I had deep craving to achieve the very highest levels of education from very early on.
Having failed to get the qualifying grades to enable me pursue medicine at the University of Nairobi, I took the second option and went to Pune, India to pursue my BSc majoring in Zoology. My career trajectory is well narrated in my blog: http://yoroguyo.co.ke/2020/05/10/a-man-of-many-worlds/
On completion of my undergraduate training in India in mid 1982, I was employed as an Animal Husbandry Officer II with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development and posted to the National Beekeeping Station. It is here that I received close research training and mentorship under the hands of the late Professor Isaac Kirea Kigatiira. It is through his training that I was better prepared to take on a life-long career in research. The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) came through at a critical time in life by appointing me in late 1984 to take on a postgraduate research training leading my doctoral training at the Auckland University.
My journey to get me `down under’ was rather convoluted. The remit of my contract with ICIPE was clear. I was expected to study mass-rearing of insects working in the insectary of the world-famous scientist and insect rearing guru, Dr. Pritam Singh located in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Mt. Albert, Auckland, New Zealand. My Professor at the University of Auckland was to be the Head of Department of Zoology, Professor Euan C. Young. I was expected to report by February 1985 when the new academic year would commence. It did not happen until later in September 1985. I was later informed that my letter of admission had been dispatched to my postal address located in Ronald Ngala Road in downtown Nairobi. We shared the postal box with my brother Kenneth and my friend Bosco ole Sambu.
To cut a long story short, the university resent me invitation letters and requirements to enter New Zealand (NZ). I was required to take on a mandatory health examination (including syphilis) and obtain a certificate of good conduct. Those days, New Zealand faced an embargo due to its ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa. The consulate that dealt with visa matters for Kenya was in Greece. It appeared that I might need to travel to the northern hemisphere in order go to the southern half of the globe. Luckily for me, a midway solution was arrived at and I was requested to travel to the NZ embassy in Singapore to present my passport and obtain my student visa.
I proceeded to Auckland through Australia to begin my postgraduate research life. There were very few Africans there, more so Kenyans. There were people with dark skins, but they originated from elsewhere for example the Solomon Islands. The first Kenyan fellow I met was a Ph.D. engineering student from the University of Nairobi who was studying geothermal energy. Auckland University is a premier institution with a very well-known institute of geothermal studies. Every year, several Kenyans joined the nine-month diploma course at the institute. He and I lived at the Park Road University Flats. He warned me not to associate with a Kenyan lady whom he considered to be a radical activist. Formerly known as Millie Kiarie when she used to work for the Voice of Kenya (VoK). She had by then shed off her past names and was now known as Wanjiku and married to an actor and filmmaker, the late Martyn Sanderson. I did not heed that advice since I wanted to learn more about film and meet `real people. Wanjiku and Martyn welcome me to their home, and I became a regular at their house. It is through my association with them, and having realized my Ph.D. was on an entomology project, the decided to nickname me `Professor Cockroach’.
Sojourn in Auckland provided me an opportunity to meet unique people who have made a valuable impact in my life. Foremost of them is one Architect Kigara Kamweru of the University of Nairobi. It is discussions that we held whilst as students `Down-Under’ that initiated my thinking to form the ProPerArt network that Kigara now chairs in Kenya. Others that I was privileged to meet include Victor Ponoesele (‘Mukhulu’ from Botswana), a lively Māori lady named Pepi, Barbara, Shelley, Chris Winks, Graeme Clare, etc. I was also fortunate to meet Shanny and Nicholas Mtui of Tanzania. I traveled moderately, especially on the North Island, visiting Hamilton and Lake Taupo, Hamilton, etc.
I was passionate about my studies. I was initially registered for an MSc degree which was later commuted to a Ph.D. due to my sterling performance in the first-year taught courses. The founding director of ICIPE, the late Professor Thomas R. Odhiambo was very supportive of my application and approved for continued sponsorship.
My nightmare began there. I was required to develop a Ph.D. proposal and make a departmental seminar presentation. My choice of topic a peculiar moth found that is found in NZ called the black lyre leaf roller’Cnephasia’ jactatana (Walker). The moth was fast becoming a pest on export Kiwifruit and apples. Target markets in places such as Japan needed to be convinced that this was adequately controlled and could not be exported to these countries.I thought I did a good job. The feedback was devastating. The proposal was found to be a rude amalgamation of the collection of vast biological data on the entomological species. It lacked research merit, intellectual content for the Ph.D. topic, with no contribution to new knowledge, and was considered so inferior to be a technician’s brief. This indictment speaks volumes of the training that we provide for our research technicians. This is one of the reasons why not many of them transit to becoming research scientists!
My belly was full of butterflies. I was very scared. It appeared I was not capable of thinking and developing a well thought doctoral topic and may be discontinued and sent packing back to my home country without a valued doctoral degree. It seemed that the ogre of my A-level was back and I was about to be ditched.
I must applaud the sustained mentorship that I received from Pritam Singh and Euan Young to change the course. I burnt the candles, spent long hours in the lab and library, corresponded with many other researchers. After a long time of soul seeking, praying, working through Christmas and other holidays, I was able to come back with a more acceptable PhD-level question. My approved thesis was titled Aspects of life cycle, biological performance and quality of the black lyre leaf roller ‘Cnephasia’ jactatana (Walker) and was able to produce seven peer-reviewed papers published in international journals. This is how my research career was restored.
It was not always gloom and gnashing of teeth. We enjoyed the nightlife at Queen Street, Quay, Karangahape Road (commonly known as K’ Road)! watched the All Blacks play world-class rugby, etc. We met many friends from all over, Fiji, Samoa, of Maori origin. We enjoyed Steinlager beer and many other excellent ales.
It was while doing my research project at the insectary located in DSIR, Mt. Albert that I met a beautiful lady from Samoa. She was part of the janitorial staff who would come to clean the labs in the evening. We became close friends. I took her out for a drink and she brought her Māori boyfriend along who I later came to know that had been released from prison that morning! The guy was a tattooed chain smoker and who seemed pleased to hear that I came from Kenya. He was full of praises for the Mau Mau movement. I was cowed and looking for an opportunity to dart off. The chance came when he said he wanted to go to a nightclub with his lady, but he would require some good leather shoes and not the tattered sports shoes he wore. I gladly acquiesced and parted with my black shoes in exchange for his foul-smelling ones. That was the end of that romance!
It is while in New Zealand that I developed, wrote, and won the BBC African Theatre award for my Play `Beer…’ This was among the very first stories to be told about the HIV/AIDS scourge in Africa.