Students team up with nuns who studied at Benedictine to further humanitarian mission in Tanzania

November 21, 2017

Lisle, Illinois ~ A team of Benedictine students traveled to Tanzania over the summer to support the work of two nuns (and Benedictine alumni) who have dedicated their lives to improve the welfare of those living in their home country.

The students, led by associate professor of Public Health Georgeen Polyak, Ph.D., M.P.H., helped provide health care and education for the villagers of Imiliwaha, Tanzania, through a partnership with the African Benedictine Sisters of St. Gertrude.

Several years prior, the University and the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery agreed to provide free tuition and room and board for Sr. Beatrice Kayombo, O.S.B., M.D., M.P.H.’14, C09, Health Science, and Sr. Afra Mgwama, O.S.B., M.Ed.’11, C09, Elementary Education.

Today, Sr. Beatrice is a physician in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. Sr. Afra is a teacher who has helped establish a new elementary school in Sumbawanga, Tanzania. Together they also support their convent’s orphanage, clinic and a trade school for young girls.

Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and lacks not only the financial resources for education and health care, but skilled professionals in those areas.

This fact, the connection with Benedictine and a desire to provide Master of Public Health students with a global experience, inspired Polyak to arrange a service-oriented trip to Imiliwaha.

“Our Master of Public Health students had expressed an interest in studying and working in global health and service learning is an important component of our curriculum,” Polyak said.

The students included Preeti Grewal of Sterling Heights, Mich.; Megan Sheridan of San Jose, Calif.; Darby Law of Frankfort and Remya Joseph of Aurora. They were also joined by alumna Karen Maloney, M.D., C79, Biology, who has made traveling to Tanzania to provide health care and supplies to this area of the country an important part of her mission work.

The two nuns served as guides for the group, which made it easier for the students to gain the trust of the villagers and conduct a Rapid Community Health Needs Assessment. The assessment was based on the National Association of County & City Health Officials’ Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP), which is a community-driven strategic planning process for improving community health.

Major health concerns in the area included HIV/AIDS, typhoid fever, malaria, cancer, hypertension and sexually transmitted diseases.

“We conducted our rapid assessments in the health clinic on site at Imiliwaha in the male, female and pediatric wards,” Sheridan said. “The starkest responses came from the younger mothers in the pediatric ward who spoke openly about gender roles in Tanzania and how this impacted the way of life for their children and themselves.”

Women in Tanzania are primarily viewed as agricultural laborers and caretakers. Their education ends typically by eighth grade, while men are given the opportunity to continue their education through college.

“’We may not be highly educated, but we can learn,’” Sheridan heard one young mother of two say. “These words were touching and bittersweet to my ears,” Sheridan said. “It affirmed that I was welcome to make a positive difference in their community, but it was hard to hear how this cultural norm and gender repression has created such a barrier to the life I am otherwise so easily granted access to as an American.”

Another problem the villagers face is a lack of access to filtered water, which can lead adults and children to catch serious waterborne diseases that need medical attention. The problem is further compounded by the disparity of emergency health providers. Clinics are scattered throughout the region and have limited supplies to combat these diseases, while more fully equipped hospitals are located further away in large cities.

Mothers in villages served by the convent were provided with water filters purchased by the Lisle nonprofit, Friends of Imiliwaha. The students then explained how to use the filters so they could teach other families how to supply themselves with clean drinking water.

The experience offered students more than a glimpse into another culture. It shed light on the plight of the Tanzanian villagers and their limited access to basic health care and education.

The University is working to develop additional opportunities to support the work of the nuns and will be monitoring the success of the water filter intervention in the community.


Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has a branch campus in Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the eighth consecutive year in 2018. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission ( For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, or visit

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