His life is over, but the fight against diabetes must continue for a safer nation. ALBERT SHARRA writes.
Timothy Ntambalika is no more. Beyond his Chileka hometown in Blantyre, the man, who died on July 7 2016, is fondly remembered for launching a singular war on a silent killer he had been confronting for three decades—diabetes.
He travelled the length and breadth of the country, squarely talking about the bitter side of the non-communicable condition alternatively known as “sugar disease”: its causes, preventive measures and how to live long with it.
The battle for healthy eating habits and lifestyles still stuns his wife Nellie as she is coming to terms with the loss of her sweetheart and breadwinner.
Ntambalika was more than just a gift of words, she says.
“My husband lived a positive life,” she explained. “He never pretended and he made sure we knew he was diabetic. He never compromised on eating healthy meals, especially mgaiwa [whole grain meal]. He always avoided oily foods. Most importantly, he never stopped taking his dosage as prescribed and this helped him survive that long.”
The man who founded Diabetes Association of Malawi (DAM) celebrated his 64th birthday July 3. There were neither sugar nor fat in his special treat. No beer. No cakes. No fizzy drinks. No chocolates. No meats. No candies.
Shunning ‘the poison so sweet’, a term coined by Chileka’s most revered reggae singer Evison Matafale, became Ntambalika’s way of life after he was diagnosed with diabetes in October 1986.
To him, not all that many eat happily is good for their health.
This is the message he preached until his death.
On the fateful day, the skies were blue and the wind calm enough for any aeroplane touching down or taking off at Chileka. Ntambalika left home expecting to be on the next flight to South Africa where his son had booked in for specialist treatment, says his nephew Emmanuel Mulele.
However, little did anybody know that tragedy would strike the man who was crying in agony when he checked in at the airport.
He explained: “I was facilitating the air trip and his son was waiting to welcome him on the other side. We wanted to save his life, but airport staff told him not to fly because he became unconscious and collapsed just after checking in.
“When he regained his senses, he begged: ‘Allow me to fly. I need it. Please, I need urgent medical attention.’ But the airport officials did not accept.”
The diabetic father of six was later rushed to Blantyre Adventist Hospital where doctors diagnosed him with a damaged kidney.
Just like that, Chileka lost a father and a pastor.
But Ntambalika courageously took advantage of his struggle with diabetes to save others.
Offering a flashback of the diagnosis that changed his life, Ntambalika once told The Nation: “Had I delayed by just an hour, I would have died.”
He recalled hearing doctors talking about critical sugar levels in his blood (glucose), “almost the highest possible”.
He recounted: “I didn’t know something life-threatening was happening in my body. I was feeling headache and fever. I thought it was malaria.”
Most people appear unaware of the disease that kills almost 8 000 Malawians yearly, a gap Ntambalika wanted closed when he founded DAM.
“I didn’t want anyone to go through the same because it puts life on the knife edge,” he disclosed during public lecture organised the association in partnership with Malawi Liverpool-Wellcome (MLW) Trust.
The deceased and his family members were a common sight at Chichiri Shopping Centre in Blantyre where they would enlighten scores of Malawians to the causes, preventive measures and ills of the disease with crippling and deadly effects.
Reaching people with an unregistered group was not without setbacks.
Eight years ago, the family initiative ganged up with 50 volunteers to register the association.
Today, the body boasts about 15 000 members and branches at every district hospital.
Its head of finance and administration, John Kambalame, describes Ntambalika’s death as a big loss.
“We will continue from where he left,” he says. “Through the association, he has helped the country to know its diabetic population, to ensure drugs are available and that people are going for earlier tests.”
Kambalame commends Ntambalika’s leadership for decentralising the struggle.
“This is what he wanted to achieve. He should be glad wherever he is,” he said.
Due to his willpower, Ntambalika was nicknamed Pafe Mphaka Pafe Galu.
“His motto was ‘no matter what’. Everywhere he went, he did not relax until his mission was accomplished. This is what DAM will miss more—a positive driving force,” Kambalame said.
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) reports that 415 million people are living with the condition globally.
According to IDF, there were almost 203 000 cases and 5 211 in the country.
The patients often have to cope in difficult circumstances as diabetes often goes undiagnosed, which raises their risks of growing blind or losing a limb—if they survive at all.
In 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) researchers took blood-sugar levels of 5 206 adults aged from 25 to 64 and findings revealed almost six 5.6 percent had raised blood glucose levels.
“That doesn’t prove they have diabetes, but it is very likely. Five percent is a huge number! It means that in Blantyre, an area with one million inhabitants, half of whom are adults, there must be around 25 000 diabetics,” said Dr Theresa Allain of the College of Medicine (COM), a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima).
Nellie, who married Ntambalika 13 years ago, looks to the future assured of a nation which eats and lives mindful of the devastating effects of diabetes.
“He did his part. If we adhere to a good lifestyle, we will live. If we eat anything that comes our way, we may perish,” she said.
The man, who came from Mchilamwera in Thyolo, went to Malamulo and Matandani secondary schools before heading to Zimbabwe where he studied theology at Solusi Adventist University.
Key facts about diabetes
Cause: It occurs either when the pancreas does not produce insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the hormone that regulates sugar levels.
Symptoms: Excessive excretion of urine, thirst, constant hunger, weight loss, vision changes and fatigue.
Prevention: Simple lifestyle measures
l Maintain healthy body weight
l At least 30 minutes of regular exercises for weight control
l Eat a healthy diet, avoiding sugar and saturated fats
l Avoid tobacco use—smoking increases the risk of diabetes and heart diseases.—World Health Organisation