I hate hanging out with bright people. People whose work is beyond the grasp of us ordinary mortals, especially someone like me, whose primary occupation in life is observing how women are dressed in the streets.
But I wasn’t always daft. If anything, I was set to be a scientist. My KCSE result slip proves as much. One time, the head of a department at a local university who was recruiting me for a teaching job was so shocked that with my grades in sciences, I was looking for a job in a Journalism school.
Blame the university placement system of our time. If you came from a poor family, you risked ending up in a good university doing a degree you loathed, or you ended up in a newly established university on the border of Kenya and the Central Africa Republic doing a medical or engineering course as the founding students. Either way, you had no choice. If you came from a rich family, however, you could buy your way into any university, into any course. It was the worst academic apartheid anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, we survived and lived to tell.
Not that I hated studying arts and humanities, if anything, it was the more natural fit for me. But that has never stopped me from reading about science and studying complex stuff. I am fascinated by how the human body works. I am fascinated by the arcane and intricate mysteries of Chemistry. Physics fascinates me and always blows my mind completely. So, you can imagine my envy for Angus Nassir, a biomedical scientist, whose field combines biology, chemistry, and physics. In his Facebook profile, he describes himself as a biomedical scientist, and he is big on data, agnostic, driven, and contrarian. And he is what he exactly says on the tin.
As one of the founders of the Bioinformatics Institute of Kenya, Nassir believes, you can be a top global scientist while working in Africa. His credentials and experience make him a prime candidate for brain drain, but,
“I have never been interested in working outside Kenya. Kenya and Africa are my base,” he tells me, disabusing me of the notion that huge perks abroad are enough to persuade him. If he wanted that, there have been enough chances that he has passed on.
As a bioinformatician, his work primarily combines research in biology, medicine, and health-related studies with IT to interpret data covering fields such as genetics. In short, he can easily become the James Watson of Africa. Or the Angus Nassir of Africa.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as we all struggled to come to terms with the global virus attack, I used to camp on his page to garner information about developments in the testing of the virus, vaccine production, and how the disease was morphing into various variants. That is what he deals with.
We became friends and for more than a year, we planned a lunch meeting. He is busy. And I move around a lot. But last March, we met for the first time for a late lunch. We met at my default restaurant in the Nairobi CBD: Al-Yusra. My aim was to buy a huge platter of young goat meat (arosto), plenty of rice, and French fries, to be chased by copious amounts of camel tea. Somalis live like kings.
But Nassir does not eat haphazardly like me. That was a humbling turn for me to our lunch. Nassir is tall, well-kept, and a fitness enthusiast, and if you ran into him, you wouldn’t think he is one of the most serious scientists in the country. His profile is more of a guy who works in PR or a misplaced, flamboyant guy who works in a bank, given his sharp dressing and grooming. If outwardly, he does not betray his scientific background, in person, he is a self-effacing, almost melancholic person, who reminds you that you are in the presence of someone who knows his onions.
He ordered a shake that was topped with caramel syrup. He told me doesn’t eat in hotels because he doesn’t trust most restaurant foods. Curious, I asked why?
“Too many calories, and I don’t know what cooking oil they use…” he told me, making me feel guilty because I was famished and now, I felt ashamed. But truth be told, you don’t get to have a well-toned body like Nassir’s without dietary discipline and a rigorous workout routine. Even so, I ordered for Al-Yusra Afghani Pilau and instead of the signature mutton, I opted for chicken. My kitambi may become useful, should I choose to vie for the MP post back in the village.
We discussed the state of the food we eat in Kenya and it is really horrible, has been horrible in recent times.
“Our standards and regulatory bodies are not keen on the standards, the quality of the chemicals used, or even the general safety standards of what we consume. Little surprise then, about the rise of the cancer cases in the last decade,” he says. For oils, he is a big advocate of animal fat and goes for his lard in Burma market, off-Jogoo Road, whenever necessary. He is among the many Kenyans increasingly hyperaware of the dangers of widescale commercial farming, and the shortcuts some farmers in order to turn a profit. And of course, he advises against the use of seed-based oils that for the longest were marketed as healthier.
But back to his grind.
For the longest time, I used to think that his main job was running a DNA clinic, and my interview was supposed to be about the drama surrounding DNA testing at his lab.
“Yes, we do DNA tests, but that is not even our main focus. We are more into research and soon will be home to one of the largest molecular biology labs in the country. We do DNA sequencing, bioinformatics, and we also run a medical lab,” he says.
Whereas he has seen enough share of the DNA drama and can’t disclose details due to the confidentiality of the cases, the statistics from paternity tests at his clinic tie in with the global painful fact that one in three children born, may not belong to the supposed biological father. However, it is a statistical anomaly, since, by the time a man suspects that the child is not his, chances are the kid is not his, hence the higher probability of not being the biological father for men who do the test. He admits, there is an increase in uptake of the tests, something he attributes to the availability of the services and the nature of the modern dating and marriage landscape.
They will be setting up a research lab and animal house, 150 kilometres east of Nairobi. An animal house is where animals are kept for experimental purposes.
Does the government support your initiatives, or KEMRI is enough for them?
“Not as much as they should, or as it happens in the West.”
It is his personal and colleagues’ endeavor, almost entirely. They go out of their way to raise funds for their operations. Few African governments are interested in science when we can import everything, even the most basic medication: paracetamol.
However, this does not deter Nassir from working in Kenya and making Africa his playing field. He hopes he can inspire more young African scientists to take science seriously. The Maseno University and JKUAT graduate says there is enough potential, and with the right support from the government, Kenya can produce Nobel-winning scientists. It is an award he hopes to bag someday.
Presently, an area he seeks to specialise in the most is a relatively new area known as the ‘gut-brain-axis’. In layman’s terms, scientists are studying the possibility of a second brain in our digestive system. Through this, they are trying to find the links between the food we eat, our digestion, our moods, and the way we think.
It is a mark of patriotism to forego huge perks and good technology out there. To go ahead and pursue a dream in an area that is underfunded, believe that you can make it, and be unapologetically confident of victory is a true testament of devotion, in a sometimes thankless country. He movies, regardless.