DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
NOW aged 15, Mwenda Phiri was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia disease at nine months.
But October 18 last month is a day to remember for Mwenda and his family. This is not because it is a National Day of Prayer and Reconciliation for the country, recognised as a public holiday even.
On this day, Mwenda had a crisis that was precipitated by a minor surgery [appendix removal] and supposed interaction with anaesthesia causing his blood cells to sickle faster.
“It was sad, we were even discharged. Then next thing in the evening, I am trying to wake him up for food and he is not responding,” Mwenda’s mother Lelemba Phiri says. “It was a very scary and a hard time for us as family. We then had to rush back to hospital.”
Mwenda, who is based in Cape Town, South Africa, was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the Blaagder Netcare Hospital for eight days.
After being discharged, Mwenda dedicated every spare hour of his time to his phone, canvassing, and campaigning for the best way to tackle the challenges other children having similar health situation like his.
Mwenda, who was born at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka on March 17, 2002, strives to be a normal teenager, one not defined by his disease.
The disease is so-named because abnormal haemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen in the blood causes the red blood cells to become rigid, sticky and shaped like sickles.
Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that causes red blood cells to turn into a sickle shape under certain conditions. These cells die early, creating a shortage of healthy red blood cells causing anaemia. The sickled cells can block blood flow to major organs causing a lot of pain in what is known as a sickle cell crisis.
As a teen with this family of blood disorders, which is also known as sickle cell anemia, Mwenda faces many challenges like dietary- related, and taking folic acid every day which is challenging for many teens but Mwenda has accepted his condition.
“I have sickle cell anaemia also known as Sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is not contagious,” he says.
Before last month’s crisis, Mwenda last had a major crisis when he was three years old, but since then, his family has been very proactive with his care by ensuring that they work to prevent the conditions that trigger any crisis like managing extreme weather, dehydration and infection proactively.
But the attack that he experienced last month put his outlook on life into another whole new perspective.
“I was fortunate to have access to specialist doctors, equipment, medicine and facilities that saved me,” Mwenda says.
However, getting the excellent treatment and care for sickle cell survivors especially children is a far-fetched dream for many not only in Zambia, but Africa as a whole.
Because of this, Mwenda has started the Mwenda Phiri Initiative (MPI) in service of child health to raise awareness and funds for paediatric haematology and ICU in Africa.
MPI raises funds for hospitals and support groups in Zambia as well as bursaries for further studies in haematology for Zambian medical doctors.
“Because of my condition as a sickle cell survivor, I learnt that I am actually among the privileged few whose parents can afford great health care,” he says.
After being discharged from the hospital following the crisis, Mwenda took up the challenge and researched to find out how many children in Zambia and Africa have or do not have the luxury of finding doctors, equipment and sundries required to treat children with sickle cell disease.
No prizes for guessing what his findings were.
His findings gave way to Mwenda Phiri Initiative.
Mwenda has come up with a Facebook page and website https://www.youcaring.com/mpi1 to explain more on his initiative and allow donations from people across the continent.
Mwenda has also come up with a go fund me page to raise US$5,000 to purchase equipment for a pediatric hospital in Zambia.
“I started the initiative because during my time in hospital, even though it was hard to go through what I went through, I still felt everything would be fine because I had access to great medical staff, facilities and equipment,” he says. “I wouldn’t want other children to go through the same thing, and considering challenges in accessing excellent medical care, I did not knowing if they would be okay.”
Mwenda is a personification of how positive thinking can change lives and look forward to a better place for all regardless of one’s status in society.
Tapping into the teen mania for sharing even the most mundane titbits of daily life on social media, the Mwenda Phiri Initiative has been shared not only among his friends, but beyond his circle.
Now Mwenda, first born son of Sandras and Lelemba Phiri who has an 11-year-old brother Mwai, has some backing.
He is following the footsteps of his parents who have helping to build entrepreneurs on the continent. His father is director of Startup Grind in Johannesburg as well as chief executive officer and co-founder of Africa Trust Academy while his mother is chief marketing officer at Zoona.
He has tapped into his parents’ zeal and this is helping him build his initiative and reach out to many people.
He launched the initiative on November 12 this year.
Mwenda has an active life.
“I love acting and have won many awards for it. I love music especially artistes like Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott and Quavo and I love community service. I’m the current Vice President for the Interact Club at my school Parklands College,” he says.
But he has to take time away from that in order to spare some hours canvassing and campaigning for the best way to tackle the challenges other children having similar health situations like his.
But although it took away precious hours from his usual play time, even keeping him away from his younger brother Mwai, he says the experience has one of the most rewarding of his life.
“I learnt that I am actually among the privileged few whose parents can afford great health care,” Mwenda says.