Prof Miriam Were made believers out of many doubting Thomases in her day. And the naysayers were many.
Despite having so many notches on her belt, Prof Miriam Were is a lot humbler than I imagined. The 80-year-old is a professor, medical doctor and former Moi University chancellor. These are only a few of the numerous roles she has held.
When she meets me at her gate, she is all smiles. Dressed in her signature African print dress with a matching head wrap, she is incredibly warm, which I realise is a family trait when I meet her daughter, Evelyn, in the sitting room.
Laughing, Evelyn confirms that indeed, she has been told before that they are a loud family. “I would call it a fun family,” I respond.
Prof Were asks if I would prefer to do the interview outside, to which I oblige. We settle on the corridor, facing a flower bed that she tells me she had planted vegetables in, but birds made quick work of it and she decided to turn it into a flower bed. “Apparently, birds like sukuma wiki but not flowers,” she says.
Two hours into the interview, I still feel like we have barely scratched the surface of her life. It has been a long journey; her career like a tree with many branches, each offshoot as fascinating as the one above it.
She is still as sharp as a tack, recalling and describing events from the past, some from before Kenya’s independence, in such vivid detail that it might as well have happened just yesterday.
As a child, she dreamed of working in health and teaching. “My interest in health work was from my youth,” she says.
“I grew up in a community where hygiene was really emphasised as part of the Christian faith in the Friends’ Church. There were hardly any cases on diarrhoea in our village. Children didn’t die in our village, but they kept dying in all the other villages of diarrhoea and many other things.
“So I used to ask my mum, why does God love our village and not the other village? And my mother would tell me, ‘No, it is because of what we do. You must wash your hands, you must prepare your food properly.’ That is how I realised that our actions affect our health. So I got very interested in health, but I also got very interested in teaching because I realised that as a teacher I would be able to tell people these things.”
Someone else also noticed her natural affinity for taking care of people. A nurse would come by about twice a year to wash and treat the feet of the children in the community. “We were all barefoot, so people’s feet would get sick often. Every time she asked who would like to wash people’s feet, I would always volunteer to do it.”
“I did my KAPE (Kenya African Preliminary Examination) in 1956 – before your grandparents were born!” she says. KAPE was the exam for Africans.
Back then, she says, all African girls looked forward to going to Alliance High School. She qualified, but many others did too. “We were told that girls from Nyanza had done so well that the government had decided to establish a high school in Western to take them in,” she says.
The new high school was Butere Girls. She was among the first crop of 18 girls to sit Form Four examination here, with all of them passing the then Cambridge School Certificate exam.
At that time, the University of Nairobi was known as Royal Technical College. “It was only offering A-levels so that students could go to the United Kingdom or to Makerere University, which was the only university college here, affiliated to the University College of London,” she says.
As the dream to go to Nairobi for the first time flourished in her mind, another idea in someone else’s mind was coming to fruition. The nurse who had observed her willingness to treat people had come to the conclusion that she would do well in health work and passed the idea along.
Missionaries, having noted her sterling performance at Butere Girls, offered her the chance to study in the United States. She said no, to the bewilderment of everyone there.
“My mother had died when I was beginning Form Two and it had really affected me. America was too far. What if my father died while I was there and I didn’t even make it to his funeral?”
She could not stand the thought, but her father reassured her that as a person of faith and prayer, he would pay that if she went to the US, she would come back and find him alive after four years.
When the missionaries came back the next day, they were relieved to find that she had agreed, and handed her a letter of admission to William Penn College, Iowa, USA, the first ever African student there.
Encounter with racism
She was a curiosity to the rest of the students there. “I had grown up believing that I was made in the image of God, so I just saw it as ignorance. My approach has always been that what I am is not dependent on what other people say,” she says.
The racists stopped being vocal (though actions did not reveal a change of heart) after she stood up for herself against one of the particularly nasty ones, and when it became clear she was one of the best students. She was on the Dean’s Honour roll throughout her schooling.
On graduating in 1964, she was named as one of the ‘who is who’ among graduating students, placing her in the top three per cent in all American colleges.
“We should never underestimate ourselves. With opportunity we are capable of doing so much,” she tells me.
The United States also gave her something else – someone else – the love of her life, Humphreys R. Were, an Agriculturist. He had gone there for his masters in Agriculture in 1964 and when he came back in 1966, he asked her to marry him.
He is now 84 and they have been married 54 years, as of December 24. “For our 50th anniversary we really celebrated, but this time we were so busy harvesting maize that we forgot! I reminded him and he went across to the shop and bought lime juice, so we celebrated by drinking lime juice,” she says with a smile.
Fifty-Four years is nothing to sneeze at, so I ask what the secret to such a long-lasting marriage has been. “Listening to each other,” she says. “Being forgiving. Being fair and supportive to each other. Discuss frustrations even when you can’t do anything about it. Surprisingly, sometimes a solution comes up just by sharing.”
It was also in the US that she met another student who became her very good friend, Nobel Laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai.
On graduating, her adviser told her to apply for medical school, but that would have meant spending another five years without going home, as flying to and fro was prohibitively expensive. She came back to Kenya in 1965 with the help of the Kenyan office at the United Nations.
She was hoping to study Medicine at Makerere University, but the Teachers Service Commission had just been established and Kenya was looking for science teachers. She took this path.
“There was a new programme that had been established by commonwealth countries called Teachers for East Africa. You would study at Makerere for one year and they would pay your salary in full for that year.”
While teaching Chemistry, Biology and Physical Education, she had ended up at Eastleigh Secondary School, which was in the process of being Africanised, as schools were still racially divided at the time. She was the second African teacher in the school.
Rekindling an old dream
“Eastleigh’s surroundings were a slum. Asian boys would be dropped to school but Africans were walking. I found myself back in the old days of dirty feet. I was really shocked because the African children were really sick. All Africans were getting below 50 per cent in class.
“An Asian teacher said it was because Africans couldn’t to science. He said that to me, an African science teacher,” she says, incredulously, while also hilariously repeating what the teacher said, in his accent.
“The children were very sick,” she says. “You would see one with pus in his ears, another one with a boil under his arm, another one with pus on his legs. I went to the headmaster, who told me to write a letter to the clinics to get them help. In all the cases, the children were only given aspirin. I knew it was because of racism.
“One day I took a boy who had a big wound to the clinic and asked myself how long this was going to go on,” she says. She was distraught.
She had heard that the University of Nairobi had established a medical school in 1962. That evening, she went to the university and picked up application forms. “I took them home and we laughed with my husband because they were not going to take me. Those days the university wasn’t taking in married female students.”
The university, however, decided to give her a chance, and she joined medical school in September 1968, graduating in 1973 as the best overall student in medicine. Everyone advised her to specialise in the ‘prestigious’ areas such as surgery, cardiology, but her heart was set on community health.
“I had been a teacher and I had seen how simple things destroyed students’ lives. As a student, we would work with communities and observe how different diseases like malaria and leprosy affected people. So I decided if I could help Kenyans be healthy, then we would be a healthy country and would be able to develop.”
From being an intern at Kenyatta National Hospital, she went on to the prestigious John Hopkins University in the US in 1975 to study Public Health, after getting sponsorship from USAid through the Population Council. She had three children by then and went with them all to the United States.
“This young lady you were speaking with was just six years old at the time!” she says, referring to her daughter Evelyne.
Her rise, after that, was meteoric. She ended up in senior positions with the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, became Chairman of the National Aids Control Council (Kenya), among many, many more.
She has also received numerous awards, globally, not only in health but in promoting global wellbeing. The latest one was on November 27, 2020, at the official residence of the ambassador of Japan to Kenya. The honour was Order of the Rising Sun, the highest honour that Japan gives.
Looking back with nostalgia
Kenya gained independence while she was abroad. She describes it with nostalgia. A Kenyan students’ organisation in Iowa contacted all Kenyan students regarding the upcoming independence.
“Around October, we were invited to the capital, Des Moines and briefed on the preparations for independence. I think that was my first time to see video. We were all given a recording of the national anthem, with the flag. The governor of Iowa hosted Kenyan students later for the celebrations and we all sang the anthem. It felt so good. Of course, that time we thought Kenya would have no problems after that,” she says.
That has turned out to be one of her greatest disappointments – corruption. Does she know what happened, from the country showing so much promise to where we are now with rampant corruption?
“Many of us were much more invested in professional life and not in politics. So it has been thought that because of that, good people who have an interest in helping others do not get into politics,” she says.
One of her greatest challenges has been in realising that people many times just don’t care. “I assumed people would be interested in helping other people but it has surprised me when I come across cases that people don’t care. Corruption, especially by people who don’t see that they are destroying the lives of average people. I think your wellbeing is my wellbeing.”
“What I have tried to do is to be faithful in being helpful to others and I take advice seriously. I don’t think I am particularly brighter than other people. God has guided my life.
Her greatest desire for the country would be to see corruption rooted out. “The corruption that is taking place with Covid means that it is getting worse and people are becoming braver about doing it. It also means that the system that should be putting it to an end is not doing it.
“Kenyans are very hardworking. All we need is for people to feel that there is a chance. If only we could promote integrity coupled with hard work. We would be the best country in the world.”