Joyful scholar debunking diabetes herbals with hard figures and facts

Prof Austin Bukenya

From left: Prof Angelina Kioko (USIU-A), Prof Austin Bukenya and Kenyatta University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof Caroline Thoruwa during Prof Bukenya’s 80th birthday celebration at Kenyatta University on February 10, 2024.

Photo credit: | Pool

I had two main engagements last week, as I told you. One was the launch of the 2024 Black History Month at the USIU-A Campus, and the other was the celebration of my 80th birthday at the Kenyatta University (KU) Main Campus. About the KU event, I am still literally dumbfounded. I am left “kinywa wazi” (gaping open-mouthed) at what transpired.

I could not have anticipated the deluge of respect, appreciation and love with which generations of my friends, colleagues and students enveloped me the whole day, Saturday February 10th, 2024. Maybe the hint lay in the encomium (song of praise) lavished on me in the Saturday Nation that very morning by my favourite scholar, Dr Tom Odhiambo of UoN, who called me a guardian of the public intellectual spirit.

It was, however, at the USIU-A that I engaged Dr Gladys Gakenia Njoroge in a conversation whose insights I thought I should briefly share with you. My acquaintance with Dr Njoroge goes quite a long way back, even to her predoctoral days. I thought of her humorously as a “joyful” person not only because of the “Glad” in her first name, and her generally cheerful nature, but also because her middle name, Gakenia, suggests “bringer of joy or happiness” in Gikuyu.

But I was not aware of her very significant scholarly work until I was told what she taught at the USIU-A’s School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Dr Gladys Njoroge’s main course at the School is Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Epidemiology, as you can guess from the name, is the study of epidemics, and epidemics are those sudden and widespread outbreaks of disease with which our own times are pretty familiar. Biostatistics, briefly put, is the systematic application of mathematical calculations to the understanding and handling of health problems.

Today, of course, any talk of epidemics reminds us of the big one, the Covid-19 pandemic, from which we are still emerging. But there are other epidemics requiring as much close study and systematic combat as the Covid-19 scourge. The one, for example, on which Dr Gladys Njoroge focused in her doctoral study is diabetes mellitus (kisukari, as we call it in Kiswahili). She adds another insightful angle to the study by relating it to the many herbal formulations that people promote as possible treatments and even “cures” for diabetes.

We may not have the hard figures that professional biostatisticians demand before declaring an epidemic. But many of us intuitively know that diabetes is a very widespread and very rapidly growing ailment in our society. If we are not diabetic or “pre-diabetic” ourselves, we almost certainly know someone, a relative, a friend or a neighbour, who is living with the condition. Someone is on record as claiming, last month, that diabetes is the “greatest epidemic in human history”.

Such alarmed perceptions have led to a diminishing confidence in the treatment and management procedures of conventional (Western) medicine, and a corresponding resort to herbal alternatives. I am a strong believer in the potential of some of these alternative treatments. Throughout the Covid-19 struggle, I kept insisting that some of our home-formulated treatments would help. I felt vindicated when, indeed, substances like the Ugandan Covidex and Covalyce-1 were recognised as potentially viable contributions to the management of the pandemic.

In the case of diabetes, however, there is an “outbreak” of its own kind, of these herbal treatments and claimed “cures”. The case is further complicated by a striking lack of objective and demonstrable evidence of the efficacy and safety of the offered herbal medications. There has to be a set of objective criteria for assessing the efficacy of the drugs.

This is where the work of scientists like Dr Gladys Gakenia Njoroge comes in. Her statistical procedures and models can, among other things, serve as criteria for assessing the validity, viability and efficacy of any substance or formula claiming to be a drug against diabetes or any other target condition. In the case of herbalists’ anti-diabetes preparations, for example, Dr Njoroge was able to test, in laboratories at Moi, Chuka and Kenyatta Universities, not only the herbs in them but also the processes of extracting active ingredients in them, and calculate their efficacy in the formulae.

I will not attempt to expound Dr Njoroge’s techniques in detail, partly because my own understanding of her work is limited and partly because her findings remain her intellectual property, governed by copyright considerations. But I was, for example, struck by her discovery that the curative power of herbs is not necessarily improved by mixing many of them, and some work better on their own than in mixtures. Fascinating also is her observation that the extraction process of herbal medicine, which is predominantly by boiling, requires precise measurements of such variables as temperature levels and duration of the boiling.

Technicalities aside, however, I find Dr Gladys Gakenia Njoroge an inspiring person beyond her purely professional work, on two main counts. One, when I first met her, through her husband, who is also a topflight academic, she did not have a single degree. She studied for all her three degrees, culminating in her PhD accolade from Moi University in 2018, while she was a “housewife” and mother, raising two children, and teaching at different institutions. I see here the quintessence of not only a largely self-made scholar but also a remarkably strong, multitasking woman.

Secondly, Dr Gladys Gakenia Njoroge, like her other colleagues in the empirical sciences field, is a major contributor to the destruction of the chauvinistic myth that girls and women have “no aptitude for STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths)”. Remove the sociocultural shackles from them, and they will readily fly to the moon and back. I told you about the three African American women mathematicians (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn) whose calculations at NASA landed US astronauts on the moon in 1969.

This is the class to which our Dr Gladys Njoroge and her colleagues belong.

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected] [email protected]