Dr. Mwele Ntuli Malecela: The Woman, The Myth, The Legend

Dr. Mwele remains to be among the highly decorated women leaders and scientists to ever exist in Tanzania. She believed in science and did not shy away from stating her opinion even when it did not side with the popular opinions.

My earliest memory of our interaction was when I wrote a thread on Herd Immunity regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. For some time, I had been seeing her tweets on my timeline explaining herd immunity to the public and was intrigued by her ability to explain complex science concepts in simple terms.

I sent her my thread inbox and asked her opinion about it. And she was happy to give me feedback and share it on her timeline. Her last message to me said, “It’s excellent, maybe we should write a joint article”. Unfortunately, we never got a chance to make it true until she passed away two years later on the 10th of February, 2022.

I am glad that I got to have a discussion with her regarding healthcare and women in leadership. She was one of my biggest cheerleaders. Whenever I post my achievements, Dr. Mwele would cheer and send me congratulations.

It may seem to be something basic, but it meant the world to me. Ask any girl, there is no better feeling than a more experienced, older woman in the sector of your interest cheering for you. Dr. Mwele was a great inspirational role model to many girls and women, but who was she really?

Born on the 26th of March, 1963 in a family with a political background, Dr. Mwele schooled at Weruweru Secondary School and later joined the University of Dar es Salaam to study Bachelor of Zoology and graduated in 1986.

Life of a researcher shedding light on Neglected Tropical Diseases

In 1987, she joined the National Institute of Medical Research(NIMR) as a young researcher specializing in Bancroftian Filariasis, a disease caused by worms. She was allocated to Amani Research Center, Tanga.

Her dream was to work with the Malaria Program which was not only her area of interest but also a highly resourced and well-funded area.

She was stationed in the “worm lab” scientifically known as the helminthology laboratory where she spent years learning about their life cycle and conducting research with the goal of resurrecting programs associated with such diseases that are termed Neglected Tropical Diseases(NTDs).

NTDs are a group of over 20 diseases affecting over 1.7 billion people globally and 40 percent of them live in Africa. These diseases include schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, trachoma and soil helminths to mention a few.

They are highly associated with poverty and inequality affecting people from low socioeconomic status, after years of research, Dr. Mwele went back to school and completed her Masters in 1990 and PhD in 1995 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Determined to bring changes in the world of NTDs, she went back to NIMR to conduct more research especially on lymphatic filariasis, a disease popularly known as “mabusha” in Tanzania. Her work ethic and results of hard work propelled her in her career to become the Director of Research Coordination and Promotion in 1998.

She participated in the preparation of the first National Lymphatic Filariasis Program which set a precedent to later include other NTDs including soil helminths, schistosomiasis and trachoma in what is now known as the Tanzania Neglected Tropical Disease Control Program (TZNTDCP).

 In 2000, she was appointed the Director of the Lymphatic Filariasis program and 10 years later she made history as the first female to hold the position of the Director General of NIMR in Tanzania.

Politics, Media frenzy, and the Zika saga

Dr. Mwele joined CCM in 1981 and was later brought into the spotlight during the 2015 CCM Presidential Primaries in which she expressed her interest in becoming the President of Tanzania. She was among few women who contested and after losing the primaries, she went back to working with NIMR.

On 15th December 2016 during the press conference about NIMR’s annual report, Dr. Mwele stated that “Zika is in our country and among 533 people that got tested, 15.6% were found infected with Zika.”

She pointed out that a NIMR study conducted with Bugando Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences based in Mwanza, northern Tanzania, found that out of 80 babies tested, 35 were found to be positive with the Zika virus. “The study aimed at finding out whether the virus exists in the country and if it bore effects on children born with physical disabilities”, she added.

During this period, there were reports of Zika virus outbreaks in some parts of the world and after that press conference, the media lit up like a Christmas tree with reports of Zika in Tanzania. These comments seemingly contradicted previous comments by the then Minister of Health, Ummy Mwalimu who in February 2016 had announced that Zika had not yet entered the country. A day after the press conference, Dr. Mwele was sacked.

In my opinion, this scandal was merely a case of miscommunication because both Dr. Mwele and Minister Ummy were correct. According to WHO, the first human case of Zika virus was first detected in Uganda and Tanzania in 1952 and the “Zika Virus Risk Assessment in the WHO African Region” report released in February 2016 classified Tanzania at a medium risk of having Zika Virus outbreak.

Hundreds of diseases exist in Tanzania and their presence only or a few cases only does not necessarily qualify as an outbreak.

Global Impact, Advocacy, and Battling Cancer

Barely 6 months after being sacked after working at NIMR for 24 years, Dr. Mwele joined WHO’s Regional Office for Africa in April 2017 as the Director in the Office of the Regional Director.

Her career skyrocketed from there and in 2018, the Director General of WHO, Dr. Tedros appointed her to become the Director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at WHO; a position she held until her untimely demise.

Her most memorable quote is probably what she tweeted on the 4th of October, 2019 after being accused of being a lap dog for imperialists for her comments on the Zika virus in Tanzania. She tweeted, “Asiyekuumba kukuumbua hawezi” meaning that the person who hasn’t created you cannot deface/defame you.

Dr. Mwele used her position in WHO to spearhead NTDs programs and establish the Youth against NTDs to improve the involvement of youth in NTDs programs and launching the Road Map for NTD Control of 2021-2030 which focused on accelerating NTDs programs and improving funding.

“We need to make sure to better understand the link between the lack of investment and the disease”, said Dr. Mwele and she couldn’t be more right. For a group of diseases that requires treatment of over 600 million Africans every year, NTDs are highly underfunded with only 0.6 percent of global healthcare funding set aside for the control of NTDs.

Dr. Mwele was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and went on to battle the disease for almost four years before succumbing to it.

Many years before her diagnosis, she was very vocal about cancers affecting Tanzanian women and participated in many Cancer events to advocate and fundraise for cancer programs in Tanzania. Even after her diagnosis, she did not shy away from speaking about it and spreading awareness.

Even after her death, Dr. Mwele continues to impact the global health community through the Mwele Malecela Mentorship Program for Women in Neglected Tropical Diseases which supports mid-career African women to become leaders and champions in NTD elimination at national and international levels through mentorship, training and networking opportunities.

Dr. Mwele remains to be among the highly decorated women leaders and scientists to ever exist in Tanzania. She believed in science and did not shy away from stating her opinion even when it did not side with the popular opinions.

Even when political attack dogs were launched on her, she stood firm for science and for the country she loved the most, Tanzania. It is unfortunate that as a country, we did not fully utilize her potential although she remains to be among the top inspirational women in science in Tanzania.

While researching about this article, one thing that saddened me was the lack of information on her Wikipedia page. Her early life is only full of information about her father and nothing about her. We did not give her the flowers she deserved during her life, the least we can do is to do now by documenting her life and walking through her principles of truth and confidence.

This year marks two years since her passing and my only wish is that we make more women scientists and leaders who are principled like she was; may we be them, may we know them, and may we birth them for the betterment of Tanzania and the global health community.

Kuduishe Kisowile is a medical doctor and public health commentator based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She is available through kuduzekudu@gmail.com or on X as @Kudu_ze_Kudu. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further inquiries.

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