In 2013, my first encounter with the majesty of Africa awakened an inextinguishable curiosity within me. At 6:10 in the morning Zambia welcomed me with a most illuminating sunrise. I dropped into my breath; I was awakened to the experience of boundless optimism in my body. My new Zambian context reminded me of the first nine years of my life spent in Romania. I felt I was connecting with a part of myself lost after immigrating to the United States.
Subsequent years would ensure month-long stints back to Zambia focused on the HIV prevention research that had brought me there in the first place. On each return, I searched for more purposeful connections. Zambia was a far cry from the bureaucracy I was entrenched in while working in a highly politicized work environment on Capitol Hill.
By 2016, I was operating in overdrive to identify a challenge that ‘made me tick’. Ultimately, the preeminent challenge that stoked the flames of my passion was to relocate to Zambia full time and work on HIV vaccine efficacy Clinical Trials.
What I underestimated at the time was how poignantly this decision would impact my personal development, how fundamentally it would shape my worldview, and how significantly it would redirect my path.
Among other demands, randomized controlled Clinical Trials require consistent agility, prudence in management of human and financial resources, and a sound methodology. Specifically, in a context like Zambia, I needed to adopt a tenacious resourcefulness for developing innovative strategies and strengthening capacity. This aided the delivery of quality, efficacious data-driven results with highest ethical standards in practice.
I knew I had to nourish my mental and physical fortitude if I was going to be successful at: contributing positively to the Zambian community; exemplifying excellence in the fast paced, results-driven work environment I had just entered. Clinical Trials are ‘The Olympics’ of biomedical and behavioral research. I knew I was privileged to be part of this valuable work.
To achieve this focus, I merged two successful ingredients on a daily basis: high intensity exercise ⎯ for the experience of herculean achievement; and community ⎯ for the collective resilience. Like all good ideas, this was conceived over a braai, an African barbeque. I expressed to a new Zambian friend my affinity for cross training as a mechanism for building mental toughness and physical stamina. We spoke about exercise as a way of life, a journey dedicated to holistic health. I was invigorated by my companion’s energetic next response: “Come, let’s work out at my place, I will invite my friends and you can lead us through some exercises!”
The following evening after work, I found myself ready to sweat in a tropical backyard engulfed by the sunset’s hues of red, orange, and purple. Resolute in our resourcefulness, we used bricks for weights, towels for mats, and the entire yard for sprints. After a series of lively meet-ups and growth in popularity, we came to call ourselves, ZamFIT (Zambia Fit).
ZamFIT began as a necessity: to strengthen mental and physical fortitude in my approach to challenges unique to living in a new country and navigating a new career. It was not long until ZamFIT took on a life of its own. The ZamFIT community engendered a high-powered, strong-willed desire to redefine presupposed limitations on how far our bodies ⎯ and our minds ⎯ could take us. Our display of persistence throughout each workout was fueled by our spirit of community.
Each one of us enriched the atmosphere with humor, compassion, intelligence, diverse beliefs, and a willingness to confront our fears of the uncomfortable. We embraced this energy as a vessel to elevate our performance. Members of the ZamFIT community became my advisers, confidants, mentors, and best friends.
Thank you, Zambia and my devoted friends, colleagues, and mentors for your teachings.
Through meaningful encounters, you have collectively defined what it means to hold tight, to have grit, to focus the effort, and to never give up. Most of all, you taught me that owning and embracing a deep curiosity, setting an unwavering dedication to the process, and leading with kindness is what separates the good from the great.