In the Zambian language of Citonga, Lweendo means “journey.” Lweendo is also the name that Leah Goeke, MPH, CPH was given while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia, before becoming a PHI/CDC Global Health Fellow in Tanzania. Originally from a small town in Ohio, Leah’s journey in global health has helped her build meaningful relationships with people from around the world while affirming her passion for epidemiology and environmental health.
STRENGTHENING FOOD SECURITY WITH THE PEACE CORPS IN ZAMBIA
Interested in the intersection between western medicine and local, holistic knowledge, Leah was drawn to public health as an alternative to pursuing a pre-med track. Leah pursued her MPH via the Peace Corps Masters International Program at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. While the program no longer exists, it integrated her Peace Corps service into her MPH as a practicum requirement. One year into her MPH coursework, Leah relocated to Zambia as a Community Health Improvement Project or CHIP Volunteer in 2014, learning the local language and applying technical skills learned in school. Assigned to a small rural village in Southern Province, Leah lived 20 kilometers from the paved road which ultimately connects the village to the capital city of Lusaka. Her experience there as an outsider both humbled her and taught her how to build collaborative relationships by partnering with local community members, while applying her technical knowledge to challenges at hand. Along with that, Leah learned “to seek to understand before trying to be understood” which continues to impact her global health work today.
Leah learned “to seek to understand before trying to be understood” which continues to impact her global health work today.
Leah ultimately connected with a group of highly motivated women in the village who were interested in improving their gardening skills and addressing food security concerns due to drought. What started as improving garden production grew to include health interventions that improve the lives of underweight children, and finally, constructing a community market to increase food accessibility and income generating opportunities for local women.
LIFE AS A FELLOW
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Leah had heard about the PHI/CDC Global Health Fellowship Program and was excited by the technical challenges available and a chance to return to the African continent. As a Strategic Information Fellow in Tanzania since 2018, Leah has focused on HIV recent infection surveillance (also referred to as recency surveillance), where she’s learned about laboratory science, commodity supply chains, data management and health information systems.
During the first year of her fellowship, Leah spent 3 months in the field in the lake zone region of Mwanza as part of CDC’s Rapid Results Initiative, providing hands-on support to large facilities and offering strategic advice to build capacity and create solutions that optimize data use. The experience of seeing facilities in person, rather than just seeing them on spreadsheets, was very meaningful, as was the sense of camaraderie with shared dinners at the end of the day and strong friendships built with CDC colleagues and partner staff – similar to her Peace Corps days.
Due to the pandemic, recency activities are paused and CDC Tanzania has transitioned to a virtual format, though Leah is hopeful that 15 sites will be re-activated and implementation will resume, and she is leading these reactivation plans. In addition, Leah has worked on a manuscript studying predictors and outcomes related to severe food insecurity, echoing her experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The manuscript is currently in review and utilizes Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (PHIAs) datasets from 6 countries and includes more than 100,000 adults in the analysis. The study addresses HIV and climate change and looks at the impact of interventions of food support versus economic support.
MENTORSHIP & TRAININGS
Throughout each chapter of her journey, Leah has gained mentors. In the Peace Corps, Stance Mwalukanga and Clinton Habuuka played key roles in helping to implement community projects. As a fellow, Leah continues to learn about recency surveillance from Dr. George Mgomella, Surveillance Team Lead for CDC Tanzania. Dr. Mgomella has consistently challenged her, recognized her work and taught her valuable skills, all built on a foundation of trust and respect. Severa Luhanga, who works for ICAP Tanzania (a main partner in recency work) also stands out as a key mentor and teacher because of her indominable positive attitude while always going above and beyond when they worked together. The relationships she made with her CDC Tanzania colleagues and partner staff have “profoundly shaped this fellowship and made it wonderful.”
Additionally, Leah has utilized her travel/training allowance as a fellow to attend trainings in South Africa, London and DC (pre-pandemic) and is currently enrolled in an online climate change and health certificate program with Yale University. These learning experiences, along with her fellowship assignment, have made a lasting difference, as Leah reflects: “I feel like I’ve gained so much…I can only hope my contributions can match the gratitude I feel for the experience.”
…CDC Tanzania colleagues and partner staff have “profoundly shaped this fellowship and made it wonderful.”
Looking ahead, Leah hopes to combine her interests in climate change, food security and epidemiology. The fellowship has provided practical PEPFAR experience, allowing her to learn about the 95-95-95 goals in-depth, and build highly technical HIV experience, which she will apply to future career steps. Leah is immensely grateful for “an action filled experience” which “has been exactly as I was hoping it would be when I heard about it.” Her next goal is to continue to support low resource communities and ensure health interventions are as impactful as possible because they are developed from an ecological perspective and implemented sustainably.
For public health students who are interested in following her footsteps, Leah encourages students to take the chance to step outside their comfort zones and embrace challenges, as they provide the largest opportunities for growth. Her journey from Ohio to Zambia and Tanzania has taught her that “with global health- it’s not “their” health, it’s “our” shared health…[and] we all have a lot more in common than different.”
“with global health- it’s not “their” health, it’s “our” shared health…[and] we all have a lot more in common than different.”
If you’d like to connect with Leah, please message her on LinkedIn.
-Whitney Hall, Administration & Communications Specialist