Magoha: The warm heart within the intimidating giant

Former Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha

Former Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The good Professor was firm, candid, and did not sugar-coat his opinion. 
  • As a Vice-Chancellor, he was curt and no-nonsense, right up until a student or a member of staff walked into his office with a problem.
  • He fiercely fought for justice, even when there may be a few casualties along the way. 

The year was 2014. I was attending a week-long workshop with the then Medical Practitioners and Dentists’ Board (MPDB). The task was to develop the very first core curriculum and guidelines for the training of medical practitioners and dentists in the MBChB and Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree programmes for the country. The week was long and gruelling, culminating in the draft zero documents, ready for stakeholder review. 

This was my very first engagement with Prof George Albert Omore Magoha. Not only was he the chairman of the Board, but he was also my Vice-Chancellor as I was pursuing my Master’s Degree in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Nairobi at the time. The interaction with the Board piqued my interest in the regulation of the medical and dental professions in Kenya, enough for me to run for an elected position at the said Board a year later even though I was still a student. 

I was overwhelmed by the faith my colleagues showed in me, demonstrated by the unified support with which I was elected, and I vowed not to let them down. I was the youngest ever female to join the Board and my dreams were rather lofty I must say. 

I had not counted on running straight into a brick wall from the very first Board meeting! You see, this was the first time the Board was having a bunch of “youngsters”. Three of us were below the age of 35, with a common background of staunch unionism, being founders of the then newly formed Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists, and Dentists’ Union (KMPDU), and still holding various positions in the union. 

We had been extremely vocal in the multiple doctors’ strikes that had given a voice not only to the plight of doctors’ working conditions but even more deplorable state of healthcare in the country. We were already labelled as rabble-rousers and were perceived to be restless souls looking to cause disruption in the somber Board that didn’t run on activism or emotions. 

This Board was run with an iron fist by one Prof Magoha, a fierce advocate for patients and a Vice-Chancellor who had snuffed out the incessant strikes by students at the University of Nairobi. He had no bandwidth to tolerate nonsense and he made this clear in his maiden speech as the reappointed chair of the Board. This is how we started our engagement, on opposite ends of the table, staring each other down silently. 

For months, our interaction at the Board was tense, with the good Professor in his true element of leadership expecting everyone to toe the line while taking no hostages. Frustration was beginning to build because I felt unheard and I wondered how much longer it was going to take before I had an opportunity to make my contribution. My biggest fear was that my time would run out before I achieved any of the lofty targets I had set for myself. 

One thing was clear though; what needed to be done would be done even if it meant pushing everyone to the limits. There was so much work that for one reason or the other had lagged behind in the previous term. He pushed the CEO to ensure the Board got support from partners to complete the pending work. 

Woe unto the team when a partner supported a workshop to complete pending guidelines. We would be carted off to exclusive locations where we would spend sleepless nights toiling! The earliest we would leave the conference hall, including him, would be midnight, and yet by 7am, he would be seated in the room wondering where we all were. 

We would work till we were numb. Sometimes we would crack and he would frown and stare us down till it all blew over and we got back to the business at hand. One night, in one of the working groups, the repertoire’s laptop crashed and they lost all their work. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Their presentation had to be ready at 8am by hook or crook! 

In 2015, I had the opportunity to work closely with the Professor as we organised the annual conference for the Association of Medical Councils of Africa (AMCOA). Kenya was hosting the conference and the association was electing its new president. Professor was running for the seat. Not only did we have an international conference to host but we also had an election to win. 

This is the first time I got a peek into the other side of the man. The weeks of planning were intense. The Board’s CEO and his team did not sleep. The good Professor was awake just as long as his team. His attention to detail was out of this world. The event was a huge success and the AMCOA presidency came home! 

It took me a while to realise the good Professor had put me to the test many times and in his eyes, I had passed. He had looked beyond the restless energy of youth and seen my potential even before I did. He harnessed that energy and panel-beat it to good use. 

I took note that he listened to my suggestions and supported me to deliver. He trusted me enough to represent him in important assignments, even when I thought there were more experienced persons than myself. I cannot remember when he replaced ‘Dr. Bosire’ with ‘my daughter’ when he referred to me. 

The good Professor was firm, candid, and did not sugar-coat his opinion. The intimidating face he wore in public was replaced by an unbelievably warm smile when he talked about this wife and son, the centre of his universe! He was especially proud when Michael achieved his dream of being a neurosurgeon. When we would complement his sharp dress sense, he’d note that the standards had been set by his wife, Barbara. He had no option but to live up to the expectation. 

As a Vice-Chancellor, he was curt and no-nonsense, right up until a student or a member of staff walked into his office with a problem. He would prioritise the issue and follow it up to its resolution. He was especially proud of the University of Nairobi Towers, whose construction commenced under his leadership. 

He fiercely fought for justice, even when there may be a few casualties along the way. He was a loyal Catholic with great reverence for the church and its leadership. We joked that if you wanted something done, send his Bishop and he wouldn’t know how to say no! 

By the time he was leaving the Board to take up his new position as the Cabinet Secretary for education, I would congratulate him as my teacher, mentor, and friend. I sorely missed his discipline. I knew he would serve in his new assignment with the same vigour and felt sorry for the team he was going to work with. Their sleep as they knew it was history! 

The Professor may have rested suddenly but truly, there weren’t any mountains left for him to conquer. He had planted a flag on all of them. The manner in which he left us is a true reflection of what he would have wanted. A gentleman has taken a bow. Let us not hold back our applause!

Dr Bosire is an obstetrician/gynaecologist