Prof Miriam Khamadi Were is gentle. Gentle in speech, gentle in her choice of words and gentle in the non-verbal cues that can somehow be felt even through a phone call.
It took two phone calls to convince her to accept our interview request, a few days after the Quaker Group of Britain and the United States nominated her as the Africa and the church nominee for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
Many journalists were already on her neck with endless interview requests.
“Can we please have the interview after the Nobel Committee announces the winner. I believe in humility, and in humility, you have to be patient enough until you get whatever you have been nominated for,” she told Lifestyle over the phone.
After receiving a first-of-its-kind Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, just seven years after Prof Were was born in Shinyalu, Kakamega County, the Quaker Group was given a mandate to nominate deserving candidates for the coveted annual prize.
The Group saw her fit for the nomination, citing “her tireless work of over 50 years in promoting trust between governments, health authorities and the people they serve.”
A win for Prof Were would make it a second Nobel Peace Prize for Kenya, after the Prof Wangari Maathai award in 2004.
Arriving at her home in Lavington, Nairobi felt like a déjà vu. Prof Were happened to have been this writer’s university Chancellor in her undergraduate journalism studies, at which time her biggest wish was to interview her for an in-house magazine. It felt surreal when Prof Were came to the gate to welcome her former student on a sunny Tuesday mid-morning. She looked enthusiastic for the interview, in her characteristic gentle manner.
Her living room feels every inch like that of a professor; newspapers neatly stacked at one corner (all Nation newspapers), awards photos strategically placed on another end, beautiful wall art, artistic mementos and a number of inscribed quotes placed at different sections of the house walls.
One inscribed wall quote says; “the friendship of Christ is made real with our friendship with one another.” Of all the quotes in her sitting room, that specific one probably best embodies her demeanour.
“I can’t quite remember a lot about my recent life, but if you ask me about my life as a little girl, I would tell you the details in bold,” she says after a pause. “It could be old age. I see this even with my friends, our old memories are clearer now. I remember crying at the age of six when my mother could not allow me to attend my elder sister’s wedding. Oh, I felt disappointed. That was the family’s first wedding and who would want to attend it by proxy? I wanted to be in it, to see my sister say the magical words; Yes I do, and live to tell my version of the story for that day.”
Prof Were turned 82 on Wednesday. April 12, 1940 was the day that this octogenarian, who now holds countless accolades and many firsts , became a blessing to her parents, and also to the world.
Does she feel old and accomplished?
“No, I still have time to do God’s work. I will live up to 120 years, just as the word says in Genesis 6:3. I remember when I turned 71 and everyone sent me messages saying that I am happy to have reached the bonus year. My bonus year is 121,” she says.
Since Prof Were and her likewise distinguished husband in the field of Agriculture; Humphreys Rapando Were, share a birthday month –the two plan to celebrate together during Easter festivities.
Prof Were has always been whip-smart. She studied at the prestigious Butere Girls. Young men wanted to be associated with her by all means. If she were to keep a record of letters she received at the time, a carton would overflow with words from boys wooing her. She was blessed with both beauty and brains. Her husband was one of the young men who mailed her.
“I knew my husband from home but we had never spoken. He had friends that he schooled with and he often visited. He sent his first letter to me and asked if we could be special friends. I replied and told him that I was just a form one student and did not really want special friends because I knew what that meant. Unlike other boys, his reply fascinated me. He said he didn’t mind and would be an academic friend. Since then, we sent each other letters and for 10 years we remained good friends. I got married to him after getting my first job as a teacher,” she narrates.
In Butere Girls, Prof Were was an all-round student who volunteered when an opportunity arose. She went for outreach services to the villagers such as removal of jiggers and cleaning wounds.
She did not even mind doing it without clinical gloves.
“The water had antiseptics, I felt protected by that.”
She kept doing that for a while until the missionaries from the Friends Church, her denomination, took note.
“I was doing that out of compassion. I didn’t know someone was watching.”
She completed her high school studies and achieved Division 1, (equivalent to an A grade). The Friends Church missionaries who had taken note of her awarded her a scholarship to study at the William Penn University in Iowa, United States. She studied natural sciences; Chemistry, Biology and Physics.
“I first encountered Chemistry and Physics at the university in America. The chemistry class was fascinating. I marvelled at the chemical symbols of water (H2o) and Carbon dioxide (Co2) since I had never seen such a thing. My inquisitive nature embarrassed me when I asked why the symbols are written that way. The instructor asked to see me after class and he offered me a text book that I used to read chemistry and eventually understood. I never embarrassed myself again,” she recalls.
“In my first days at Penn, I was like a unique exhibition at a museum. All attention was on me since I was the only different person, at least by the colour of the skin, in the whole school. Most people associated me with Tarzan, a star in a movie that I had never watched. They asked me if I lived on trees back at home. They touched my kinky hair and asked whether my skin peeled off when I took a bath. One young man tried to block me from entering the ladies’ dormitories because I was black. Since I had read the Bible and knew that I was born in the image and likeness of God, I asked him, “what if you were told that God is black?” He froze and since then no one despised me.”
Coming back to Kenya after four years, she could not practise her profession immediately as the Ministry of Education advised her that she needed special training as a teacher since there were not many science teachers in the country.
She wanted to study medicine but could not get an offer at the time. That is how she went to Makerere University and trained as a teacher. In July 1966, she was posted as a teacher at the Kaimosi Girls High School in Western Kenya. While there, it happened that Lugulu Girls High School was in dire need of a science teacher and so she was subcontracted to teach at the school for a few months. Later that year, she moved to Nyandarua and got married to her husband in December. She secured a transfer and the two started life together.
“I got married at the age of 26 and in those days, people thought that I was very late to the ‘marriage party.’ I didn’t want to rush God because I fully trusted in Him. I got married just at the right time.”
She was later transferred to Eastleigh Secondary School, which she describes as a “real slum whose children had dirty feet and runny noses,” in those days. She was the only teacher with a car and often ferried sick students to the hospital.
“One time, a student had a serious chest problem and I offered to take him to hospital. Another one, of Asian origin, had caught a cold and needed medical attention as well. When I got to hospital with the two students, the Asian one was examined and treated and the African one was given aspirin even without examination,” she recalls.
It hurt her to the core that it was five years since the country got independence but people still treated each other with disparity.
When she went home that evening, she had made up her mind that she would study medicine. Her stars aligned since the course had been introduced at the University of Nairobi and so she became one of the few in the pioneer class.
Changing gears to medicine meant that she had to lose her job and salary as a teacher. That did not worry her. The university offered subsidiary money to students called boom, which, together with her husband’s income, they managed to fend for their young family.
“The human body fascinates me. It started with my biology classes at Butere Girls, and I couldn’t help but dream of becoming a doctor one day. However, when I got to medical school, the fascination became secondary to access to health care services that I wanted to proliferate in the country,” she says.
When she went for internship, she learnt that access to health services was just for the privileged in the society. Community health became a new favourite just because she wanted to see change at grassroots level. As an intern, she started teaching community health, part-time, at the university.
She had to learn to juggle between being a mother and a medicine student, and she excelled at it.
“I would come home and bond with my children until 8pm. I would thereafter use that time for my own development. Some people wonder when I wrote my four novels. I used to sleep at 10.30pm but those two and a half hours were enough for me to write,” she says.
Prof Were now has four published novels, and her autobiography is hot in the press.
Shortly after her graduation, she received an offer to study for a Masters in Public Health at John Hopkins University. That key opened a door that helped her start the first ever Masters in Public Health programme at the University of Nairobi. She became a lifetime advocate of public health.
“That was 1983, the year that I thought I was in heaven. I was happy because people could learn from me and even pass down the knowledge to other people. Some people ridiculed me saying that public health is inferior to medicine. That is ignorance.”
She now has a doctorate and has won countless awards (she cannot remember all of them) but she is happy to have inspired change in the line of duty as she worked in different parts of the world.
“I remember my first award. It was the UNICEF’s Maurice Patt Award that was given to our institution because of the innovative approach to solving problems that I had in my project,” she says.
She also had a stint in government as the board chair at the National Aids Control Council, where she says, “I found HIV/Aids prevalence at 15 per cent and managed to reduce it to under five per cent.”
“Stigma went down during my tenure and I streamlined and became a close friend to the late first lady Lucy Kibaki since she freely mingled with people living with HIV, hence reducing stigma. She was a warm friend.”
In all her work in different parts of the world, she says, she treated everyone with dignity and not once did she discriminate against another being by class.
“There is an arrogance among educated people that behave as superior beings, it irritates me. Arrogance kills a lot of things. We must not look down on people because we also had an opportunity to learn and that does not make us superior to others.”
Her boldness earned her life membership to the Maendeleo ya Wanawake affirmative action movement.
“I believe in gender equity but we cannot be equal. These days women are beginning to take up the negative traits of men in the name of equality. Why would a woman be abusive and disrespectful? Equity should not be misconstrued. The whole business of gender equity is to promote wellness and not to pick up bad behaviour,” she says.
While she may have had a lot and accomplished even greater things, she says “being truthful and kind is an important virtue, but trusting God at all times has made me who I am today.”