NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
DOCTOR Mumba Chalwe-Kaja’s clients arrive at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka hanging on hope and agitated by different medical complications.
They head to the hospital’s Department of Urology for consultation over symptoms they experience below their belts or in their lower region.
Some of them avoid Dr Chalwe because they don’t think she is the one they are supposed to consult.
They expect to be seen by a man, which is hardly surprising considering 53 years post-independence, she is only one of five female urologists in Zambia and specifically the first female urologist in the country.
She treats a range of medical conditions, including sexual dysfunction, male and female infertility, prostatitis and enlarged prostate.
Others do a poor job at hiding their shock and even their disapproval that she is female with a generally male clientele.
Among her medical colleagues, however, there is no argument that she has earned her place in a field that is largely male-dominated.
She qualified on two main counts: brains and passion.
By the time she was deciding her field of specialisation, she was also married and her husband just happens to be a medical doctor.
It is partly his influence that helped her decide which field to major in and whether or not Dr Chalwe would succeed was not even a matter of debate.
She couldn’t see herself as anything else but a doctor while growing up. “I was a nerd,” she says. “I was always reading.”
“I was born in the Copperbelt. I am a pure kopala and I don’t even hide it. I am a foreigner in Lusaka,” she says before letting out a chuckle.
Dr Chalwe studied for her first medical degree in Russia and afterwards specialised in Zambia.
She likes to really emphasise that her speciality training is 100 percent Zambian.
There are parts of her father that reflect strongly in her. For instance, how he is what she terms an “Extreme Overachiever” and she is hardly different.
Growing up she also learnt from her parents the value of hard work. She and her siblings were taught to earn what they wanted to own.
“Dad used to make us work for our allowance,” she shares.
She also walked to school when she could have been driven there and it turned out to be the kind of upbringing that helped shape her character.
“I don’t think I would say I had any special privilege. I have always just been an average Zambian child in a Zambian home and I appreciate that. It has made me,” she says.
Because her parents were conservative and their home had a strict cultural setting, the gender roles were pretty defined.
Given her background, urology would be an unusual if daring choice. The natural option would be to get into what some refer to as “female-friendly” fields even though Dr Chalwe admits she doesn’t know what that means.
She was certain she wanted to do something outside the usual medical options, so she settled on urology, which is a surgical speciality.
She says, with great respect, that the first few women in surgery in Zambia are the ones who paved the way for young doctors like her to dare it as well.
“We’ve got those brave women who really made it easy for us because it wasn’t so strange anymore. We cannot ignore such people like the first female surgeon and people like the first female orthopaedic surgeon,” Dr Chalwe says.
Women like that helped her decide to go the extra mile with medicine. If she was going to do it, then she would do it to honour those who had laid the foundation for her and showed her it was possible. She wouldn’t just stand but would be outstanding.
She had no prior urology experience but her husband was a little familiar with it so he told her to give it a shot.
“He said he thought I would like it. It was surgical and I would look cool,” she shares.
She asked a few trusted people, some of them her mentors, if they thought urology suited her.
While she was in the valley of indecision, her husband found an application form, applied to the programme on her behalf and she was accepted.
A man she considers her mentor and teacher was also instrumental in making her settle for urology.
He told her urology was the best thing ever rather than dissuade her from joining a ‘men’s only’ field and she was welcomed enthusiastically by an all-male faculty.
The men closer to her age treated her like a sister, she says, while the senior male urologists taught her all they knew.
“My mentor would tell me to be confident in myself,” she shares. “He started calling me a specialist from day one.”
This affirmation gave her something to aspire to. She was not treated as a girl or boy but as a trainee who needed to be taught the skill.
That is not to say she did not encounter any challenges. Some people said hurtful things simply because she was female and it had never been done in the field of urology in Zambia.
Even in the southern African region, urology is one of the most underrepresented fields. There are few women in surgery and even fewer in urology.
That gave her greater motivation to colour the history books with her name.
Yet she has had some patients refuse to be seen by her because according to them, she is young and she is a woman.
It is still difficult for some not to attach deeply entrenched cultural beliefs to her job but that doesn’t stop her from doing what she has chosen and is paid to do.
At some point, during her training, she was pregnant and passed out during theatre but she did not give up.
Her labour and determination are already paying off.
In September 2017, she was nominated under the Social Impact category for The Future of Women Awards 2017 hosted by the Global First Ladies Alliance, which recognises rising African women leaders.
The award is open to rising African women leaders of all ages working in technology, social impact, or creative entrepreneurship and doing impactful work in Africa, primarily based on the continent.
She is presently a nominee for the 2018 Phenomenal African Women (PAW) Award and is the current Women in Surgery Africa (WiSA) Zambian Chapter representative.
Dr Chalwe is also passionate about mentorship, particularly of young girls, because she says it took a village to raise her and she desires to raise others as well.
She believes if women are to advance they need good mentorship and a good support system from their home communities.
During random conversations, hardly a day goes by without the mention of her everyday woman crush, the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) president, Linda Kasonde, whom she absolutely loves and admires for her courage.
Since becoming the first woman in urology in Zambia, there have been four other women joining the department at different levels and Dr Chalwe is particularly pleased about this because it destigmatises beliefs associated with females in the field.
For all the satisfaction urology has given her, there is no doubt that she would do it for free.
One of her male mentors once told her never to lose her femininity just to practise the art of surgery and because of him, she started doing her nails.
“He said, ‘Go ahead, be a girl about it; be girly and don’t lose your femininity’. That was the best advice I ever got. He said, ‘Be a girl and be a surgeon’, ” she says.