Prof Davy Koech: Sleeping hungry, studying in a rural school and ending up in Harvard
By Caleb Atemi
| October 16th 2021
Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech, a Harvard Professor and researcher extraordinaire survived on three meals a week, and almost lost his leg after an accident saw him spend three months in hospital under the care of cruel doctors. Part TWO of this series looks at the traumatic childhood experiences that shaped Koech’s life.
Prof Davy Koech, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Centre for clinical and molecular medicine, is a Distinguished Professor of the Australian Asian, Institute on Civil Leadership. He is a man with a long adventurous life.
In his childhood, the journey to school was always a nightmare. His tiny feet would be sore by the time he reached the grass thatched structure that served as school. Malnutrition conspired with hunger to give his thin frame a painful gait.
For years, villagers laughed at him each time he laboured up the rocky and dusty pathway. They jeered him, telling him that his head was bigger than his anatomy. He was teased and nicknamed “Monitor Lizard”.
The small boy struggled on, on his spindly legs. He learned at an early age to ignore jeering detractors. At 70, Koech believes that his life has been one of God’s wonders. From the fringes of poverty, he sneaked into academic fame, growing into a researcher extraordinaire.
He holds a higher doctorate in therapeutic philosophy from the World University in the US, a PhD degree in medical pathology specialising in immunology, awarded by the University of Nairobi but partly undertaken at the Harvard University Medical School. He is a Fulbright-Hays Scholar with an MSc degree in pharmacology. Koech is among the founding members of Africa’s leading research institution, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).
First day in school
The former Executive Director of KEMRI laughs at his first days in school. He was clad in a large khaki shirt without pants or underwear. His father carried him on his shoulders on his first journey to school to begin a long career in academia and research. However, after a few days in school, he threatened to quit if he wasn’t given proper clothes. His older sister had to deliver to him his first pair of shorts. He stayed in school. He had barely been there for two weeks when he was informed that he was due for an exam.
“The panel asked me only one question: ‘How long does it take for a maize seed to sprout?”
“Seven days! I replied ‘Amepita!’ (He has passed) They exclaimed in unison.”
The tiny boy always attracted trouble. When he was settling down to the school regime, teachers discovered he was left-handed. They went into frenzy. They claimed he was demon possessed.
“You are in a Christian school; your mother is Christian and it is ungodly to be left-handed!” One teacher shouted at the terrified boy.
They subjected him to cruelty. Beatings, torture and insults as they forced him to use his right hand. The trauma and horror remains engraved on his mind.
Encounter with a colonial school inspector
Trouble, to Koech was akin to nectar to the bee. One day a white school inspector came calling. Silence engulfed Koech’s class when the tall, lanky white man entered. Kenya was still a British colony and Mzungus were treated like demigods. He stood still, his eyes scanning the crooked, wooden desks. They finally fell on the empty desk next to Koech’s: “Good morning class,” he said.
“Good morning sir,” responded the children.
“Whose chair is this?” he posed.
Bewildered, Koech looked up. His teacher winked at him. Not comprehending the meaning of the wink, Koech muttered in a frightened voice: “Mr Kirui.”
“Where is he?”
The teacher winked even more in rapid succession.
“He is at home” Koech retorted.
“Doing what?” the Inspector prodded.
“Wife give birth!”
Koech lived to regret that moment. If only he had understood the meaning of his teacher’s frantic winking. The inspector terminated the education of Kirui; a man old enough to be Koech’s father.
Student becomes a teacher
Kirui had gone to the village to seek help for his wife’s delivery. But wonders never ceased in young Koech’s life. Kirui was later engaged as Koech’s teacher. A standard two dropout became his English teacher in classes three and four.
“Kirui told us that English was the easiest subject. All we needed to know was how to say; ‘This is a….” So, we learnt, “This is a meza, this is a debe, this is a chair and so on...”
By the grace of God, Koech passed the intermediate exams in 1959.
There were many occasions when Koech wanted to abandon school. The tribulations and struggles were too much for him to bear. His father however encouraged him. Mzee Samuel Kipkoech arap Mitei had two wives and 11 children. Koech was the third born among the seven from his mother, Mama Helen Mitei.
Nicknamed the village monitor lizard
Mzee Mitei was a strict disciplinarian. Mama Helen on the other hand was a steadfast Christian and a prayer warrior. She became an icon among villagers, a prayerful church elder and a role model.
In 1960, Koech joined Sitotwet Intermediate School. He began the 20-kilometre trek to his new school. Along the way the villagers laughed and taunted him. They laughed at the village monitor lizard.
The journey was prone to dangers posed by wild animals. Hyenas and dangerous snakes were ever present. But Mzee Mitei was determined to educate his son at any cost. He became his sole cheer leader. He made arrangements with several homes on the way to school so Koech would stop to assuage hunger or spend nights.
Mzee Mitei delivered sacks of maize to some of the homes to cater for his son’s needs. The boy was however not ready for the cruelty that awaited him in some homes. He was beaten, maltreated and denied food. He learned to sleep in barns and on verandas.
He trained his body and mind to survive on three meals a week.
“I could go for days without food. Every Monday I would eat porridge. When lucky I used five cents to buy a heavy meal of ugali and vegetables. I would then I negotiate with my stomach to stay still.”
For days he would survive on water drawn from the school tank. Since the school did not have boarding facilities, he slept in maize stores at various homes.
Oliver twist and a broken leg
The voyage to school always started under the cover of darkness. Mitei would walk with him into the safety of daybreak and only return to pick him days later at his drop off point in the bush.
There was a boy in whose barn Koech found most comfort. Despite the boy’s mother’s meanness, he, like Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, would ask for more food in order to feed his friend Koech. The food, given in great haste with cautious glances assuaged the gnawing pangs of hunger: “Davy, here eat fast.” The friend would whisper and Koech would gobble down the food.
The nasty experiences at Sitotwet Intermediate School never seemed to end. On May 10 1961, he broke his leg, a traumatic incident that inspired Koech’s career choice.
It was at night. The rains were pounding the earth and the Mitei homestead was muddy and slippery. Koech was playing in the wet part of the house. He didn’t realise there was a soaked trench into which he slipped and broke his leg.
The pain was excruciating. He cried and gnashed his teeth through the longest night of his life. Their neighbour Timothy Siele, who was the only villager with a car, drove him to hospital in the morning. He was admitted at the Kericho District Hospital. What followed were three months of misery and agony. The boy encountered some of the most impudent and cruel doctors and nurses. They were brutal. They were ruthless. They laughed and ignored his cries and wails. He lived through the worst form of medical negligence and cruelty.
“In their attempt to mend my broken bones, they subjected me to torture and inhuman treatment. Patients were treated like baggage. This sparked in me a desire to study medicine. I swore that if I became a doctor, I would treat patients with respect and love,” recalls Koech melancholically.
Inhuman treatment in hospital
The treatment procedure was archaic and painful. Doctors would push a pin through the flesh in his broken leg instead of inserting it between the bones: “They would then pull the pin using a weight. They would laugh as I screamed and wailed. When they eventually pulled the pin out after one month, it came out with flesh and blood. They then placed my leg in a plaster and hang it up. I pleaded with them not to kill me.”
One day, the skin peeled off and his leg fell onto the bed. Another doctor suggested that it be plastered up to the sole without ventilation.
“This time I talked to God. I asked him to enable walk again. I did not want my leg amputated. I promised him that if I could walk, I would change the way hospitals are managed and patients treated. God answered my prayer when I entered medical school,” Koech reminisces.
Smiling meekly, he says that while lying in the High Dependency Unit (HDU), recently after he got a heart attack, the terrible experience of 60 years ago kept replaying in his mind.
In 1964, Koech joined Kericho High School. He encountered new experience. He learned fresh survival lessons. He learned to stand up for his rights and fight off bullies. He learned the art of bravery, assertiveness and authoritativeness. He slowly embraced leadership. He became a prefect.
He went into four years of intensive study, play and adventure. Koech eventually joined Strathmore School for his ‘A’ levels. He was suddenly thrown into a new regime. A world without rules or restrictions. But a world ruled by; order, discipline, integrity and honesty.
Poverty which had vowed to put him down, pursued him to Strathmore. He struggled on without a scholarship. He couldn’t afford fees. Mzee Mitei was at his wits end. He surrendered his son to God. Koech felt ashamed. He couldn’t afford the most cherished item, the Strathmore Blazer.
Koech eventually got the coveted blazer in 2004. “An old friend and employee of KEMRI organised a surprise for me during KEMRI’s 25th Anniversary. They gave me a Strathmore blazer as a gift. I was delighted. I was overjoyed. Strathmore gave me a chance to study. I was never sent home. In fact, I cleared my fee balance many years after I started working.”
From Strathmore, Koech proceeded to the University of Nairobi. His entry to medical school was dramatic.
A Mr Waweru refused to mail his admission letter and Koech only learnt about the admission three months later. He was so furious that he hit Waweru and unplugged his telephone lines: “I told him to report the matter to the police. He never did. I later apologized to him.”
Before he knew it, he was deeply embroiled in student politics. He became Editor-in-Chief of the student magazine The Platform. He also became an adviser to the leader of the student union lawyer James Aggrey Orengo.
“Our political voices became subject of parliamentary debate. During one of the student rallies, I told a cheering crowd that a form of sleeping sickness which affected 95 percent of the South American population, also affected our leadership,” recalls Koech as he pauses to sip some wine.
With a cheeky smile, he tells me; “I can’t stop taking my favourite drink, Tusker Malt but for now, red wine will do. You know, growing up, I enjoyed lots of sports. I played hockey and loved running the marathon. You know in 1978 I participated in the Boston Marathon finishing in the 42nd position. All my life I have loved beautiful girls and a good beer.”
He pauses and goes back to the student politics. President Jomo Kenyatta heard about the rally. He ordered that the student movement be crushed.
The government unleashed terror on the campus: “I remember playing hide and seek with the police. It was in 1972. While relaxing in my room at the Krishna Hall, I learned that the policemen were coming for me. I pulled the manila line outside my window on which we hang clothes and dropped down four floors to the ground. They broke into my room as I sprinted towards Chiromo. I crossed the river and dashed into the kitchen of the International Casino. I grabbed an apron I found hanging at the door and put it on. I proceeded to wash the dishes.”
Hiding from the police
His roommate John Msafari, the former Commissioner General of the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), saw him enter and followed him into the Casino. Koech had disguised himself so well with an apron and a cap such that neither Msafari nor the policemen recognised him: “The cops searched the kitchen without uttering a word then left. I asked the bewildered kitchen staff for a glass of milk which I gulped before leaving for California estate.”
The government proscribed the student union and ordered the university closed. James Orengo disappeared into Tanzania. The students eventually crawled back to sit for exams.
Koech successfully completed his university studies and on Thursday April 18, 1974, Prof. V. Houba engaged him at the nascent World Health Organisation (WHO) Immunology Research and Training Centre at the University of Nairobi.
He studiously worked at the centre. His keenness and passion won him a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to pursue a graduate degree in pharmacy and clinical pharmacology at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, United States. He thereafter proceeded to Harvard University Medical School, Boston. On completing his studies at Harvard, Koech was offered US citizenship.
He chose to return home and pursue his dream of developing research and alleviating the suffering of patients. He has since conducted countless, research into various spheres of medicine. He returned to Kenya in June 1978. Koech resumed work at the WHO centre while completing his PhD degree in pathology with a bias in immunology at the University of Nairobi.
He looks back at his childhood and smiles. He wanted to become many things. A teacher, since that was the dream career of many a villager; a wound dresser, like his elder brother, or a traditional dentist like his mother. Mama Mitie knew how to remove teeth and repair them. She was a village legend.
Since he was very good in mathematics, he also wanted to be a banker. He admired the bankers he saw because they were always smartly dressed.
But in 1974, he joined the University of Nairobi as a tutorial fellow. He slowly drifted into research which has now taken more than half a century of his life.
He believes that the product he intends to launch will erase all the pain and tears he endured as a child growing up in the village. The taunts and the jeers only helped propel him to success.
“I live by the words of Psalm 34 which say that: Fear the Lord you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Koech soldiers on, though at a slower pace, but with the determination of steel.
I stand by my decisions
Despite being humiliated and hauled in police cells and courts, Koech says he has no regrets about his career as a public servant. He says it was a privilege to serve Kenyans and humanity.
As a CEO, he had to balance equations for the politics of the day: “In my career as a CEO, I have made my own errors in order to fit into the system of the day. I have paid a heavy price for it. I have met my own challenges and some of them have left a permanent stain on my career. If I went back to the same office, under the same circumstances, I will make the same decisions.”
After a long pause he says: “Some people in the public service die with government secrets. I’m not one of them. If I die, let me die empty. I’m going to disclose all that I have to later this year when I launch the new product.”
In Part 3, Prof Davy Koech reveals the role the late President Daniel Moi played in making KEMRI a reality and why the media is to blame for the KEMRON controversy.
The writer, Caleb Atemi, is a Biographer, Storyteller, Media Trainer and Mentor; [email protected]
Read PART ONE here:
After suffering a heart attack in old age and enduring abject poverty, calamity and sorrow in childhood, Davy Kiprotich Koech, a Harvard Professor and researcher extraordinaire is now fighting a six-year prison sentence after being convicted of corruption charges. His lawyers are seeking legal means of addressing the Sh19.6 million fine imposed on him otherwise he will go to jail at 70. This THREE PART series, tells you the story of a man who suddenly turned from a national hero, into a villain.
Read PART THREE here:
Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech looks back and reveals the pain, blood and tears that went into setting up KEMRI and why he refused to renew the patent for KEMRON, a drug KEMRI had developed to treat and manage HIV/AIDS.
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