By Ellen Agler, CEO of the END Fund
This week, we mourn the passing of a leader among leaders: Dr. Mwele Ntuli Malecela.
To work in the field of Neglected Tropical Diseases without Mwele, as she was affectionately known by so many, feels instantly different. Her influence runs so deep and so wide that her passing leaves an unfillable void in our hearts and in the leadership our field so desperately needs.
Professionally, Mwele is unparalleled. As a scientist, she answered critical questions that advanced treatment programs for lymphatic filariasis. As her country’s national lymphatic filariasis program manager, then as director general of Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research, she was a trailblazer – a fierce and determined champion of the communities affected by NTDs that she knew so well. There are countless examples of her turning down “help” from external agencies, not because she didn’t need help but because she knew it was not right for Tanzania’s NTD program, nor for the communities she served.
She carried this bravery and passionate focus throughout her career. I will never forget Mwele telling me about her experience running for President of Tanzania in 2015 – an incredibly bold ambition for anyone, but something that felt natural for her. After campaigning in rural villages of Tanzania, she recalled the looks on the faces of young girls, expressing their amazement at a woman campaigning for their country’s highest office. She assured them that, “It’s not just me who can run for president, you can too.” To embody that hope, ambition, and sense of possibility for those girls encapsulates Mwele perfectly.
In more recent years, through her work at the World Health Organization, and since 2018 as the Director of the Department of Control of NTDs, Mwele remained a steadfast champion for NTD program managers and the countries they represented. She was relentless and compelling in her challenge to me and many others to rally around her vision for the sector, and to do more to champion the leadership shown by endemic countries in tackling NTDs. As I reflect on the decade I’ve had the privilege of knowing Mwele, her influence is everywhere I look. The END Fund is full of staff – past and present – who have learned from and been inspired by Mwele. She was always so generous to me and to the END Fund, sharing her time and knowledge with her trademark humility and gravitas. We are better people for knowing her, and better at our jobs because of her leadership.
Last year on World NTD Day – an annual day of global NTD advocacy – she was central to creating the WHO-published road map for neglected tropical diseases for 2021–2030. This seminal document encapsulates the shared vision of countless people and organizations and, under Mwele’s leadership, has charted a path towards the elimination of 20 diseases that needlessly hold back the lives and livelihoods of around 20% of the global population. There would be no greater tribute to such an inspiring leader than to follow that roadmap and reach NTD elimination.
She would have settled for nothing less, and neither should we.