From the outside, Nomfusi Nkubu looks like the average forty-something year old mother-of-two, living in the Khayelitsha Township just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The township is home to almost half a million residents. Most of them live in shacks, without indoor plumbing. Many of the mothers who live here are unemployed and struggling to raise children singlehandedly without much income. When you first meet her, Nomfusi’s quiet demeanor makes her seem almost a little shy, but her smile hints at the inner strength of this remarkable woman. Despite what she does, she is modest. The fact that she has seen and survived hardship makes her unfailingly non-judgmental of the people she helps. From the outside you would never know that this remarkable woman is a quiet hero in her community. You might never guess that she works tirelessly, day in and day out, fighting for the health of her neighbors and their children, while offering hope to those who might otherwise have none.
Since 2010, a year after she lost the father of her two children, Nomfusi has worked as a health outreach worker – a “Mentor Mother” at the Philani Maternal and Child Health Clinic. The organization employs more than 100 Mentor Mothers to promote the health of over 60,000 families in the townships surrounding Cape Town. Mentor Mothers, like Nomfusi, are recruited because of their innately intelligent approach to promoting the health of their own children. They are the “positive deviants” – mothers who seem to know, instinctively, how to make a balanced meal from almost nothing, how to care for a sick child, and how to recognize those who need medical attention. Within these communities, Mentor Mothers are a treasured source of support, advice and medical knowledge. For the families they serve, outreach workers like Nomfusi are often the first point of contact for health-related problems. By monitoring growth and screening children for serious illness, including malnutrition, Nomfusi has saved lives in her community. Through her regular home visits, focused on teaching healthy behaviors, she prevents disease and improves her clients’ quality of life.
The efforts of people like Nomfusi don’t usually go unnoticed for long. In 2014, the Mentor Mother program at Philani caught the attention of teachers at the Stanford University School of Medicine who were experimenting with the use of teaching videos on mobile devices, to expand access to health education. In February of 2015, Nomfusi (and 11 other Mentor Mothers at Philani) started teaching their clients with small sturdy tablets in hand. The tablets had been pre-loaded with videos, created at Stanford, that were based on Philani’s highly-regarded health promotion curriculum. The videos, dubbed in the local language called Xhosa, used pictures and a storyboard to support the Mentor Mothers teaching by making it more efficient and engaging.
The feedback from Nomfusi and the other Mentor Mothers involved in the pilot project has been overwhelmingly positive. The demand for additional video content is high. As the content creation team at Stanford works to create a comprehensive, multilingual video library for international health promoters, efforts to raise funding for additional tablets is already underway. While health systems around the world try to catch up to the enormous demand for effective, evidence-based interventions for priority health problems, health promoters like Nomfusi continue to provide an invaluable service to their communities. By supporting their efforts to protect mothers and children everywhere, we can safeguard the health of our world’s most valuable assets.