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Profiles

Prof Boga: ‘Professors are not good investors’

Hamadi Iddi Boga
Prof Hamadi Iddi Boga. PHOTO | COURTESY 

A cold morning in Bampara Lounge, Prof Hamadi Iddi Boga, talks about the least charming (but interesting) conversation one can have over tea; guts of termites. Unsurprisingly, he has got a PhD in microbiology from Universität Konstanz in Germany.

He is the former founding principal of Taita Taveta University and was its vice chancellor for 10 years. He was also a professor in the department of Botany at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and is currently the Principal Secretary Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.

While trying to understand termites (and their guts) he has — thigh deep — worked in mangrove swamps, agricultural forests and Mount Kenya glacier.

This kind of thing really floats professor’s boat as JACKSON BIKO discovered recently.

Did you grow up thinking; one day I will be a professor of microbiology and I will open up the guts of insects and really study them? Like a lifelong dream.

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Yes. (Laughs) When I was finishing my PhD, my supervisor asked me what I wanted to do and there were options to remain there on a post doctorate or to go to the US, but I thought I would be more useful coming back, developing a career here and doing more transformative things than I would be able to do in Europe.

So, creating a university in Taita Taveta was like a very big thing for me because the college had been lying there since 1998 when it was 95 percent complete.

I feel validated by my choice to come back and I think the contributions I’ve made have been quite significant.

You are a scientist, but now you are in the government, which is a different animal altogether. How has been the transition?

The culture is different, certainly. In academia, people are more discursive, are more open and deal with data and evidence.

In government, politics sometimes tends to cloud issues so that even if evidence is telling you to go in a certain direction, the political logic might militate against that. So, you always have to look at things from data evidence and politics and then see how to manage the two.

On the other hand, working for the government is simpler because as a microbiologist, you’re working in a micrometre range. You need a microscope to understand what you are dealing with. With the government you are dealing with macro level issues, it’s not complex. The complexity comes from people and relationships. (Laughs)

You have children?

Yes. Three daughters.

Being a well read and well-studied man, a professor, you have set standards for those girls. Do you think they are feeling the pressure?

They feel the pressure but being a professor is not genetic. (Big chuckle). My father wasn’t a professor. They are diverse. I tell them to be whatever they want. What I want is for them to grow themselves into holistic human beings that are able to interact and influence things and learn and grow.

To get to where you are, you must have had been spurred by great curiosity and the urge to accumulate knowledge. Where do you think that stemmed from?

That’s the only way you can go into PhD level because you’re challenging orthodox. And knowledge is not a static thing. In the past, it took a long time for new knowledge to come but now with ICT and our ability, not anymore.

Developments are so fast and furious and if we don’t invest in science and in a strategic way we might not keep up with new solutions, discoveries, especially in our field.

Prof, explain to me how studying the gut of a termite affects somebody who is currently walking into a marketing office, about to make his morning coffee. Why is termite research so important to human beings?

(Laughs) When you do research at basic science level, you’re driven mainly by curiosity but in the end, it has implications. These creatures are the only creatures able to eat lignin in wood. Lignin is very hard and most of the carbon is locked in the wood.

Part of the problems we have with climate change is we have destabilised the carbon inside cycle at different parts. So, the ability to degrade this is based on these microbes. So, if you know which microbe is degrading what and you’re able to create what we know as bioreactors, you can use this in bioprocessing.

Prof, I don’t want to use the word ‘best friend’ because of its juvenile connotations, but who do you hang out the most with? What do you guys talk about? I ask only to get an insight in your non-academic life.

Well, best friend is not a juvenile phrase, it a healthy part of life. Mine is Matano Ndaro, he’s a director at Communications Authority of Kenya. I have known him since high school. He is into of course communication, policy and things like that but we are discursive (Laughs)

We started reading a lot of books a long time ago and I thought he would go into academia. He was a historian. We discuss life mostly from different dimensions as you would expect a biologist and a historian discussing life. We approach things differently and we learn a lot from each other.

Of course I also have academic colleagues and former students I have remained friends with, most are scientific relationships. When you want to relax, you don’t want to talk about termites.

What life’s question are grappling with at this point in your life?

The issue of radicalisation of youth in the coastal region.

As a professor, do you get impatient when you meet people struggling with intellectual aptitude?

No. You can learn something from everybody. You just have to be open minded. I think as a professor, the key thing is not to ignore people because when you ignore people you ignore knowledge. Not everybody will understand things at your pace because you’re coming from a different dimension.

How has the Internet affected knowledge according to you?

It has democratised knowledge but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you find on the Internet is true. That makes it complicated because all of a sudden people consider themselves competent in areas where they are not (Laughs). You might be able to differentiate the information you get on Google as junk or science.

Thankfully for us scientists, we have what we call Google Scholar, a peer reviewed channel, so I only go to other sites for entertainment. (Laughter)

What have you failed at that still nibbles you?

Professors are not good investors. I don’t have a side hustle to make extra income. I don’t have a business mind. This is one area I struggle with. I feel insecure that if something happens to me and I’m out of work, I wonder if I will be able to maintain my standard of life.

Is your wife in academia?

Yes. She is a tutor at Shanzu Teachers College. We come from the same village. So we met in the village.

So you didn’t go looking too far?

No. Sometimes you can find roses right next door. (Laughs)

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