To reach more than three million people who are affected by tuberculosis but not diagnosed or treated, the world needs community champions like Timpiyian Leseni, from the Maasai community in Kenya. She is a survivor of abdominal TB. In 2012, she developed a bulging belly that mystified her and her doctors. It got so serious it required surgery that lasted six hours, and drained copious amounts of fluid from her intestines.
Unfortunately, the really hard part came when she started her TB treatment. It was long, tiring and nauseating. She endured daily injections for the first month and daily pills for seven more months. As she lived through the pain of TB, Timpiyian decided to dedicate her life to helping her community fight the disease.
The Maasai live in villages with huts that have little or no ventilation, providing fertile grounds for TB infection. They like unpasteurised milk and uncooked meat and blood, which can serve as a source of tuberculosis.
As she recovered, Timpiyian formed a community group of barefoot doctors who walk for miles to track and trace new TB patients. She called the community-based organisation Talaku – which means “set them free” in her language. With her fellow community workers, Timpiyian journeys through boulder-strewn dirt roads, climbing hills, descending valleys and crossing plains in search of people suffering from TB.
Sometimes they trail people who have been exposed to TB and have not been tested. Other times they look for people who started treatment but dropped off, and find them in drinking dens in small towns, or deep in the bush, since the Maasai often move in search of pastures and water for their animals. Timpiyian’s team goes on foot or motorcycle taxis known as boda boda. It is not always easy to persuade people with TB to come back to the hospital.
Just last week, she tracked two people who had defaulted on treatment. One said he was too busy; the other lied that he had completed his treatment. Timpiyian felt she had no choice but to involve the authorities – who arrested the men, and put them behind bars until they complete their medicine.
When Timpiyian tells her patients to get treatment, she often talks about living through the same pain, and losing ten months of her life. She has a warmth and a wisdom that earned her the nick name “Mama TB.” “Fighting TB is my life,” Timpiyian said. “It is so satisfying to reach somebody who is almost dying and after six months see them walk again.”