Dr Sirengo’s signature: How one man’s gift keeps giving, almost 40 years on
The careers that define us can at times come about through unplanned incidences. Such was the story of a young lady, with a months old baby and pregnant with another. She wanted to be a teacher. By then she taught as an untrained teacher, horning her craft before attending formal college. Freshly married, her first child and current pregnancy had come about perhaps a bit too quickly. But then, if not, I would not be here. It is always tragic when a young person dies just as their family life and career begins. Plans are jettisoned, dreams evaporate, joint plans become individual plans. There is grief, uncertainty, and a rethinking of priorities. My mother received the news of dad’s death by a road accident on February 11, 1982. He was 32. I was the unborn child she carried in her womb. In the ensuing days the typical burial rites must have been a haze. But life must continue for the living. With dad gone, the privileges of university staff housing where he previously worked as a university lecturer came to an abrupt end. Mum had to leave the house she had learnt to call home and make do with temporary accommodation in the servant’s quarters of her former house. After all, in the methodical manner of human resource management, the house was ‘vacant’ and ready for occupation by another staff member.
At about this time Dr Sirengo came into the picture. At that time, he was the deputy principal of the Medical Training College in Nairobi. He had been a friend of my father and came with a simple message to my mother ‘you are going to be a ‘Daktari’. Daktari, (pronounced ‘duck-tar-ree’), is a loose but revered term for ‘doctor’ and is used to describe health care providers in Kenya. By her admission, my mother found this proposition disconcerting. She had studied ‘Arts’ for her A levels, and she was a little terrified of biology! But Dr Sirengo was adamant, insisting that she had passed her A levels well enough to take on any career. He calmly explained that the best he could do for his departed friend was to ensure that she had a profession. And by it, a means of generating a livelihood for herself and her young family. In his power was the ability to grant her admission into medical college. He reasoned that this was far better than the monetary handouts that provide temporary relief. With the stroke of a pen, Dr Sirengo signed off the most exceptional rescue package he possibly could. He chose to invest his influence and power rather than money.
The rest, as they say, is history.
My mother served as a clinical officer in various capacities at the government hospital in Thika in a career spanning three and a half decades. At her career peak she was the acting Medical Officer of Health in charge of health services in the district. She was best known as ‘Daktari’, a paediatrician, revered and celebrated by mothers and their children. She retired from the public service in 2017. Dr Sirengo’s gift became an inexhaustible well. Even in retirement the gift keeps on giving through her private practice. A single signature rescued a young lady from almost certain destitution and catalysed goodness beyond what could have been imagined at the time. In 2017 I graduated with a PhD from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Both my sibling and I are PhD holders. Such is the power and legacy of Dr Sirengo’s signature.
I never met Dr Sirengo. I am not sure whether he is alive. My mother lost contact with him with the relentless passage of time.
The legacy of Dr Sirengo cannot go unacknowledged in practice. The Plant Science Centre is in the spirit and legacy of the ‘Dr Sirengo’s’ of the world. These are men and women who hold open the door for others, so that their lives may get a re-boot and find lasting expression. Scientists also need doors held open for them, we could all do with a ‘Dr Sirengo moment’. We hope that this online platform can provide visibility and access to opportunities and breaks that are needed by the users of this site. If you are a plant scientist and thinking ‘I could do with a little help with my dreams’ get in touch with us. We shall show off your work, help you make connections and when it pays off, make the best of it, and pay it forward.
Dr Francis Wamonje and his wife Vickie Wambura are the co-founders of the Centre for Plant Pathogen Interactions Research. The overall goal is to build a ‘brick and mortar’ research centre for innovative research work in plant sciences. The journey towards this goal has begun with an online platform now live at www.plantsciencentre.co.ke.
Dr Wamonje is an African Academy of Sciences-Royal Society FLAIR Research Fellow (2019-2021) and Vickie is an Ashoka Fellow (elected 2013) and a Mandela-Washington Fellow (2014).