Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Life of Firsts

By Laura Ferguson

Temba Mudenda, D71, a pioneer in Zambian health care, comes back to Boston

Temba Mudenda

Temba Mudenda, D71, and his wife, Florence, at the School of Dental Medicine’s Toast to Tufts Alumni celebration on April 29. Mudenda was celebrating his 40th reunion. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Forty years ago, Temba Mudenda, D71, graduated from Tufts School of Dental Medicine and embarked on a career his American classmates could not begin to imagine. He returned to his native Zambia to work as that African nation’s first dentist.

He brought with him one indispensable Tufts ally: the “black box” containing the instruments that all Tufts dental students once carried from classroom to clinic. In Zambia, this brimming toolkit of dental instruments was a revelation. Due to limited resources and training, a troublesome tooth was often extracted with forceps.

“Once [dental assistants] saw it, they realized their training was different from mine,” recalled Mudenda. “I could do anything because I had everything in the black box.”

Indeed, that artifact of Tufts Dental School would open many doors. The energetic young dentist was tapped for increasingly influential positions as the Zambian government expanded educational and training opportunities for its citizens. Mudenda, who also holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan, would go on to become a nationally respected advocate for preventive health and access to care.

It was this remarkable career that he shared with the School of Dental Medicine’s Board of Overseers on April 29, and for which he gave generous credit to his Tufts education.

“To me, Tufts was [about] diagnosis,” he said. “Diagnosis gives you the answers, and Tufts gave me the answers.”

“Tufts was a wonderful place [to learn],” he continued. “They made difficult things easy, and at the end of the day, you are able to transfer that knowledge to somebody else. . . . In my country, when they say ‘teacher,’ it’s like saying ‘reverend.’ So I thank Tufts through and through.”

The admiration was mutual. As Dean Lonnie H. Norris pointed out, Mudenda’s commitment to improving care and access to it has reached beyond Zambia and influenced policy in eight neighboring countries.

John Morgan, an associate professor of public health and community service at the dental school, has been impressed and inspired as well. Morgan and his colleagues have trained a corps of oral health community volunteers in a rural Zambian village, and he knows how difficult it is to bring about change when resources are limited.

Mudenda’s work, he said, is “a testament to the Tufts values of active citizenship, globalism and humanism.”

“Dr. Mudenda is a true decathlon example of these values,” he said. “His commitment to his community and his profession offers encouragement to all of us, but especially to students early in their careers, to stay on the right path to accomplish things we believe in.”

Mudenda started on that path after earning his undergraduate degree from Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. He was drawn to a career in dentistry, he said, because he could make the greatest difference in the lives of Zambians.

Overcoming Challenges

When he returned home in 1971, the Ministry of Health assigned him to oversee a health post in Livingstone, in southern Zambia near its border with Zimbabwe. He was the only dentist for hundreds of miles. However, because he understood his country’s challenges (it gained independence in 1964), was deeply concerned for his countrymen and possessed a certain stubbornness (“I had no plans to fail!”), Mudenda insisted that the government make greater investments in education, training and outreach.

Mudenda was instrumental in the development of dental therapy training at the Dental Training School in Zambia. It educates students to be dental therapists, as they are called, to provide almost all aspects of care, including restorative dentistry and oral surgery, as well preventive care.

One career highlight was placing dental practitioners in each of Zambia’s 11 districts. “That way people didn’t have to travel so far to have their teeth attended to, and we could teach people not to fall sick,” Mudenda said. “That is my strength: the community is treated as a patient.”

Now retired, Mudenda was pleased to be back at Tufts for his 40th reunion this spring—the first time he has seen the dental school since graduation. He admired how much it has changed, but then he has always been enormously proud of Tufts.

His black box remains a treasured possession. If someone asks to borrow an instrument, he happily lends it out. “But,” he said, “I want it back.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

Posted May 11, 2011