July 5, 2023

5 Questions with Akuzike Rugunda

Our monthly check-in with staff from around the world. Learn more about the people who work at CHAI.

Please tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to CHAI.

I’m the second of five children and grew up in Malawi where I completed my basic education. When I was 17 I moved to New Mexico with my family where I pursued an undergraduate degree in civil engineering with a focus on structural engineering. After graduating, I designed bridges for four years. I enjoyed the analytical and practical work of being an engineer, but I always felt the human impact of my work was a bit less tangible. I wanted to feel like what I did contributed to people’s lives in a way that was measurable and visible.

When I had my first child, I did a lot of research on pregnancy and childbirth and during that time I became acutely aware of the struggles that women around the world face around childbirth. While my experience in comparison was privileged, I learned many women were at risk of losing their lives or that of their newborns due to preventable causes in the perinatal period. I was motivated to make a change in my career and drawn to pursue a career in public health to lend my personal experience to improve the livelihoods of other women and children.

I learned about CHAI while working at my first job in Uganda. There was something special about the few employees I had interacted with, and this gut instinct CHAI was the place where I wanted to be. The people I met seemed intelligent and I found their work intriguing. They were coming up with practical and clever solutions for endemic public health issues. I applied and got my first role with CHAI in October 2018. I have now been working with CHAI for five years and I’m glad I made that choice to change my career many years ago.

1. What’s been one of your proudest moments at CHAI?

In 2018, CHAI supported the Ministry of Health, Uganda with the introduction of a newly released World Health Organization prequalified dual syphilis and HIV test kit under a grant that covered multiple countries. We supported the ministry with the development and implementation of training plans, monitoring testing and treatment data through a pilot study, as well as creating dashboards for ongoing monitoring and evaluation for syphilis testing and treatment rates among pregnant women. It was very rewarding to play a part in increasing the syphilis testing rates among pregnant women in Uganda. Through my work on the then sexual reproductive, maternal, and newborn health team, I had the opportunity to manage a grant that worked to scale up dual testing of HIV and syphilis in routine antenatal care across Uganda. After we implemented the grant, syphilis testing among pregnant women increased from approximately 47 percent in 2018 to approximately 97 percent in 2020.

2. In your experience, what skills are the most crucial to succeeding at CHAI?

I like that CHAI hires people from various educational and cultural backgrounds. The wealth of knowledge and experience creates a culture that encourages innovative thought to solve global health challenges. To be successful at CHAI, I believe you must be quick on your feet, a strategic thinker, and adaptable in a dynamic global health landscape.

3. What is your favorite quote of all time and why?

I love and live by this quote by Anais Nin. It is a favorite because it reflects my life journey. I am constantly pushing myself beyond the limits of my fears and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

― Anais Nin

4. What is your proudest accomplishment at work or in life?

In life, my proudest accomplishment—which is more of an adventure than anything else—is my children. They make me proud, and I love seeing them grow into their own people. I feel so fortunate to be their mom!

5. What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

I hiked a volcano, but I’m afraid of heights! There is a line of dormant volcanoes near the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Southwestern part of Uganda. I took a trip there with a few friends from a group of hikers who are part of a larger group called the Mountain Slayers of Uganda. Mount Muhabura is third highest of the range of eight mountains in the region standing at 4,127 metres (13,540 ft) above sea level. The climb felt like a steady 45° incline with no breaks! I had a few panic attacks when I dared to look downhill a few times. It took us 12 hours to ascend and descend that mountain and I was so proud of myself at the end of it! In all, the experience reminded me that I can achieve anything I set out to do. I plan to go and hike more of the mountains in that range sometime soon!

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