria Falls, but to places like the rural villages of Gwembe, almost 300 kilometers north of the falls. A tough ride for the weak stomached, Gwembe is more than an hour off of the main road that stretches from Lusaka to Livingstone and it is rocky. You bounce on narrow roads that twist and turn among the district’s gentle green hills. The children run out to the road at the sounds of any vehicle passing and I like to watch them wave at us long after the dust cloud our tires stirred up fades.
New visitors don’t come out to these villages often and the children usually ﬂock to peek and investigate. I traveled here to monitor the network of community health workers in the area. These volunteers support the overstretched nurses that man rural health centers in the region. In these centers, one or two medical professionals could cover over 500 to 2,000 households dotted across the remote landscapes. There is a shortage of healthcare providers in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zambia, the ratio of nurses is 0.8 to 1,000 citizens (the internationally set standard minimum is 2.5 to 1,000).
With this limited access, Community Health Workers increase accessibility. They do it by using Nokia (“brick phones”) to document data on to ground. This data makes its way up to district, provincial and eventually national stakeholders in the Ministry of Health- giving them a real-time image of the state of health in communities. The CHWs mainly work in malaria and sanitation surveillance.
Zambia has so much land and is a prime location for public service and development. I work in global health and communications, and the country’s political stability and environment for growth has made it the perfect place for me to see programs at work. Far away from the “hotspots” of Ebola on the western region of the continent, passionate epidemiologists, physicians and scientists don’t usually ﬂock to this southern African nation, yet it is a breeding ground for a public health professional to do good and tangible work.
Infant and maternal mortality rates are high, the effect of HIV/AIDs is far reaching and malaria is still the number one cause of sickness and death. With such high stakes, interacting with these integral CHWs and working towards strengthening health systems feels that much more important.
Any given month, I may visit a community health worker training in Kabwe, where these volunteers learn how to insert data into their Nokia phones. I traveled north to Mansa to shoot instructional video on how indoor residual spraying reduces malaria transmission. Next week, I will be throughout southern province working towards eliminating trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness, in Zambia by 2017. Sometimes I still wish I was on Grand Bassam beach in Abidjan, especially when power cuts leave me in the dark for 6 hours, but seeing the incremental changes and tangible improvements on the ground in Zambia makes it worthwhile.
Alexis K. Barnes is a multimedia journalist currently based in Lusaka, Zambia as a Global Health Corps fellow. Before Zambia, she worked in the United Nations bureau of Al Jazeera English in NYC. Before the Big Apple, she worked in Washington, D.C., then South Korea and Thailand. Though her roots are in print journalism, they have evolved into profciency in video, photo and audio editing and reporting. Her passion for telling and exploring human rights stories has landed her work on the pages of quite a few notable publications; including Vice and Griots Republic.