Mwandwe Chileshe is a Global Health Corps alumni who has carved out a meaningful career path in Zambia’s health and nutrition sector.
In this interview, she speaks on how to trailblaze a career that’s both challenging and rewarding—while working to ensure the safety and health of generations to come.
What inspired you to build a career in nutrition/health?
My work in nutrition and global health stemmed from my own struggles with ill health. As a university student enthusiastic and eager to learn, I was suddenly struck with multiple abdomen complications.
This led me through many hospital corridors and multiple surgical procedures. The experience included severe pain, days of no food, and wards where I saw people in even worse conditions. After three years of this situation, I realized that my opportunity to access health services gave me the best shot at life.
The experience took a financial and emotional toll, which would have been hard to survive without the goodwill of my family. In the meantime, many women and girls are living through worse, and some of their lives are cut short as they are unable to access the health services they need.
When I started to work on nutrition I was exposed to the dire effects of hunger and malnutrition on women, girls, and children.
Children who lack access to adequate nutrition and consequently suffer from chronic malnutrition (stunting), their fates are decided even before they can make their own decisions. A stunted child is more likely to fail at school, fall sick with other conditions, and struggle to find work as an adult.
My first-hand experience of the heavy price of inequitable health services coupled with my early work experience in nutrition motivated me to build a career in global health advocating for improved nutrition.
What does the future hold for this sector? How can young leaders plugin and cultivate their own careers here?
So many people worldwide are affected by hunger and malnutrition. More than a billion women and girls do not have the access to the adequate nutrition that they need. It is a health and development issue that requires a critical mass of young minds to solve.
Political will has been stated, global commitments have been made, and yet nutrition remains insufficiently funded globally. For an issue that affects so many of us, it is important that we get involved and we pursue careers that will have lasting impacts.
It is a space that still needs people to see its importance and its linkages to so many other health and development issues.
What does it mean to be an anti-poverty advocate? How does this show up in your daily life?
It shows up in the little and the big decisions in my life. Straight out of undergrad I started to work for one of Zambia’s leading commercial banks in a high-density area.
What stood out for me at the time was how during a 30-minute bus ride, the landscape changed from posh malls to people living in shacks. The disparity was so apparent and jarring. Every morning was a trek to where the people strung along their savings. Within four months I knew I couldn’t stay.
I quit at what was considered a prestigious and income-secure job and went right back to work on nutrition and health. For me, being an anti-poverty advocate means that I cannot be satisfied with just my own income security.
When faced with the small choices or the big ones, I will always choose that which impacts more than just me.
After my work at the bank, I went on to lead and contribute to efforts to raise the profile of nutrition and increase political will to address it. I played a significant role in the startup and growth of Zambia’s Civil Society Scaling up Nutrition Alliance (CSO-SUN), the first organization in the country solely dedicated to advocacy on nutrition.
I took the lead within CSO-SUN in ensuring creative approaches towards advocacy efforts. I became a Global Health Corps fellow working at 1,000 Days in the U.S. as a Global Advocacy and Outreach Associate, working to mobilize greater resources for nutrition initiatives. In early 2017, I became a global citizen campaigner and was recognized as one of their leading youth advocates.
Through this role, I have led and supported significant campaigns and advocacy on nutrition. Most recently, I was part of the Global Citizen team that worked to secure commitments for the Mandela 100 festival in December 2018.
Why is it important for young leaders to build careers that are socially-minded? How has your career shaped your identity?
The problems arising from hunger, malnutrition, poverty are not new at all. The world needs new solutions to these old problems! It is so important that young people get involved.
We are open-minded, and we have fresh voices and new ideas. We cannot sit by and wait for phantom changemakers – it is us that we need.
My friend joked to me just a few days ago that when someone asked what my hobbies are and what I do for fun, she responded by saying “That’s easy, her nutrition advocacy work.” We laughed, but I interpreted the exchange as a sign that my career deeply shapes my identity.
Perhaps more importantly, I believe it means that the joy that I get from the work I do is evident.
The work you do isn’t easy. How do you stay focused, committed, and well?
There are moments when fighting for health equity is overwhelming and challenging. I imagine that this is true for all careers working towards a better world.
I find that it is important for me to always remember why I do what I do to stay focused and motivated. However, this also includes acknowledging burn out and cultivating time for self-care, which allows me to always bring the best version of myself to my work.
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