Reunion: UoN class that gave Kenya its first female cardiologist

Reunion: UoN class that gave Kenya its first female cardiologist

What you need to know:

  • The Medical School alumni gathered at the Nairobi Club to reminisce about their good old times.
  • Of the eight female medical students at the UoN in 1970 through to 1975, six were from Alliance Girls High School.

It is an afternoon of giggles, hearty laughs, nostalgia and merry-making. The University of Nairobi (UoN) Medical Class of 1975 are marking 53 years since they first met at the institution.

The January 15, reunion takes place at the Nairobi Club. “Our reunion has been long overdue,” remarks Dr Dan Gikonyo, a physician/cardiologist and founder of the Karen Hospital.

“We had planned to go for a retreat in Mombasa in 2020, but were forced to cancel our plans because of Covid-19. But when one of us, Dr Rajiv Dixit, a rheumatologist based in California said he would be visiting the country, we thought it was best that we all meet and reminisce about the good old times.”

Dr Gikonyo had arrived earlier hand in hand with his wife, Dr Betty Gikonyo, the first Kenyan female cardiologist. The two studied at the UoN before going to the United States to specialise before coming back and founding The Karen Hospital.

Their chemistry, even in their sunset years, is quite evident. This is, however, not unique to them. All the alumni present seem easy with each other, casually wrapping hands around each other’s shoulders, unconsciously adjusting each other’s fits, and loudly cheering each other. It is a joy to watch.

This group was the first beneficiary of free education in Kenya. “Back in 1970, we were given something called boom, which was cash money directly into your pocket. Paying you to go and study,” recalls Dr Frank Njenga, a psychiatrist and founder of Chiromo Hospital, with a nostalgic smile.

Ms Gikonyo, the founder of the Alumni Association of the University of Nairobi, goes ahead to explain how the group is giving back to society.

“The money we had raised in 2020 for the retreat went towards catering for school fees for five medical students at the University of Nairobi. They are in their third year now, and the course takes six years. We continue to cater for their school fees and this is quite fulfilling,” she says. 

“Separately, many of the doctors here volunteer in different spaces, all contributing to the betterment of society. We are also part of a larger team. We understand that we have a duty to inspire the younger generation socially and financially, as well as market our alma mater as a premier institution.”

On transition in the medical field, Prof Grace Kitonyi, a pathologist, says so much has changed even in terms of gender.

“When we joined the university, out of the 80 students taking medicine, we were only eight girls, but that has since changed. Even recently, we had a time when female students were more than male students in a medical class; we are grateful for this.

"It is a joy to see more and more women excelling in the medical field. But we do not consider ourselves as being of a particular gender. When you practise medicine, you are just a professional—not a woman, not a man, just a professional.”

Dr Lorna Sangale, an anaesthetist, adds that young female doctors are joining her field. She, however, notes the challenge of doing most work at night because of emergencies and all the metrics.

“As a woman, you have to look after your family and your profession. So, most times, it is very difficult for women to strike a balance; a few women opt out of the field, but most of them have stayed and it is encouraging.”

Reminiscing about the years gone by, Dr Jean Kagia, an obstetrician/gynaecologist, recalls how women who had gone up to Form Four were considered too educated.

“In the 70s, a woman’s place was the kitchen and giving the village if they heard that you are in A-Level, then go for another five years at the university, they would start murmuring ‘This is not the right woman, she has been in school for far too long.’

"But I am grateful for our male colleagues; just as you see us interact today like young boys and girls, it was the same back then. They made us feel comfortable and spoilt, and never looked down on us just because we were women,” she concludes, smiling.

Of the eight female medical students at the UoN in 1970 through to 1975, six were from Alliance Girls High School. They are: Betty Gikonyo, a paediatric cardiologist; Prof Kitonyi; Dr Sangale; Dr Jane Mwara, a retired paediatrician who moved to the UK; Dr Eva Adodoadji, a public health specialist practising in the US; and Dr Zipporah Ngumi, a retired professor of medicine (anaesthesia, UoN).

The other two are Dr Monica Kariuki of Highlands School (currently Moi Girls, Eldoret), a psychiatrist practising in Nyeri County, and Dr Jean Kagia of Kenya High School, an obstetrician gynaecologist practising in Nairobi.