A Role models toolkit: Focus, Purpose and Faith

Dolorosa Duncan did not set out to become a role model. However, the power of her story and its ability to inspire are indisputable.

In January, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania invited Duncan to speak to its students about professional success. She opened her presentation with these words:

“In a world where we want instant gratification, in a world where we seek to have followers instead of relationships, in a world where we are interested in comments rather than conversation, please stay focused.”

With an everyday wisdom gained from her own journey, Duncan urged the students to be selfless and kind; to network, set goals and constantly prepare for new challenges; and to avoid compromising shortcuts. Faith and a deep sense of purpose, she said, can carry you over hurdles and fuel a meaningful life.

It took focus for a young woman from the Barabaig community in rural Tanzania, where it is still difficult for a girl to reach the age of 14 without being married, to defy the odds. English was not her first language, but with diligence Duncan mastered and achieved academic success in it.

Duncan’s grandfather, a polygamous Barabaig chief, would not allow any of his 72 children to go to school. Her father and one of his sisters would alternate between herding cattle and sneaking to school—one of them had to remain with the cattle while the other was in class. Eventually, Duncan’s father ran away from home to a Catholic mission where he was assisted to complete his education and become a veterinary doctor. When Duncan earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Africa University in May 2004, she became the first female university graduate in her family.

In the 15 years since, Duncan has worked with street children and joined other women in her community to launch ‘Women for Change’—an organization that helps vulnerable children to become educated.

Together with a colleague, Dr. Joseph J. Kavit, a physician, Duncan helped to found Tandabui Health Access Tanzania to lead HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health projects. She attended graduate school at the University of London, earning a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in 2012.

Between 2010 and 2018, while serving as regional program manager for Pathfinder International, Duncan led efforts to provide urgently-needed maternal, child, and reproductive healthcare services in rural Tanzania. She was recognized as an “Emerging Voice for Global Health” and selected for an Eisenhower Fellowship.

“Studying at a multicultural institution taught me to collaborate with mutual respect in a pluralistic society,” said Duncan. “It taught me to acknowledge, embrace and respect differences…It has not only simplified my international job responsibilities, but also allowed me to make a significant contribution to my society.”