Lillian Gogo: Why I took my PhD to the village
Dr Lillian Gogo has a close relationship with time. She wears two black smart watches, one on each hand. Explaining why would require a whole other interview and would take all day, she tells me.
In short, though, one is a prayer watch, while the other is a regular watch and both are linked to her phone. That way, she is able to keep close tabs on time and on what she needs to do, such as, as I discover later, waking up at 2.30am to study.
"I have a very high sense of focus when doing what I want to do," she says. "When I purpose to do something, I give it my best shot. I do it like I don’t have any other time to do it."
As we speak in her office, I find myself thoroughly intrigued by her laser sharp focus and her firm and assertive, yet jovial personality. She has just celebrated her birthday the previous day (October 11) turning 48. Dressed in a red power suit, she cuts the image of someone who means business. She laughs a lot and easily, yet never loses her professional tone.
Before getting elected as Rangwe Member of Parliament on her very first attempt, and making history by being the first woman ever elected to the position in that constituency, Gogo was a lecturer at Egerton University. She also earned her three degrees there, eventually earning her PhD in Food Science.
It was an incredible feat, as she was the first of 14 siblings to not only stay in school, but also graduate. She is the eighth of 14 siblings, the first born on her mother's side.
She might have gotten her grit from her mother, who went back to school, Class 1, when she was 63 years old.
"She went to school for five years up to class five. And then she dropped out because she started ailing. She got high blood pressure. And I think her husband had been a very good inspiration for her to go to school but I saw her really dwindle after the loss of my father. So she dropped out at Standard 5," she says.
Gogo and her siblings would even visit their mother during parents' day at school.
"It was really a nice experience which she has denied us now!" she says with a laugh at the pleasant memory. "I hope she decides to go back. That lady is very bright. Even with the little time she spent in school, she now knows how to read, she knows how to write and she talks to you in English."
Her father, however, has been the biggest influence on her life. He was a prison warden who, noting the young girl's precociousness, had very high hopes for her.
"For some reason I just wanted to go to university. I didn’t know what university was all about but I wanted to go to the university to please my father," she says.
At that time, Egerton had just been elevated from a college to a university college.
"He kept telling me, 'See, there are so many universities and none of my children has gone to the university'. So he kept encouraging me to go."
But such a large family on a prison warden's salary meant that life was tough. Gogo would wake up at 3am to fetch water at a pond, her uniform was usually in tatters until the headmaster of the school she was in intervened, and she often collapsed in school due to hunger.
"Absolute hunger," she says. "Not having eaten for a few days."
The milk that former President Moi's government used to distribute in schools was a lifesaver.
"I thank God for Nyayo milk. When Nyayo milk came it literally saved us. I was brought up on it. At some point, my primary school headmaster made me the office girl so that I could take some milk because I was very emaciated," she says.
Her innate drive prevailed.
"Even through all that I was a very jovial girl. I didn’t realize what I was going through, so I would just enjoy life, wanting to read. I didn’t think about the poverty. I didn’t give it eminence," she says.
Because of all this, her defining moment, the moment her life's purpose became crystal clear was the moment she got her PhD.
"In those days, when graduating with PhDs, your supervisors would hold your hands on each side and then you walk to the front and you are given the award and robed in front of everybody.
"As that was happening, the band was playing, for me alone. And the whole of Egerton has stopped. But in all of it, as that was happening, I saw the power of education. Then I asked myself, “What do I want to do with this education?'”
In that moment, it came to her: take it to the village. The cities already had enough PhDs. It was the villages that needed such expertise the most. And that, she has in spades.
"I did food safety and security. I characterized meat products. I was working on the safety of cured meat, looking mainly at the curing process. They use what we call nitrites and nitrates," she says, and then for a moment delves into the details.
"Nitrites and nitrates are kind of carcinogenic, though the levels that are used in food processing are recommended as safe. If you look at sausages, they are normally pink in colour. That is a chemical reaction. They are preserved using nitrites and nitrates. I chose to get the nitrites and nitrates from a natural source that is mild in content. I used sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage…"
I probably look lost at this point because she stops herself. "That is complicated science!" she says with a laugh. “I’m harassing you.”
With such scientific expertise, why did she leave her lecturing job at Egerton University for politics? As it turns out, it is difficult to make the kind of difference she was aiming for, especially in the village where she wanted to.
"As a lecturer or most other positions, you can only do so much. But when you do it as a politician, you do it from a position of influence. The influence of the power of the vote. As a politician, I am able to serve from a position of influence and this is what drove me.
"I serve my community, but with their authority. When that happens, it makes work easier. Doors open easily and you are able to do what you are not able to do in other positions. That is the essence of politics."
It is an insanely busy and demanding job in itself, but she is also studying Law, she has a family, married to Dr Kennedy Gogo, a consultant oncologist and senior lecturer at Egerton University and is a mother of four daughters.
After our interview, she will join the hustle and bustle of taking two of her daughters back to school. She says that her family, who are the core of her support system, has enabled her to do what she does.
She met her husband when she was a first year student at Egerton, in 1992. He was a lecturer at the time.
"We met at Egerton definitely," she says, laughing shyly and looks flustered at the memory.
"We first met in a matatu. He was a lecturer and I was a student. I was going to school, he was going to work. So we met! A number of times," she says.
She would ignore him every time.
"But eventually when I really met him was when I had gone to hospital, at the sanatorium in Egerton University. He was on duty that day and I was unwell. And then he said I was not that sick. I quarreled him a lot and he calmed me down!" she says, laughing heartily. "And he said, ‘This wild one! I want to tame her.'"
They got married in 1995 and officiated the wedding in 1998.
"In relationships of love and relationships of life, you take it one day at a time. Family life is good and interesting," she says. "A love relationship between a husband and a wife is something worth trying because it is from the family that we get a community. The stability of the nation depends on the family."
Ever focused, she is determined to keep going, motivated by the next big service
"I want to do something else which I have not done. So for me to reach there, then I must keep going. I have targets which I must meet. Once I have met those targets, then I set others."
Her plans for the future?
"I hope I get positions to serve. I don’t know exactly what God wants me to do, but I have this interesting feeling that God still wants to use me to serve Kenyans at whatever position he is going to give me.
"I’m only positioning myself rightfully by getting an education, sourcing experience and interacting with people to get the right networks and links. Then I should be able to serve."
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