Dr George Warimwe
I was very pleased when the article I wrote on Dr Warimwe’s Rift Valley Fever vaccine development was published in the Saturday Nation (13th February 2016)….
Many people are interested to know more about this young Kenyan and I am keen to delve a bit into how he got where he is. Some of you may be tempted to imagine that Dr Warimwe has come from a privileged background and through his many connections, has made it to lead a research group at the University of Oxford. Nothing is further from the truth.
Dr Warimwe’s story is unique among scientists in the region yet his personal story is one dotted with hardships that would have led many to give up.
Dr Warimwe was born in Kiambu and spent his childhood years in Kawangware. By the time he was 12 years old, Dr Warimwe was an orphan who was taken in by his paternal grandparents. He finished his primary school whilst in Kawangware and then proceeded to Muhoho High School.
‘My grandfather always said to me that people can rob you of all material things but they can never rob you of your education. Leading vaccine programmes at Oxford University is not what you would have thought a person from Kawangware would be doing now. Looking back, it is difficult to overstate how fortunate I have been to be where I am given my humble starting point,’ says Dr Warimwe.
His grandparents struggled to put him through school using income generated from selling livestock. During this time, Dr Warimwe saw the importance of animals staying healthy. It was an obvious choice to study Veterinary Medicine when he joined the University of Nairobi in 1999.
Being orphaned young, Dr Warimwe had little confidence as a child but his grandparents instilled in him a sense of worth that to date, helps him to be optimistic and see the good in every situation.
‘My grandparents, especially grandma, did not want me to board at the university. They wanted me to keep them company. I would spend my evenings at their home in Kawangware, chatting by the warmth of a charcoal jiko. From all their stories, I was able to see the world in a different light,’ said Dr Warimwe.
Dr Warimwe graduated top of his veterinary class and it was while at the University of Nairobi’s Veterinary school, Dr Warimwe met Prof Susan Mbugua who became his first mentor in health research.
‘I spent lots of time in Prof Mbugua’s veterinary clinic during and after completing my degree. She had very high expectations of me and I begun to see myself in a different light. Were it not for her prompting, I would not have considered a career in research,’ said Dr Warimwe.
After a brief stint as an intern at ILRI, Dr Warimwe started work on his PhD at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Programme in Kilifi. He worked with Dr Peter Bull and Prof Kevin Marsh on research on childhood malaria, making discoveries on the development of immunity to malaria. He was keen to use his new skills in improving animal health and choose to work on developing vaccines for diseases that spread between animals and humans (zoonoses).
He sought the opportunity to initiate a vaccine development programme at the world-renown Jenner Institute in Oxford, which focuses on developing and testing new vaccines for both humans and livestock.
‘I was very happy to find that the Institute had an interest in RVF as it was a disease I was always very interested in. I remembered a lecturer at the Veterinary school at Kabete describing its devastating effect and then telling us that there was no cure. I was very keen in doing research that would have a direct impact and developing a vaccine for RVF seemed just the thing,’ said Dr Warimwe.
The journey from Kawangware to University of Oxford was clearly not smooth, but you would not know this if you were to meet this positive, warm, happily married father of two.