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A love affair with East Africa's plants and trees

Thursday June 17 2010

Najma Dharani

Najma Dharani 

By BILLY MUIRURI

Torn between a childhood dream of becoming a teacher and her mother’s push to have her study medicine, young Najma had few options in school.But as she grew up, the day-to-day life in her parents’ rural home in Pakistan, the little girl slowly developed a  love for plants.

“My parents were serious agriculturalists and everything revolved around planting, taking care of crops, harvesting and selling the produce,” says Najma.

Her father and his brothers had joined hands for a commercial farming venture.

“It was big time business and everybody in the family participated,” she says. But little did she know that this early interaction with plants would shape her academic future (and life).

Her mother still maintained her opinion about what she wanted her daughter to be - a doctor. The mother’s will prevailed.

When time came for her to join college, her mother insisted that she takes up medicine and in fact secured an admission for her to a medical college in Karachi. But with her heart not fully in it, Najma did not last a year at the medical school.

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“I hated the sight of blood or a person in pain. I knew I would have a lot of problems working in a hospital environment. I do not like sadness,” she says with a broad smile.

For the first time in her life, Najma rebelled against her mother and insisted that she wanted to study Botany. She was allowed to join the University of Karachi in 1984.

It is a place she would fall in love with for the next six years and when she was leaving the university, two degrees in botany (a Bachelor’s and a Master’s) were safely tucked in her academic stable.

I realised I had a lot of passion for plants and after the first degree, I felt more thirst about the subject and decided to further my studies,” she says.

Today, it is evident the mother of two teenage boys did not make a mistake, at least on personal career choice. She slowly cut a niche for herself in the field and is proud to have done extensive research in the East African region.

The result of her “bush business” has been several books on plants found in East Africa.Soon after her Master’s degree, she landed a teaching job at the same university. A year later (1991), she met Firoz Dharani, a Kenyan businessman who had gone visiting in Karachi, a meeting that would lead to her departure from Pakistan and to make a home for herself in Kenya.

“It was that time in life that you feel you are ready to get married. Firoz charmed me up and within months, we were married,” she explains. She came to Kenya the same year.At the time, her new  husband was running Graffin’s College. “It was a family business and after some months, I was employed as an administrator,” she explains.

In 1993, her first born child came. For four years, she worked at the college but in 1996, she decided to do something on her own and founded Bonsia Creations, a landscape design outfit.

“I was had been doing it in Karachi and wanted to venture into a business I had experience in,” she says. Najma seems to be a four-year project person.

In 2000, she contemplated going back to school to further her studies on her love subject and in 2002, managed to secure admission for a doctorate (PhD) at the University of Nairobi.

She put all her energy in Plant and Environmental ecology and set up an academic base at the Lake Nakuru National Park.

So thirsty for research was she that by the time the year ended, she had published her first book, “A field guide to Trees and Shrubs of East Africa”.

While still studying, she was appointed a research scientist at the World Agro Forestry Centre. “I was very active on plant matters and wrote another book,” she says.

The book was A Field Guide to Acacias of East Africa, published in 2006. The same year, the University of Nairobi employed her as a part time lecturer.

Once she bagged the third degree, more opportunities came knocking. In 2008, she was invited to join the University  of Dar es Saalam  on a permanent basis to teach biological sciences.

Despite the lucrative offer, her heart remained in Kenya and after only eight months, she left the job and flew back to the country.

“Tanzania was just not the country for me,” she says. Back to Kenya, Kenyatta University opened another door for her for more teaching and research.

“I particularly liked the new job because it enabled me to advance both my teaching and research,” says Najma. She has taught there since April 2009.

She immediately embarked on further research and this year, she published another book “Medicinal Plants of East Africa”.

With her photographic prowess, Najma has illustrated 136 plant species with more than 600 colour pictures. Traditional medicine is a key health solution, she says, and its place in modern society cannot be ignored.

“Ninety per cent of modern medicines is made up of plant extracts. What we are doing as modern scientists is to incorporate scientific knowledge to add value and guarantee safety to such medicine,” she says.

In the latest book which is available in most bookshops, she gives the physical characteristics of each plant, its use by different communities and which medicinal value it possesses.

“I work closely with the local communities. It is very interesting to know how they have used certain plants for years for medicine,” she offers.

To give her work more scientific input, she co-authored the book with Abiy Yenesew, an associate professor of Chemistry at the University of Nairobi.Najma, who by this time is already taking us through her kitchen garden in Parklands explaining the medicinal value of some of her plants, blames pharmaceutical companies for not fully involving scientists for researches.

Quite energetic as she jumps over the plants to avoid stepping on them, Najma’s world seems to revolve around plants. 

In a few months , she will complete yet another book titled, “Anti-Malaria Trees and Shrubs of East Africa”.

“It is a study on 25 species of plants,” she reveals.“ My life has three sides to it. Research, teaching and family,” she says and laughs lightly as our photographer clicks away.

Then she informs us that her sons are her greatest “research assistants” during their school holidays.

“We spend their holiday in the field. I have been to all countries in East Africa,” she says. Already, her influence on them has started showing.

Her eldest son  has fallen in love with environmental sciences while the younger one has his eyes set on wildlife studies.

“I am happy for them,” she says before disclosing whose motivation keeps her going, “As a married woman, you cannot move with much speed without your husband’s support,” she says in paying tribute to her supportive husband.

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