A while back Kawira and I caught up with Dr. Muge, chair to the department of Biochemistry, and had a little chat with him about… well, just about anything that came to mind really. We got a little insight on him as a person, his thoughts on politics, experience with racism and a lot more. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Give us a brief history from your academic perspective
I joined the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Science degree with the option of taking biochemistry in 2nd year depending on the performance. I applied and successfully competed for the few chances about 20. I graduated with a 2nd upper in 1999, took a break for about a year came and back in 2000 for a masters in biochemistry. Unfortunately my research work took longer than anticipated. I graduated in April 2005, by that time I also had my PhD scholarship from BOKU University in Austria where I was also attached in Austrian research centers in a town called Seibersdorf. I finished my PhD in 2008, graduated and came back. I landed a short employment program at ICRAF who had sponsored my PhD program in Austria, worked with them briefly in 2009. Meanwhile I had applied for a position in both the University of Nairobi and Egerton University. I was successful in both. However, due to family issues, I preferred working in Nairobi. I did an interview in UoN and was successful. I started working in this department 17th June 2009. I’ve worked as a lecturer for a little over the past 5 years. Just this year, I did an interview for senior lecturer, a position I hold to date. In addition, I was appointed as the chairman to this department in August this year (2015).
How has it been, from joining the university to being a senior lecturer and now chairman of this department?
Being given responsibilities as the chair is something that was honestly a surprise to me. I would say on issues of studying and aspiring to excel academically and professionally, as a lecturer is something that is a dream I’ve always had. I was determined to reach that pinnacle of academic excellence, to make an impact in research and for that reason my aspiration was to rise up the ranks to full professor so that the idea of becoming a lecturer and working through the process of becoming a senior lecturer was within my target. I would say perhaps I’m too ambitious. I had projected within the first eight years in the university I should be an associate Prof. It’s mandatory to teach for 5 years before you are promoted to a senior lecturer in addition to supervision of students, publications and so on. As far as I was concerned that was my target to remain within the requirements of what we call the Kagiko report. However right now we also have the requirements of the commission for university education which is currently being harmonized to try and see how the two can actually be a synchronized guide on the aspects of promotion within the university. Working with what was there before, that was my ambition to be able to meet the requirements of each and every level at the requisite time.
Do you view that as a failure on your part or the system’s part, or are you well within your set targets?
I think I would say honestly if it was going to be delayed, all factors remaining constant eight years plus or minus a few months is okay. Because we all have to accept the fact that when it comes to promotions there is a protocol on how things should be done; Interviews, release of letters, it also takes a while so you can’t factor in ‘it definitely has to be five years or eight years and so on’. So to me I would work towards meeting my targets. If I miss the target by a few months it’s still okay with me, I’m well within my target.
Being in office for the short period that you have been, how have you found the challenge?
Being in office for that long I would say… I think I have an advantage. I’ve grown here as an undergrad going through the system and going through masters which was an extensively longer time which means I had a longer time knowing the department as it were. The staff in the department most of them were my lecturers my colleagues, technical staff, these are people who have seen me grow up as a student and now with me. In terms of the job being cut out for me, it was like I so much expect to have a good working relationship by virtue that it’s an environment that I’m more familiar with than being dumped into facing a challenge or familiarizing with staff. The only new people are perhaps, the students, maybe the first years, the rest of the students I’m familiar with, being a coordinator from the moment I stepped in this university. I started with masters’ class, I was a coordinator for 2nd years, 3rd years and 4th years for a very long time until recently I was coordinating 3rd and 4th years together before I got this position.
It’s not really a big challenge. However, I must say I also got a small hiccup. About a week or two after I was confirmed as chairman of the department, I lost my dad. I had not broken the news unfortunately because when it comes to issues of academics, I always preferred having a one on one chat with him. I was hoping to go home and tell him but God had other plans, may his soul rest in peace. I’m living his dream as well because he aspired we succeed in life and I’m praying to God that I’ll still keep the momentum.
Coming from a background of having teachers in the family, is it something you already did before you came to the university?
I am the last born in a family of nine and the family, sorry to say this, has lost 3 siblings, my elder sister and two brothers. So out to of the surviving six siblings, five are teachers including me. I consider myself a teacher, we only have one guy who is into public health but the rest of us are into shaping people’s lives. So I think that was a big influence, I grew up in that environment. I mean I was taught by my own sister when I was in school so those are the first motivations when imparting knowledge. Even during my long holidays as an undergrad I taught in a high school and immediately after my undergraduate I taught for 1 year into the beginning of my first semester of my masters, around September or October. I would say my career has been greatly influenced by that background. Also as much my dad never went to school, he did well in whatever he did, and when it came to issues of farming, his farm was a model farm for instructing other farmers. I mean, having been a pioneer of cash crop growing, coffee, something that no one had seen. He was a person who liked sharing knowledge and to an extent that shaped who we are.
Back to the department… how different are you from prof. Kinyanjui the previous chairman?
That I would have to leave to the history makers to determine because I think I haven’t introduced anything new, I am still running with the systems that have been established. I rely so much on my predecessor, that is, Prof Kinyanjui to guide me. We are not born administrators. We never go to any college to be taught things on administration so we rely on continuity. These are the most resourceful guys and his colleagues who also acted while Prof Kinyanjui was running the department. He knows issues of administration, also Prof Mukuria and others. These are people who help you know the ropes. The vision we are having for the department is formed from what we had seen before and perhaps it is time to implement them. I can say there will definitely be changes with time. But when you want to change something, it has to be a change that conforms to the established standards. You don’t just change a complete vector from what was already there. So even if it will eventually take a detour, it has to be conformed to the system.
Is there anything else you saw yourself doing other than lecturing? Is there any other line of career?
No , as it were, besides being a lecturer,…for anyone to be promoted… of course you can check my CV, you can do that, I think I fancy research and irrespective of my responsibilities as chairman at the moment, I think I have to pursue my research ambitions as much as I can.
Are you actively involved in any specific research currently?
Yes, I think I currently have about four MSc. Students on going; I have about five PHD students registered. One is also a member of staff, Mr. Khan who currently is in Germany for his PHD. There is also another student in France Lydia Awuor Ogonda doing her research in France. The rest are actually local, one in CEBIB, another one in Kabete and the other within the department of Biochemistry. That still informs my interest in research as well and it is one area I find interesting. That is why we encourage you guys to get into research. More so some of you who have just done basic experiments in the lab, and you would want to go on and find out different ways of doing things or understand how things work and not necessarily reading from books but looking at them from an experimental perspective. So that I would perhaps say is a core area. Our core responsibility in the university is teaching and research, though more often than not we are overwhelmed by the teaching due to the number of students to the detriment of research but we always try to find an equal footing to make sure the two do not suffer. No one wants to become a lecturer for their entire life. You would want tomorrow to become a senior lecturer then the other day become an associate then eventually a professor. The department now has about five full professors though some of them may not be actively involved in the department but are still within the department. These are pioneers who are brilliant researchers and scientists and we would really wish to emulate them.
After achieving your goal of becoming a prof do you think you will still be at the biochemistry department or will you go out and venture fully into research or something totally different?
We can’t always be certain about the future, as it were I thought I would be concentrating on my teaching as well as doing research until somebody saw it fit that I chair the department. That may be in some small way throw a spanner in the wheels. It does not necessarily impede on one’s progression but I think this is the thing that I do best and besides having other additional issues, definitely if I go home I must eat chicken from my own farm, eggs from my own farm. These are issues that I put in so as to seem to be coming from a normal family. These are essentially the normal lifestyle of every African family and must be taken into consideration. I admire family; I like family, though I wouldn’t say I’m an exceptional farmer. So I think my best service to the society is to do what I think I do best which is to me, I’m very comfortable with teaching, I’m very comfortable with supervision of students and research and I think I will concentrate on that until, well, I wouldn’t want to stay here longer than…
It is very tricky to put a limit on the time but essentially I have my goals, dreams within a particular period of time. I am hoping that at least I get my associate based on my research credentials and become a full prof through also meeting the necessary requirements. Thereafter I can still serve the country from whichever capacity I am given, but I cannot say which or maybe tomorrow I’ll become a politician, I don’t like politics. You never know how situations change and you find yourself in an almost somewhat political positions as much as is professional. But it’s an area I really shy off as much as possible. To me shaping minds, there’s nothing equivalent to it; seeing someone, molding someone to become somebody in the society.
There’s this ongoing debate that has been there for a while on GMOs. What’s your stand on it? We have several lectures involved in different researches out there including Dr. Magembe right now doing something on potatoes, do you support the ban lifting on GMOs or you shy off that area too?
My position on issues of GMOs is that I don’t have any scientific proof to show that GMOs are bad. I don’t want to talk like a politician because I want to be guided by facts. From molecular biology perspective I don’t see anything completely out of context and we are also in a learning institution if anybody has proof that there is a problem with GMOs well it is food for thought for as long as you can verify your results. Having said that I think, this is my personal opinion, we are improving on production on whatever field whether its maize, or whatever. As a country some few years ago Malawi did an intensive work on maize production and they had a surplus supply of maize for the first time without necessarily having to go GMO. In the grain basket of our country, which is the western part of Kenya, I don’t think if the farmers were facilitated they would not be in a position to supply us with adequate maize to run this country and surplus for export.
Now we are talking about a 1000 acre project in Galana. If it is well managed and if we take forty bags per acre, how much maize will we produce? So am thinking honestly it is not going to be a panacea if we went GMO. It’s not necessarily going to solve our problem as well, but I’m also a proponent of safeguarding our germplasms, how good are we in taking care of our germplasms? From whichever environment, whether we are talking about crops or animals. There are definitely going to be changes at the moment but even the changes that we are effecting that are impacting on us, whether informed by climate change; we need something we can fall back to as our original germplasm. I’ll tell you for instance a lot of research especially with the world agroforestry research, they are keeping seed banks from all over the world, so I think we need to understand how dynamic the system is because again, is our problem production? The answer is yes, we don’t produce as much as we need to produce. Are we putting in incentives enough to ensure that we produce maximally? The answer is no, right? Is post-harvest a problem to us? The answer is yes, right? But then again even if we produce maize that’s resistant to certain weevils etcetera and our production is poor, looking at the economies of scale it would be a zero-sum game. I think as much as the focus is on GMO we should look back at our system, how it’s structured in terms of sustainable production and incentives to farmers to help them produce. Most of these countries, like the US for instance, can produce GM maize but what are they using it for? Not for human consumption, for biodiesel production and so on. So why is it that before we never used to have this particular problem? In a nutshell, I have no problem with GMO. It’s a brilliant way of doing things however I don’t think it’s a solution to our problems.
So as a country we need to first exploit what we have…
I think we need to exploit what we have honestly. Provide systems for those farmers wherever they are. Why is it that up to this 21st century, these guys in southern Sudan are producing fast growing sugarcane, they are actually fast maturing sugarcane. We still produce sugarcane that takes two years to mature and then we complain that we don’t have enough sugar, really? Even if we go GMO for our sugarcane will it solve our problems? No. This is one of the most brilliant countries; it has some of the most brilliant scientists. Do you know how many varieties of beans and maize are produced? Do we market them? Are we really using them? So I think we are looking outside instead of harnessing the resources we have. The moment we look inside rather than looking outside I think this country would make a better impact.
Does that go a bit against the department because most of biochemistry is centered towards moving that direction?
It doesn’t, that’s why I’m saying I have no problem. Let’s not look at it like it’s the utopia. We will get there but we’ll still be confronted with small issues, tiny hiccups will still cripple us even with the perfect GM plant. If we don’t look at some of the surrounding challenges we are having it will not solve our problem. Yes I think it’s a good thing and I’m happy with it but let’s not fail to produce because we are coming up with a GM plant. Let’s continue producing, let’s look for an alternative way of producing this crop so that it comes seamlessly. You are high producers so you are just simply changing, because you have established systems that ensure high production. So even if you are using a GM plant or native plant you still have systems that ensure you have bumper harvest irrespective of environmental factors, so to me molecular biology is not always about GMOs.
What is your life defining moment? One that you can say truly shaped you.
Wow…! Life defining moments… now I don’t know whether that’s a life defining moment. I must admit that I was a frustrated student at masters’ level. I think I had taken unduly long comparatively but I’m not really worse off. I must also say that God works in mysterious ways because yes I would have finished on the time in two years but I don’t know what would have happened to me. I don’t want to think about that because I would never live to see it happen. But while I was still busy trying to think about a project and what to do next after masters because that was a reality check, yes I’m going to graduate soon because I had actually finished my work. What next? So while we were still looking around, I was pushing my supervisor to get something for me. This advert just came in from ICRAF looking for a PhD student and I think when I applied for it I was not so sure because the technique that was to be applied was completely strange to me. I had never done micro arrays before so I think the fact that I was successful for the interview to be chosen to undertake that research in a medicinal plant was one of those life defining moments because here I was going home, going for my homecoming party after my masters. People are wondering ‘what next are you going to do?’ And immediately after that I was telling them I was flying out of the country in a week’s time and people were tongue tied. I specifically didn’t tell them that. I’d never thought that I would actually fly, I mean how? The kinds of lifestyle for a postgraduate student…, ask around and you’ll really find out how challenging it can be. It’s not usually a cup of tea more so if you have some of these scholarships. They are very good but at times they make you have very tight budgeting skills. You have to make sure you make ends approach, they never meet for as long as they are seen moving in the same direction you’re content at least somewhere along the way they may or may not meet. To me that was a life defining moment because for one, I was flying out of the country and two, I was going to a country that I was simply reading on papers. Something that okay I am going to see the world from a different perspective and it’s not just a single visit but I was going to be there, live there, work there and do research there. It was something exemplary and it also opened up my mind to appreciate people from different cultures. Now I understand the difference between a French person, a German and Dutch. When someone says they are from Korea, Japan and the others. We all met in this small melting pot called Austria and it’s a very beautiful country. It’s something I look back on with a lot of nostalgia.
I see the Holy Bible on your book rack, how religious are you?
I’m religious to the extent that I believe my life is guided by the almighty God. I’m a prayerful person, I do pray daily. As to how many times that varies but I was brought up in a Christian background and to Christian virtues. I believe God is behind everything that happens in my life and I am who I am because of him and that he guides the steps of every person who wants to believe and trust in him. I am here not of my own making, okay I’m not preaching to you but that’s how I view things. I’m not here by accident but it’s simply because God had seen that at the very moment like this I should be here to do a b c and of course everything that happens is through God’s will.
Do you have any frustrating moment you had, that still sticks in your head?
One of the most frustrating moments happened in 2005. There was a terrorist attack, I don’t know where it was but basically the entire Europe was on alert and here I was with an Indian friend, a German friend and two Italian friends. As we were walking around from one point to another on an underground train and here we are, we are stopped by this police officer and we are told to pull out our passes. We complied. He specifically picked my passport and thoroughly scrutinized it. After confirming the picture wasn’t just glued on he returns it and tells us to leave. That was something that caught me off guard and probably hit me like a thunder bolt. The second case of racism I encountered was when I was going to Germany via the Czech Republic. When using the train, at the Austrian border the Czech patrol come in to escort the vehicle through the check point to the German border post till the Germans take over all the while checking passports; so it’s like Austria, Czech then Germans. So one of the officers from Czech republic went through my passport and for whatever reason she had problems with it, she asked for all manner of any photos I had because apparently she thought the photo on my passport was not genuine this lasted for the trip across the Czech republic lasting a few hours until the border post of Germany. A single look by the German official, he just simply told the lady ‘this document is okay’ and he apologized. So it came to me that in certain areas you have to qualify who you are, just being who you are is not enough. Being a human being as you think you are someone wants you to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you are actually human and you are worth being in their country. Yeah those were some of the most frustrating moments and at some point you ask yourself ‘why did I have to go to Germany?’ You realize these are normal challenges. A third time, again still about racism that… I was almost left by a plane to Vienna, why? Because somebody somewhere wanted me to confirm who I am, why I was going to Austria and for how long I was going to be in Austria. Even with the university ID indicating that I was a PHD student he wanted me to tell him in brief what kind of research I was actually doing. I felt belittled but again you’re in other people’s country so you have to comply. At some point I asked, ‘can I open my laptop and give you a presentation?’
Those are some of the things that make you realize that you are not at per with other people as much as you are competing with them on a level academic ground. To them you have to prove why you are in a particular country and things like that. So I think those are some of the most frustrating things that I really look back at, among many others. You said a few.
What advice would you give us?
Good things take a while to mature, you need to incubate them for a while and if you don’t have patience in life you may get really frustrated. ‘Safiria nyota yako’ in Swahili. Let you be guided by your own star. Don’t live a lie for somebody else if you think that’s not who you are. Yes we are having millionaires at twenty something there’s nothing wrong with that but please look at your steps, and the possibility of you being a millionaire and reality without living a dream that is not worth living. You may want to learn to start getting money but is money going to be the ultimate thing you want in life. Are you the kind of person that would rather cry in a Mercedes than smile on a bicycle? The issue is good things take long and that whatever I’m doing I’m happy with it. Somebody else’s highs may be something horrible but I’m not complaining, right? But at the end of the day right now for you guys if you look at the academia it takes a while to reap the fruits of the academics. Biochemistry is just an introduction; your basic degree is just an introduction. It starts you up, opens your mind and you can be who you want to be, not necessarily a biochemist. Of course we would be happy if you became a biochemist but if you succeed in anything else who says that’s a wrong thing? Let this simply be an eye opener, let’s begin to look at life from a mature perspective not from a simplistic point of view. Get to realize you need to advance in your academics. I know it may be a bit expensive but try as much as possible to add more knowledge. I would rather be more knowledgeable than be a fool with a lot of money. Of course we all want money but let’s balance the two, have something that when challenged tomorrow by your child… at your level honestly, I’m not sure you’d convince your children explaining why you never got your masters and PHD because right now we are looking at PHD like you’ll almost get the job. Times are coming that with that PHD you’ll still have to toil. So what’s the future for you guys if you anticipate in stopping at your undergrad? Good things take long to mature, be patient incubate them very well and you’ll come to reap the fruits.
You’ve been a coordinator for a while, which class would you say has been your favorite?
Honestly every class that I have coordinated has always amazed me
That’s a diplomatic answer…
No, no, no… I would say this without fear of contradiction. At the end of every academic year with the class that I’m coordinating we always get in sync to an extent that I look at these students like… virtually at the beginning I used to know the names of these students because I’m the one who takes most of your complains, when it comes to the projects, I was at the fore front in terms of judgment, administering exams etc. Every class comes with very unique individuals and talents. What captures my attention most is students who are really focused but I must add that the current fourth year class (class of 2016) is a class that has come in after a very long time…, even from the first year we saw the uniqueness of this class. The students were not shy to say it as it is. These are students who interacted with all and sundry. We didn’t have this curtain dividing the academia and students. These are people who interacted with us in a manner that I think it’s something that would take a very long time to find a similar class. For once I would be picked by a student if I delayed two minutes for a lecture. Before people would just wait in class even fifteen minutes in. I’m not exaggerating; you can ask any other lecturer. It’s a class that, meeting any student they projected a state of normalcy and not an element of fear. Not that they are disrespectful but there is a very good rapport between the staff and you guys. It’s a unique class for that matter. In addition to that, there are very good performers in the class and those who are straining, you can see they are putting in a lot of effort. So far I haven’t had disciplinary cases. It’s unique in that over the years, I don’t know how many classes or students have even thought of having such a one on one chat with the chairman of the department. It’s the same class that surprised me by calling me to the garden to give a talk; I think you also dragged out professor Nguu. That’s something out of the blues. I think you changed the way some of us perceive students and we would wish that students have that openness in terms of expressing themselves in a manner that makes us look at you as our younger siblings. You have helped bridge that gap between students and lectures. Knowing our background is also good to inform your success because some of us struggled just like anybody else. And with all these unique backgrounds you can shape your future.