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Prof Were: From high school teacher, to medic and a Nobel peace prize nominee

 

Nobel Peace nominee Prof. Miria Were at her residence in Nairobi, days after she was informed of her nomination. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Kenya’s Prof Miriam Khamadi Were has been nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW).

Dr Joyce Ajlouny, the General Secretary of AFSC describes Prof Were’s work on community-based health initiatives around the world as powerful and essential for building a just and peaceful future adding that over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the critical importance of public health policy and global health equity.

“It is an honour to have the opportunity to nominate Prof Miriam Were for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Dr Ajlouny. “Some of the outstanding efforts have facilitated the uptake of health initiatives among them the most vulnerable people, including efforts of Covid-19 vaccination, where she has worked tirelessly for the multi-layered complexity of health innovation among populations with limited access to health education and information.”

The Nobel Peace Prize 2022 nominee did not imagine herself getting nominated for such a prize, and even though her dream of becoming a doctor started late in life, she didn’t let her age, or marriage not deter her.

Her dream of becoming a medical professional started back when she was in Class Eight in 1956. Then, she aspired to join The Alliance School which every bright student dreamt of, but she was disappointed when she was instead called to join Butere Girls in 1957 which was a newly established school at that time.

To her, the road to achieving her dreams seemed to have been closed because, at the time, the school was not well equipped with laboratories so she ended up doing Biology as the only science subject.

In her early years in high school, she would attend youth camps organised by the Friends Church, and a nurse at the camp would always be there to treat wounds on young people’s legs.

“People walked barefoot and so they would always have wounds on their legs. The nurse would ask for a volunteer to wash their legs, and I would be the one to wash them,” says the professor.

At the end of high school, the nurse asked her if she would want to be a medic but she had no knowledge of science.

Therefore the missionaries organised for her to study in the United States of America to join The Liberal Arts College.

Prof Were started studying on her own, graduated with a science degree, and was later admitted to Makerere University to study teaching after which she was employed as a chemistry and science teacher in high school.

 

A section of Makerere University. [File, Standard]

She was posted to Eastleigh High School, which at that time had mixed races, and she was shocked to find very many sick students.

She would take the sick children to a nearby hospital where the medics were mostly Asian nurses. One day, she took two students, an Asian who had a cold and a very sick African.

“The doctor examined the Asian child but ignored the African student. She just prescribed aspirin. This happened many times,” she recalls. This prompted her to pick the admission forms for medical school at the University of Nairobi because she had seen how difficult it was for Africans to access health.

She joined medical school in 1967 when she was a wife and a mother; at that time she had two children.

What surprised her is she did not find it as difficult as she had been made to believe, attributing it to her passion for good health for her community.

After completing her course, she was advised by the Dean of Medical School to begin teaching at the institution under the department of Community Health since she had shown great interest in it during her internship.

In 1994, she joined the institution as a teacher in community health and this made her feel that her teaching profession had not been wasted.

The doctor said that this was the beginning of achieving her dreams of becoming a medical professional as she was involved in community health and had helped begin public health departments in several universities.

When she had wanted to do her Masters in Public Health, she discovered that there were no teachers at that time. She reached out to her colleagues in the field who already had Masters from other institutions to be part-time teachers.

“I worked with the University of Liverpool and the University of London to second teachers to the University of Nairobi. The WHO helped to establish the department of public health and in 1983, the Masters class in Public Health at the University of Nairobi was started with only nine students,” said Prof Were.

 

The University of Nairobi. [File, Standard]

Her passion for establishing public health institutions in universities did not stop at Kenya as she managed to establish a Masters of Public health Program at the University of Addis Ababa.

Prof Were says that her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize means that people have recognised the importance of working with people to empower them and giving them information to change their life.

She believes that she would not have achieved this without the support of her husband whom they have been married for 56 years now.

Humphreys Rabando Were is currently a farmer in Western Kenya and has helped organise communities to tackle the poor state of their food security.

In 1995, together with Prof Were, they established the Uzima Foundation which for close to 10 years was organising youth clusters for skills training.

According to him, they have grown together in helping people to grow.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Friends Service Council and AFSC in 1947 on behalf of Quakers worldwide for their work during and after the two world wars to feed starving children and help Europe rebuild.

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