This Women’s History Month, we’re honoring the legacy of Tanzania’s first female doctor, Dr. Esther Mwaikambo, and sharing the story of one of the Tanzanian doctors she paved the way for, Medical Teams’ own Dr. Eddah! From Esther to Eddah, we’re celebrating the contributions and progress made by trailblazing women in every field — but especially in medicine.

Read on for more of both Dr. Esther and Dr. Eddah’s stories!

Blazing a trail for women

women's history month featuring Dr. Esther
We’re celebrating Dr. Esther Mwaikambo, Tanzania’s first female doctor, for Women’s History Month. Photo by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As a young girl, growing up on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Esther Mwaikambo didn’t know she was destined for greatness. Though she would go on to become her country’s first — and arguably most famous — female doctor, she only knew she loved learning. With the support of her parents, she attended a prestigious boarding school for girls near her home.

But then, tragedy struck. When Esther was just 10, her mother died from an eye disease. Devastated by the loss, Esther was soon motivated by her grief. She vowed to find an answer to what killed her mother. Though it would take her years, Esther eventually fulfilled her promise.


Leaving Tanzania to learn

When Esther was 18, Tanzania gained independence from British rule. With the new republic came new opportunities for citizens. Esther jumped at the chance to study abroad, eventually landing in Moscow at a school for expatriates. While she initially began her studies in the arts, she quickly realized she was meant for something else: medicine.

Her interest was spurred by the many women she encountered who were doctors in Russia. The World Wars had greatly impacted the availability of male applicants, so women filled in. Before seeing them, Esther didn’t realize it was possible to be a doctor.

In just 4 years, she would count herself among that number of female doctors. But she’d done something even more important to her. Esther had found what killed her mother. It was cancer called retinoblastoma. A tumor had grown, beginning in her retina, and eventually metastasized.

A legacy of caring

In 1969, when Esther returned to Tanzania, she was officially the country’s first female doctor. She threw herself into her work, despite the obstacles presented by a long history of colonial neglect. Tanzania’s health care infrastructure was crumbling. At Dr. Esther’s first posting in Dar es Salaam, the mortality rate for children was extraordinarily high. She knew she’d found her calling and specialty.

Over the next 50 years of her career, she would throw herself into her work. Throughout her time as a pediatrician, she saw infant deaths in Tanzania drop by more than 5 times! Her dedication to her patients, and her deep desire to see health care equity in Tanzania, has changed lives.

She also worked hard at paving the way for other women to follow her extraordinary example. She established the Medical Women Association of Tanzania in 1987 and served as its leader until 2005. She’s also a founding member, and sole female member, of the Tanzanian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Esther is an extraordinary doctor, and one of the many reasons Women’s History Month is so important!

From Dr. Esther to Dr. Eddah

photo of Dr. Eddah Ndabila, smiling
Dr. Eddah is an invaluable caregiver in Tanzania. Photo by Medical Teams International.

The road Dr. Esther paved is the one doctors like Medical Teams’ own Dr. Eddah walked! Dr. Eddah’s desire to help others also stemmed from an experience in her childhood. As a girl, she struggled with severe anemia that left her weak and frequently ill. Even after repeated visits to the doctor, she still didn’t have answers for what was happening to her.
It was then that she made her own vow: if God helped her become a doctor, she would make sure she give her patients the kind of information she was denied.

Dr. Eddah says of the experience, “From there, I began to pursue my career, wishing inside that one day, I will be a doctor.”

When she graduated from medical school, Dr. Eddah realized her long held dream. She also knew she wanted to give back – and that’s when she found Medical Teams. Dr. Eddah felt strongly about helping people in refugee camps, particularly women. She knew from her own experiences at the doctor, and from treating patients in medical school, that sometimes women who had experienced deeply distressing events weren’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. She wanted to change that.

Today, Dr. Eddah is fulfilling her goal. She treats her patients with deep empathy and care, listening to their stories and helping them understand what their treatment options are.

Dr. Eddah says, “My hope is to see these people happy.”

Recognizing the contributions of women

Medical Teams is proud of the many incredible women who make our work possible during Women’s History Month and always. The people we serve, and our organization, would be far worse off without their talent and expertise.

Learn more about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.