When Joachim Mabula was 7 years old, he would sneak out of his parents’ home to go swimming with friends in a local creek in his hometown of Kahama, in northwestern Tanzania.
His parents had told him they were worried about him drowning so he was always very discreet.
But after months of these seemingly innocent escapades, Mabula began noticing blood in his urine.
“It took time to explain this [problem] to my parents because they were always strict with us about never swimming in the dams,” he told Global Citizen.
But shortly after telling his parents and visiting a doctor, Mabula learned he had chronic schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, an infection caused by a parasitic worm that lives in freshwater in subtropical and tropical regions, and is considered one of many neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
Schistosomiasis can be treated with a short course of a medication that kills the worms. After taking the treatment, Mabula avoided swimming for a few months, but eventually he returned — and so did the worms.
“I would get this [infection] many times,” he said. “When you’re cured you would forget about it, and it would happen again.”
Dr. Joachim Mabula uses his telephone outside of his home in Tanga, Tanzania on Dec. 5, 2020.
Decades later, Mabula has become a health advocate that works on tackling NTDs in Tanzania. The 32-year-old doctor is on the youth advisory board for Youth Combating NTDs and works to raise awareness on how NTDs impact people in Tanzania.
After graduating from medical school in 2012, Mabula quickly looked for ways to influence public health. He started writing a weekly health column in the Mwananchi, Tanzania’s most read newspaper, and frequently spent time on popular forums, disseminating health information and responding to questions.
Mabula realized that Tanzanians had an immense appetite for health-related information.
“When you go to the internet or library you get very little information in Swahili,” he said. “In Europe, Sweden, Finland, they have [a small population] but they [still] have a lot of information in their own language.”
His goal is to translate as much health information as possible for the more than 100 million Swahili speakers worldwide — which is more than the number of people who speak Italian or Tagalog, one of the most common languages in the Philippines.
Mabula often spends Saturday mornings hosting online health discussions, which reach an audience of 1 million people weekly. He says it is consistently the country’s top trending topic on Twitter on Saturdays.
Joachim Mabula works on his computer at home in Tanga, Tanzania on Dec. 5, 2020. From creating a medical dictionary to diagnosing people through Twitter, Mabula is making health information accessible for the 100 million Swahili speakers in East Africa.
When he heard about a volunteer group committed to adding Wikipedia entries in Swahili, Mabula was keen to get involved. Soon, he began translating information from the World Health Organization’s website into Swahili on Wikipedia.
“I’m passionate about adding more health information on Wikipedia because it’s a platform that a lot of people use. When they search anything online, this [Wikipedia] comes up first,” he explained.
For years, Mabula reached out to researchers in Tanzania, offering to translate their work into layman’s terms so it could be accessible to a wider audience. Although the idea was well received, no one ever took him up on the offer, he says, because of bureaucracy.
So he took matters into his own hands.
In 2017, while working as a general practitioner at a public health centre in Tanga, the coastal city where he now lives, Mabula founded Tiba Faster (Swahili for “faster treatment”), an online platform providing simple health information in Swahili.
Joachim Mabula walks in Tanga, the coastal city where he now lives, on Dec. 5, 2020. In 2017, while working as a general practitioner at a public health centre, Mabula founded Tiba Faster, an online platform providing simple health information in Swhaili.
The young doctor, who has a personal online following of more than 300,000 people on Twitter alone, has become a go-to resource for Tanzanians seeking health advice. Everyday, he receives messages on social media asking him for advice and he is often tagged in photos of people who are seeking a diagnosis.
While most people who contact him are in urban settings, they sometimes seek advice for relatives who live in rural areas and are limited in their ability to access medical care.
“Others have even gone to the hospital, but they want to get more information on the health condition,” he added, saying they may have felt rushed while at a health facility. “They say, I have gone to the hospital. What is this condition? Is this medication right for me?”
The messages can get overwhelming, Mabula, who does this all on a voluntary basis, said.
“Sometimes it’s stressful because some people want to get information so quickly and I’m busy with my own life. People complain [saying], ‘I sent him a message in the morning and he replied the next day.’”
Mabula, who left his practice last year to concentrate on Tiba Fasta full time, is currently working on creating a medical dictionary in Swahili, as he says the existing version is not comprehensive.
The process involves consulting with a government institution to find out if a Swahili word already exists for the English medical term. If it doesn’t, they collaborate to create a new word or appropriate phrase.
This groundbreaking work is challenging, but important, he says.
“It has been neglected for a long time,” Mabula said. “People need to get the correct information in their own language … so they can make informed decisions.”
Joachim Mabula poses for a portrait at his home on Dec. 5, 2020 in Tanga, Tanzania.
The Last Milers is a profile series that highlights the people tackling neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which impact more than 1 billion people globally. By working to ensure equitable access to preventative measures, treatments, and information, these people support the elimination of NTDs in various ways, across different fields. These advocates aim to reach every last mile with necessary health care tools and services.
Disclosure: This series was made possible with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Each piece was produced with full editorial independence.