My work saves lives, it is what keeps me going

Friday January 08 2021
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Dr Ndyanabangi says the pandemic showed the importance of building trust with the team one works with. PHOTO | NET

By Edgar R. Batte

New Year. Dr. Bannet Ndyanabangi is the head of office and Representative of United Nations Population Fund -UNFPA in Liberia. He possesses more than 20 years’ experience in management and strategic leadership. Ndyanabangi has worked with the ministry of health in Uganda, UNFPA in Nigeria, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.  

Talking career, how have you managed to get to your current status?
I have been focused, consistent and hard working. I think one needs to set a goal and then go towards that goal.  When I started out at medical school, my aim was to practice medicine, clinical work, which I did over the first three years in Germany and about five years in Uganda.  I later chose to do public health because when I worked at Rubaga Hospital, we had so many patients with infectious diseases that were preventable.

I would treat patients with malaria, waterborne diseases and others such as typhoid that could be prevented with proper hygiene and environmental sanitation. After treatment, many of these patients would go back home and after a few weeks return to the hospital sick because they went back to the same environment with mosquitoes, shrubs and swamps, nothing would have changed in their lives.  

I thought I would look at the bigger picture of prevention, such as environmental sanitation, changing lifestyles, immunisation and managing health programmes at a macro level, because then, I would have more impact.  That is how I ended up specialising in public health to work at a level of managing health services.

What have been your biggest career highlights?
My biggest career highlights have been in three African countries. After public health school, I was recruited to work with GIZ in Tooro region and Bundibugyo, this was at the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic. The programme was a comprehensive health programme that had a big component of HIV/Aids prevention and care which I was leading.

There was a bigger research component and we were the first ones I remember to demonstrate a reduction in HIV sero-prevalence linked to behavior change using the ABCs –Abstinence Be faithful and Condom use approach. It was also where I was to carry out research for my PhD thesis which I obtained from my alma mater Heidelberg in 1998.

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The second one was years later in Ethiopia in 2007 where I led a USAID- Management Sciences for Health (MSH)- HIV/Aids Prevention and Care programme as Chief of party. The work involved initiating treatment for Aids patients at health centre level. Treatment at that time was only available at hospital level and patients were dying in rural areas due to lack of access because of long distances.

We successfully accomplished this in the largest five provinces of Ethiopia in a shorter time than was envisaged thus reducing deaths due to Aids. The third is Sierra Leone where I led the UNFPA programme as Country Representative to initiate a disease surveillance and contact tracing programme for Ebola in 2015.

What keeps you motivated?
What brings me to life is knowing that my work saves lives.  I know that the work I do averts morbidity (ill-health) and mortality (deaths). Healthy people are able to do their work, are productive and are able to improve their own wellbeing and quality of life, as well as that of their families, their communities and country. In my view that is how development happens, so, if you look at it from that perspective, that is what keeps me alive while at work. 

As a leader, how do you bring out the best in those you supervise?
Top on the list is integrity and respecting others. Treating colleagues at all levels with respect, listening well and leading by example. As a leader, the best way to bring out the best in people is to lead by example, be a good listener, be approachable and have an open door policy. It is also important to interact with people and have your ears on the ground, understand what your team is doing and the challenges they are facing. 

What job and career lessons have you picked and learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic?
The most important job and career lessons I have picked and learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic is how to apply previous experience and lessons learned in responding to epidemics to the present. Using the experience and knowledge from the Ebola epidemic that afflicted the three countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia; we were able to quickly support the country response by leading the disease surveillance and contact tracing for Covid-19 by training people and availing resources. In terms of working during the pandemic, we were working remotely so it was important to have built trust in your staff by giving them space to do their work without much supervision and thus enabling them to work remotely and deliver with little supervision.  

Have you ever seen the hand of God in your work?
I believe God created us in his own image and gave us the brains and the ability and we need to use them. As they say God works in mysterious ways, therefore I usually focus on the work and put all my efforts because God has given us the ability to harness the world and put it to good use. I therefore focus on thanking God for what I have accomplished and continue to do my work because there are many things that you can’t explain. I am guided by the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated. 

How do you ensure that work does not affect your family and social life?
Indeed, the kind of work I do affects family and social life. Luckily I was able to be with my family most of the time until the children were in their teenage years going off to high school and universities. This is important for early years’ bonding.  Some of the duty stations such as Afghanistan where I have worked are non-family duty stations and in that way I have missed my family but we try to keep in touch daily with modern technology using phones, WhatsApp, Zoom and others but indeed that’s a really negative consequence that you can’t be with your family most of the time. Obviously, there are colleagues with whom we socialise at work. It is important to find ways to keep fit mentally and physically and be resilient.

What are the biggest lessons and mentorship you received from your parents and role models?
My parents placed a high value on education, and also inculcated in us good social, cultural and Christian values. We had role models growing up. I had two brothers who were doctors so I was able to visit them and see them at work perhaps leading me to major in sciences and eventually medicine. The support of the whole extended family was invaluable.

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