Describe your current role
I am the Regional Director of WHO Africa, so I work with 47 member states and with global health partners to support health in countries.
What was the driving factor for working in global health?
I rather stumbled into public health by default because I had a small child and I wanted to study further. I couldn’t go and study for four years for a clinical specialty but I had worked in a TB ward in a district hospital in Botswana, and that was my first introduction into preventative interventions and to public health. I really did like it, so it was that TB experience and also my parents who were both working in public health, so I used to listen to public health talk at home all the time. My father was involved in smallpox eradication work, he used to drive out into the bush in Botswana for days on end so it was that combination that inspired me.
Who has inspired you throughout your career?
I’ve been inspired by several people. My grandmother first of all. She was a teacher who trained as a primary school teacher then lost her husband at a very young age. She had seven daughters and brought them up single-handedly, from when my mum, who was her first child was starting medical school and just out of university. She was a very strong and very loving woman and also very pragmatic. She was educated for her generation and a leader in the village in the Eastern Cape where she worked. She was also a very loving grandma, very strict as well so I learnt from very early on that you can be disciplined, do what needs to be done but also can be very loving. That’s been a principle throughout my career, be very clear what you want to achieve and go after it and achieve it, but also be empathetic and supportive to those that you work with.
How important has it been to have strong mentors throughout your career?
It has been tremendously important to have strong mentors in my career. When I was a young doctor working in the central hospital in Botswana there was an Indian physician who had come to work as an expatriate in Botswana who was a tremendously supportive teacher, encourager and that was fabulous. I’ve been lucky and had many mentors, mostly male I have to say because in the context one was mainly working with males as seniors who have been extremely supportive at various points of my career, so it is vitally important to have mentors for one’s progress, encouragement.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received from a mentor?
The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health in Botswana when I was working on HIV/AIDS – there was a very painful and difficult pre-treatment access at the time, and Botswana then had the worst epidemic in relation to the population terms of prevalence in the world, so it was a very difficult position to be in and to be the face of the situation was extremely painful at times. He said to me do your best, don’t try to do perfection otherwise you won’t be able to have a life. Do what’s good enough to have some results and do that every day, day by day and get something done that helps you progress to where you want to reach. I found that very encouraging at a time when I used to get up at three o clock in the morning to sit at the table and work and having two small children.
What’s been your career highlight?
I have had many career highlights but one that stands out was when I worked as a programme manager for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Dr Lee, WHO Director General at the time, decided that WHO was going to support countries to put people on treatment and it transformed what was happening on HIV/AIDS in African countries which had previously been a death sentence. We persuaded governments that a nurse can start somebody on treatment with proper algorithms and supervision, and they were able to expand access to treatment and give hope to many people who suffered from HIV/AIDS at the time.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
I was Director of the Non-Communicable Diseases Department at WHO in Africa - that’s a programme where the world and particularly African leaders have not yet recognised that this is a looming disaster. We worked with minimal funding and had to find ways to integrate what is happening on non-communicable diseases into ongoing programmes to strengthen health systems, so that at least we can work, particularly on prevention, and tackle tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods. I managed a very small team to with which to persuade countries to adopt policies addressing this terrible problem that is coming.
How important is the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference?
I think it is going to be tremendously important, to first of all get women who are working in public health to know each other, to network to support each other. I think that is tremendously important. I also think that it’ll have, I hope, several cohorts of women, young women, I am always thrilled to be in the company of young women scientists and public health, and to encourage them and ensure that they get the opportunities to progress their careers. Women can have a tremendously positive impact on global health and the conference can only contribute to this.
In three words, what advice would you give to women embarking on their careers?
Support each other.