History’s Hidden Heroes: Sheik Umar Khan, Samuel Brisbane, Sam Mutooro Muhumuza

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan

This month’s History’s Hidden Heroes is absolutely heartbreaking.  Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, a doctor from Sierra Leone who led the fight against the Ebola virus in that country, died on July 29, 2014, of the virus.  Dr. Samuel Brisbane, one of the top physicians in Liberia, died of the disease on July 26, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza, from Uganda, died on July 2.

We’ve all seen movies and TV shows in which there is a crisis in a foreign country, usually Africa, and white doctors from America and Europe rush in to save the day.  Health workers from all over the world have come to Africa to fight the Ebola virus, at enormous risk to their own lives.  As of this moment, American doctor Kent Brantly is in grave condition in Liberia.  The heroism of doctors, nurses, and aides who come from overseas to assist other countries in times of crisis absolutely cannot be overstated.

But I want to highlight the efforts of the West African doctors Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza, because I think that we like to tell ourselves a story about Africa.  It’s a story about a place with no resources of its own, no universities, no people with knowledge or competence.  It’s a colonial story, one in which “The White Man’s Burden”, as described by Rudyard Kipling, is to help the helpless and ignorant people of The Third World.  It’s a story about a helpless princess who needs a white knight.  The lives of these three doctors suggest that a more accurate story would be  about a knight who has incurred an injury (let’s face it – a really, really awful injury) in battle and who needs assistance from a comrade.

I hope that the visibility of doctors, nurses, and aides who are African residents and who are of African descent will challenge us to change our story.  Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza were not only competent – they were highly regarded experts in and out of their countries of origin.  They were leaders in their fields.  They weren’t ignorant or helpless.  West Africa needs our help.  But I want our future stories to reflect that regions like West Africa also have competent people who know stuff – who are experts.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Thomas Odhiambo

102639a0a632f860725f415ca0621c13Thomas-Odhiamo-RWelcome to ‘History’s Hidden Heroes’, a monthly feature in which I challenge my mental image of what a scientist looks like (American or European, and usually male) by learning something about scientists from elsewhere in the world or from other genders and ethnicities.  Write in with your suggestions for what to call this feature.  I’m not happy with “History’s Hidden Heroes” as a title because I bet that plenty of people know about these heroes – just not me!

When I picture scientists in Africa, I picture white men digging for fossils and white women studying gorillas.  But Africa has had plenty of its own scientists, including Professor Thomas Odhiambo, from Kenya.  Odhiambo was an entomologist who was interested in biological ways to reduce agricultural pests.  He wanted farmers, especially impoverished farmers, to have low-cost, environmentally sound, non-chemical means of reducing pests and maximizing yields.  During his life, he published over 130 papers and six children’s books.

Professor Odhiambo lived from 1931 – 2003.  He grew up in Mombassa and studied at Cambridge and in Uganda.  One of his concerns was in not only educating Africans to be great scientists but in motivating them to stay in Africa once they were educated.  Dr. Odhiambo founded three different schools of higher education in Kenya, including The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe).  Odhiambo was particularly proud of the fact that most of Icipe’s PhD graduates are still working in Africa.

My sources for this blog entry are African Success and  The Guardian.   I urge you to click on the links for more details about this amazing man.