INSPIRATION: Dr. Laina Mbongo’s journey to transform Namibia’s diet and health landscape

…From village roots to pioneering Public Health Research

By Simon Namesho

Amid the rising challenges of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Namibia, Dr. Laina Mbongo (31) is forging pathways towards healthier futures. Born into a family of 10 in the small village of Ofudheni, Oshana Region, Laina’s academic journey began with modest dreams shaped by the limited career paths known in her community – primarily teaching and nursing.

“From childhood, it has always been my dream to be a scientist,” Dr. Mbongo recalls. Her journey in science was ignited at Mweshipandeka High School and further fuelled at UNAM, where her passion for science blossomed into a profound commitment to public health.

After earning her Master’s degree by researching food security in Windhoek’s informal settlements, Dr. Mbongo embarked on a pioneering doctoral journey. Her PhD dissertation, supervised by Professor Lawrence Kazembe and Professor Lillian Pazvakawambwa, both from UNAM, looked into the critical association between dietary diversity, dietary patterns, and NCDs in Namibia.

Through her research, Dr. Mbongo employed sophisticated statistical methods, including copula joint modelling and structural equation models. “These tools allowed me to explore how various food groups interact and contribute to health outcomes, moving beyond the simplistic analysis of individual food items,” she explains.

Eat more fruits & veggies, less starch

Her study found that many Namibians suffer from diets that are high in starch and low in essential nutrients like fruits and vegetables, which correlates with increased rates of diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular conditions.

Dr. Mbongo’s findings underscore the urgency of advocating for diverse diets. She envisions her research as a cornerstone for public health policies that promote nutritional education and accessibility. “We are what we eat,” she asserts, emphasising the importance of a balanced diet in preventing the onset of chronic diseases and reducing the strain on healthcare systems.

Currently working for the National Planning Commission, Dr. Mbongo is in a unique position to influence national development plans that integrate robust food security measures. “Investment in the promotion of diverse diets for a nation will result in the prevention of non-communicable diseases and ease pressure on the national health system,” she passionately notes.

Her future endeavours include a post-doctoral focus on further academic writing and collaborating with international public health organisations to enrich the Namibian perspective in global health literature.

About Laina: 2nd child out of 10 siblings to earn a PhD

Dr. Mbongo’s journey from a small village to the echelons of academic and policy influence embodies the transformative power of education. As the seventh of ten siblings, each academically gifted despite their parents never having seen the light of a classroom, Laina’s story is particularly inspiring. “My parents and home background have always been my motivation,” Dr. Mbongo shares. All her siblings’ achievements range from PhDs in Natural Sciences and Educational Psychology to careers in accounting, microbiology, and dentistry, highlighting a family legacy of educational pursuit.

Dr. Mbongo’s own academic path was shaped at the University of Namibia, where her passion for science led to an Honours degree in Population Studies and a Master of Science in Applied Statistics and Demography, enriching her understanding of population dynamics. “When I came to UNAM, all I knew was that I had to enrol in Science. It’s all I knew and excelled at,” she recalls.

Laina graduated with a PhD in April 2024 from UNAM. Her dissertation was titled “Statistical Modelling of the Association between Dietary Diversity, Dietary Patterns, and Non-Communicable Diseases in Namibia.”

Today, Dr. Mbongo’s research into dietary diversity and its impact on non-communicable diseases in Namibia drives her to advocate for healthier diets as a fundamental aspect of public health. Beyond her research, she finds joy in reading, streaming shows, and enjoying a braai with loved ones.

Her narrative is a beacon of inspiration, proving that from humble beginnings, great achievements are possible.

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