Photo: Marcus Perkins / Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases

Profile of Precious Mukelabai, a Zambian volunteer health worker

Precious Mukelabai, a mother of four children, is a subsistence farmer and volunteer health worker who lives in the far west of Zambia, near the border with Angola.

Precious’s two eldest children, now young men aged 24 and 19, Tembani and Moya, have left home to look for work. Her two girls, Mercy, 15 and Patra, 12, are still living at home in the village with their mother.

Precious Mukelabai’s village is called Malumba. It is in one of the poorest regions of Zambia with very few tarred roads and, in many places, almost non-existent services like health care or running water. Precious is one of the very few people in her village who has a mobile phone, so she can act as a bridge between the villagers and the occasional nurses or doctors who come to her area.

Precious Mukelabai grows cassava (a root vegetable), maize and sweet potatoes. But her plot is very small – about ten meters by ten meters. There is never a surplus to sell. She needs all of the crops for herself and her daughters to eat.

The village of Malumba is on a flood plain of the River Zambezi. Many of the men in the area fish for a living. Sadly, Precious’s husband drowned in a fishing accident in 2007 so she is now single.

Precious trained as a volunteer health worker in 2005. She keeps an eye out for people who, for example, may have tuberculosis and advises them to see a nurse or doctor when one is available. She also watches for people who may have AIDS and tries to reduce the stigma around it.

“People used to hide away if they thought they had the disease”, Precious says; “But now people are more open and aware”.

One of the ‘neglected tropical diseases’ that is prevalent in western Zambia is blinding trachoma. It is a bacterial infection transmitted by flies. This disease flourishes in areas where people go to the toilet in the open; the poo attracts flies which then carry the bacteria to peoples’ faces and eyes. This is the case in Precious’ village because there are no toilets or sewage disposal systems.

Precious Mukelabai uses her mobile phone to make contact between the villagers who may have blinding trachoma and the government official or aid workers who sometimes pass through to perform the relatively simple surgery needed to correct the condition.

Precious is not paid for her work. Occasionally, when the government or an aid organization has a large project in her area for several days, she may get given lunch for her trouble. But this is very rare. Precious is a genuine volunteer working for the good of her community.

Asked what she would wish for in life, she says she would one day love to get some more education. She was forced to leave school early because of poverty.

She also wishes for a better life for her children.

“I got them through school, at least, and they are good children”, Precious says; “But at the end of schooling they still can’t find a decent job because of poverty. That makes me sad. But I will keep doing my best.”