After six hours of driving on mostly bumpy roads, Prof Turoop Losenge steps out of the jeep, covered in dust. He has reached Ngeriyoi village in Samburu County, his home. He walks over to the village pen where goats and sheep are gathered for the night, to be protected from lions and hyenas.
The animals are treated as a treasure among the Samburu. They are at the centre of life and identity. Some of these goats and sheep are Prof Losenge’s. But he doesn’t know how many, or which ones are his.
“They think I lose my Samburu identity when I don’t know my animals,” Prof Losenge says of his community.
Losenge is a 46-year-old professor of horticulture at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). He is the first and so far the only person from the 360,000-strong Samburu community who has earned himself a professorship at a Kenyan university.
Although he comes from a community of herders, there are no goat or sheep grazing in front of his three-bedroom bungalow on the university campus. The laboratories where he teaches his students and conducts research on tomatoes are well equipped. There is electricity and running water.
STUDY OF TOMATOES
In his rural home, however, about 500km north of Juja, seven homesteads are spread across the bare land, forming Ngeriyoi village. It has no school, no health centre, no electricity and no running water.
There is no sign announcing a human settlement. One has to know where to turn off the only track heading to the county’s headquarters — Maralal. In the county headquarters, they have running water and electricity. Same county. Different worlds.
When the professor was a young boy, Catholic missionaries opened the first school in the area. A deal was struck with the village elders: every family was to send one boy to school.
His father, who never went to school and is now in his 90s, pointed at his third child: Losenge, the worst herdsboy of all.
“All small boys had to herd goats, but I never liked it when I was young,” says the academician who now devotes his energies to the study of the tomatoes. “It was very tiring. We didn’t eat all day and I was afraid of the wild animals which during those days were roaming the land,” he recalls.
Other boys in Ngeriyoi suffered no such distress. And so, school became a refuge for Losenge.
It was while in Standard Seven that he realised unless he excelled in school, he would go back to herding. His only other option was to join the military just as his eldest brother had done. But the military life was not for him.
Losenge worked hard and started reading at home after school. There were no kerosene lamps in the manyatta, just the fire in the hearth. After high school, he wanted to become a lawyer or engineer.
However, when his university admission letter came, he found he had been invited to study horticulture. But what was horticulture? The high school graduate had no idea.
He learned to enjoy his subject after he enrolled for the undergraduate course, largely because he admired his professors. In third year, he knew this was what he wanted to do with his life; teaching and conducting research.
Today, hardly anyone in the village understands the concept of a university. To his village mates, Losenge is “a teacher in town”. From being the least talented herder he is now an internationally renowned scientist.
He conducted part of his doctoral research in German universities and still maintains collaborations with them. And for two years, he was a visiting scholar at Clemson University in the US.
He could have stayed on but did not want his sons to grow up in a culture “with too much freedom”.
NEWSPAPERS IN KISWAHILI
Currently, his research focuses on the biological control of diseases affecting vegetables indigenous to Africa. He seeks practical solutions for food safety and yet in Ngeriyoi, villagers shake their heads in disbelief.
Obviously, he has not made enough money “in town” to buy a large herd of cattle. “I like being at home in the village,” Prof Losenge says. “But people expect too much of me. Everybody asks me for money.” He has to pay school fees and foot medical expenses for many.
“At any given time, there are at least five people unrelated to me that I pay fees for.” Some of his neighbours own large herds of cattle but it would hardly occur to them to sell an animal if in need of cash.
The value of a cattle cannot be measured in bank notes. “They tell me, ‘I can’t sell my cattle when you have money from a salary,’” he says. “It is a socialist kind of society.” Traditionally, the Samburu are a communal people without private property.
When it came to getting married, Prof Losenge had a rather unusual requirement for a herder: The bride should have at least a secondary education. “She would understand my world better,” he says.
He found a young woman from his community. As a teenager, she used to read newspapers in Kiswahili while herding cows. And when she sat her high school examination, Susan became the first Samburu girl to score a straight A. Today she is a financial expert with a Master’s degree in economics.
However, the gospel has certainly reached Ngeriyoi and Samburu County as a whole: Education can offer a chance for a better life. As a result, more and more young people are getting an education.
“I never regretted having chosen education. For me, it was the only way possible,” says Prof Losenge. Losenge may have been the first, but certainly not the last of his father’s nine children to get an education. One of his brothers has a degree in IT and landed a government job in Maralal.
However, only one of his four sisters went to school and only for three years. However, the gospel has certainly reached Ngeriyoi and Samburu County as a whole: Education can offer a chance for a better life. As a result, more and more young people are getting an education.
“I never regretted having chosen education. For me, it was the only way possible. I am proud of what I achieved,” says Prof Losenge. “I am glad to be associated with both an academic and a traditional world.”
“I am glad to be associated with both an academic and a traditional world.” I understand them both.”