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How book spurred me to become a neurosurgeon

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How book spurred me to become a neurosurgeon

Dr Omar Abdirahman. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

Currently, there are roughly 33 neurosurgeons in Kenya. That’s at most one neurosurgeon per 1.45 million people.

And so it should be a big deal when a new neurosurgeon qualifies to join the profession; balloons and non-alcoholic champagne in this case because Dr Omar Abdirahman is the newest entrant, after successfully completing his Masters of Medicine in Neurosurgery from the University of Nairobi. (He’s fully schooled and trained in Kenya). He’s also the youngest, at 33-years of age, and the tallest, at 6’5”.

His road has been long, starting from Garissa County where he was born and now in the country’s less trudged hallways of medicine. He met JACKSON BIKO for a chat.

From the parched-land of Garissa to Nairobi’s shiny corridors of medicine. Some journey, huh?

It has been. I come from a big family of ten kids. My mother was born in Garissa, my father worked there as a principal of the biggest Madrasa – Madras Najah – and an orphanage. I’m the third born; we are five boys and five girls. We then moved to Nairobi when I was seven years and you know, attended schools like Khalsa Primary School and Highway Secondary School, and here I am.

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Why neurosurgery, why not, I don’t know, veterinary medicine?

It may sound cliché but one of the first things that caught my interest was Ben Carson’s book; Gifted Hands. I’ve always been intrigued by the brain and how it functions. Even when I was a first time medical student, I really enjoyed Neuroanatomy. I liked the impact it had on humans. We were only two in our Masters class; myself and a guy from Mauritius. He’s yet to finish because he took a year off.

How is it growing up in a family of ten? Are you all from the same mother?

Yes, and same father. [Chuckle]. It was fun. The house was always full. You didn’t have to go out looking for friends outside when there were like nine guys in here you could make friends with. When you are from a big family you learn interpersonal interactions. There was a lot of arguments amongst ourselves but we could also gang up against outside aggression. You learn how to deal with people and to diffuse situations. We ate together. More importantly it ingrained in us a strong meaning of the importance of family. And as an Islamic scholar my father has been my greatest influence in my life.

He always told us that eventually, whatever happens, remember that you are going to die. And in our religion we believe in the hereafter, so he always said that when you die your actions, whether good or bad, will be rewarded or recorded. Everybody will be held accountable. Islam and my parents have had the biggest influence in my life. I attended Madras faithfully until I was 16-years old. The only day we were off was Friday and Thursday afternoon. We would be woken up at 5:30am, to go to the mosque and then later in the evening again. He’d remind us that the best of Muslims are the ones who remind each other to do good and also remind you not to do bad.

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Has there been a point in your studies or budding career that you found the teaching of Islam and modern medicine conflicting?

Not so much. But we don’t practise euthanasia which, of course, is illegal in Kenya. Also things like stem cell might not be something I would delve into, especially if you’re going to make life like the way they made Dolly the Sheep in 2016. We are not the creator of life and one of the few things I always have to remember is we do not heal, we treat. Because it’s very easy to develop a demigod complex as a doctor which is why you might find some really proud doctors. My biggest fear actually as a doctor is developing that arrogance to think that you are the one who heals.

Which doctor has had the greatest impact so far in your profession? And why?

The late Prof Hassan Saidi, who passed on almost two years ago. A man of many caps; a brilliant mentor, an anatomist, the chairman of the Department of Anatomy until his death, a surgeon, a teacher and a friend. He never took “I can’t” for an answer. I’d run into him in the aisle of the supermarket and he’d leave me challenged. Until years before he got sick he played basketball, he always played weekend. If you went with him with a question he’d never give you a straight answer but ask you more questions. He went ahead and did his PhD even when he knew he had that rare type of cancer that killed him.

Is being such a tall and towering doctor an advantage or disadvantage?

[Laughs]The challenge with my height is that you cannot hide. Even in medical school, it came with a disadvantage because I stood out literary not just figuratively. That always meant I couldn’t miss class and go unnoticed or ward rounds. In any situation, in most rooms, I’m always almost the tallest. I don’t know if it;s good or bad but people remember you.

You’ve learnt and benefited from your older colleagues, what is your plan to add to this profession as young neurosurgeon?

Two perspectives; I’m big on mentorship because I’m a big beneficiary of mentorship. I’ve been mentored by so many amazing, brilliant people. I’d want to scale that mentorship to another level in terms of inspiring medical students. Yes, you have dreams, you came in you want to be a neurosurgeon, you want to be a cardiac surgeon, how can we help you? What can we help you with? That mentorship has to be holistic, in terms of assisting students both within and without, in the academics and non-academic. The other thing as a fraternity we have discussed and I’m big on is what we call setting up a Neurosurgical Centre of Excellence. We have six neurosurgeons in Eldoret, one in Kisumu, two in Mombasa, two in the military, one in Embu, the rest are in Nairobi. So, in the context of government plans, we’d want to have a Centre of Excellence. We have four or five centres of excellence currently we need more neurosurgeons serving the country.

What kind of neurosurgeon do you aspire to be known for?

A kind and compassionate neurosurgeon.

In your community (Somali), you’re very late in getting married. Have you had pressure to get married or do they understand that you have been chasing a big difficult dream?

[Laughs]. It’s a question which comes up over and over again; at functions, funerals, weddings. At some point you learn how to answer those questions or just dodge them. Yes, but at the end of the day, I’m not saying it’s not a priority, but it will happen when it happens. Of course I’d want to have a family and kids and I pray to get that but it’s not like money you go to work and get.

So, what’s the plan now to celebrate your little entrance into the profession?

I’m off to Mecca in a few days time to go for what is called Umrah – it’s like a minor pilgrimage. As I told you, I’m most grateful to my creator Allah for guiding me, keeping me through this journey, it has been a long and difficult, but a memorable journey of long days and even longer nights. So, I just want to go and ibada, for this gift of life and for getting me here but also to bless my hands in the journey ahead.

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BCCI: The bank ‘that would bribe God’

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Bank of Credit and Commerce International. August 1991. [File, Standard]

“This bank would bribe God.” These words of a former employee of the disgraced Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) sum up one of the most rotten global financial institutions.

BCCI pitched itself as a top bank for the Third World, but its spectacular collapse would reveal a web of transnational corruption and a playground for dictators, drug lords and terrorists.

It was one of the largest banks cutting across 69 countries and its aftermath would cause despair to innocent depositors, including Kenyans.

BCCI, which had $20 billion (Sh2.1 trillion in today’s exchange rate) assets globally, was revealed to have lost more than its entire capital.

The bank was founded in 1972 by the crafty Pakistani banker Agha Hasan Abedi.

He was loved in his homeland for his charitable acts but would go on to break every rule known to God and man.

In 1991, the Bank of England (BoE) froze its assets, citing large-scale fraud running for several years. This would see the bank cease operations in multiple countries. The Luxembourg-based BCCI was 77 per cent owned by the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi.  

BoE investigations had unearthed laundering of drugs money, terrorism financing and the bank boasted of having high-profile customers such as Panama’s former strongman Manual Noriega as customers.

The Standard, quoting “highly placed” sources reported that Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed Sultan would act as guarantor to protect the savings of Kenyan depositors.

The bank had five branches countrywide and panic had gripped depositors on the state of their money.

Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) would then move to appoint a manager to oversee the operations of the BCCI operations in Kenya.

It sent statements assuring depositors that their money was safe.

The Standard reported that the Sheikh would be approaching the Kenyan and other regional subsidiaries of the bank to urge them to maintain operations and assure them of his personal support.

It was said that contact between CBK and Abu Dhabi was “likely.”

This came as the British Ambassador to the UAE Graham Burton implored the gulf state to help compensate Britons, and the Indian government also took similar steps.

The collapse of BCCI was, however, not expect to badly hit the Kenyan banking system. This was during the sleazy 1990s when Kenya’s banking system was badly tested. It was the era of high graft and “political banks,” where the institutions fraudulently lent to firms belonging or connected to politicians, who were sometimes also shareholders.

And even though the impact was expected to be minimal, it was projected that a significant number of depositors would transfer funds from Asian and Arab banks to other local institutions.

“Confidence in Arab banking has taken a serious knock,” the “highly placed” source told The Standard.

BCCI didn’t go down without a fight. It accused the British government of a conspiracy to bring down the Pakistani-run bank.  The Sheikh was said to be furious and would later engage in a protracted legal battle with the British.

“It looks to us like a Western plot to eliminate a successful Muslim-run Third World Bank. We know that it often acted unethically. But that is no excuse for putting it out of business, especially as the Sultan of Abu Dhabi had agreed to a restructuring plan,” said a spokesperson for British Asians.

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A CBK statement signed by then-Deputy Governor Wanjohi Murithi said it was keenly monitoring affairs of the mother bank and would go to lengths to protect Kenyan depositors.

“In this respect, the CBK has sought and obtained the assurance of the branch’s management that the interests of depositors are not put at risk by the difficulties facing the parent company and that the bank will meet any withdrawal instructions by depositors in the normal course of business,” said Mr Murithi.

CBK added that it had maintained surveillance of the local branch and was satisfied with its solvency and liquidity.

This was meant to stop Kenyans from making panic withdrawals.

For instance, armed policemen would be deployed at the bank’s Nairobi branch on Koinange Street after the bank had announced it would shut its Kenyan operations.

In Britain, thousands of businesses owned by British Asians were on the verge of financial ruin following the closure of BCCI.

Their firms held almost half of the 120,000 bank accounts registered with BCCI in Britain. 

The African Development Bank was also not spared from this mess, with the bulk of its funds deposited and BCCI and stood to lose every coin.

Criminal culture

In Britain, local authorities from Scotland to the Channel Islands are said to have lost over £100 million (Sh15.2 billion in today’s exchange rate).

The biggest puzzle remained how BCCI was allowed by BoE and other monetary regulation authorities globally to reach such levels of fraudulence.

This was despite the bank being under tight watch owing to the conviction of some of its executives on narcotics laundering charges in the US.

Coast politician, the late Shariff Nassir, would claim that five primary schools in Mombasa lost nearly Sh1 million and appealed to then Education Minister George Saitoti to help recover the savings. Then BoE Governor Robin Leigh-Pemberton condemned it as so deeply immersed in fraud that rescue or recovery – at least in Britain – was out of the question.

“The culture of the bank is criminal,” he said. The bank was revealed to have targeted the Third World and had created several “institutional devices” to promote its operations in developing countries.

These included the Third World Foundation for Social and Economic Studies, a British-registered charity.

“It allowed it to cultivate high-level contacts among international statesmen,” reported The Observer, a British newspaper.

BCCI also arranged an annual Third World lecture and a Third World prize endowment fund of about $10 million (Sh1 billion in today’s exchange rate).

Winners of the annual prize had included Nelson Mandela (1985), sir Bob Geldof (1986) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1989).

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Tracking and monitoring motor vehicles is not new to Kenyans. Competition to install affordable tracking devices is fierce but essential for fleet managers who receive reports online and track vehicles from the comfort of their desk.

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East Africa celebrates top women in banking and finance

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The Angaza Awards for Women to watch in Banking and Finance in East Africa took place Online via Zoom on 8th June 2021.

The event was set to celebrate the top 10 women shaping banking and finance across East Africa. The 2021 Angaza Awards, which will be a Pan-African Awards program, was also announced at the event.

Key speakers at this webinar were Dr Nancy Onyango, Director of Internal Audit and Inspection at the IMF; and Gail Evans, New York Times Best Selling Author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman and former White House Aide and CNN Executive Vice President.

Dr Nancy Onyango advised women to deep expertise in their fields, spend time in forums and link with key players in that sector.
“Gain exposure with other cultures by seeking for employment overseas and use customized CV for each job application,” said Dr Onyango.

According to Gail Evans, women should show up and be fully present in meetings and not be preoccupied with other issues.
“Be simple and avoid jargon. Multi-tasking only means that you are mediocre Smart people ask good questions in a business meeting. Most women face drawbacks due to perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure, said Evans.

She advised women to play like a man and win like a woman, be strategic, and intentionally make their moves to get to the top.

“For us to pull up businesses that have been affected by effects of COVID-19 pandemic, we need to re-invent business models, change the product offering and make more use of digital platforms,” said Mary Wamae Equity Group Executive Director.

Mary Wamae emerged top at the inaugural Angaza awards( East Africa) ahead of other finalists.

While women continue to excel in banking and finance, the number of that occupies top executive positions is still less.

“There is a gap for women occupying C suite level and it continues to widen in the finance sector. At entry level, there is still an experience gap for women,” said Nkirote Mworia, Group Secretary for UAP-Old Mutual Group.

She said that at the Middle Management level, women do not express their ambition. For this reason, UAP-Old Mutual has developed an executive sponsorship program to help women get to the next level.

Mworia added that most women hold the notion that top positions in management have politics and pressure.
“One needs leadership skills and not technical expertise to get to the top,” said Mworia.

According to Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer and Principal Officer of APA Life Assurance Company, women need to focus on the strengths and natural abilities that they already have.

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“Take risks and raise your hand to get to the high table. Find mentors along the way and develop your own brand and not compare yourself with others Focus on your strengths because it will make you move faster in the career ladder,” said Karimi.

Lina Mukashyaka Higiro, a Rwandan businesswoman and chief executive officer of the NCBA Bank Rwanda since July 2018, has three lessons for women who want to excel in banking and finance.
“Always spend at least 20 minutes each day reading, seeking genuine feedback from other staff members and widen your network,” Higiro told the webinar.

Women picked for Angaza awards

Mary Wamae, Executive Director, led this year’s Top 10 Women in Angaza Awards, Equity Group (Kenya)(2)Catherine Karimi, Chief Executive Officer, APA Life Insurance Company (Kenya)(3)Lina Higiro, Chief Executive Officer, NCBA Bank (Rwanda)(4)Elizabeth Wasunna Ochwa, Business Banking Director, Absa Bank (Kenya)(5)Joanita Jaggwe, Country Head of Risk and Compliance, KCB Group (South Sudan)(6) Millicent Omukaga, Technical Assistance Expert on Inclusive Finance, African Development Bank (Kenya)(7)Emmanuella Nzahabonimana, Head of Information Technology, KCB Group (Rwanda)(8)Judith Sidi Odhiambo, Group Head of Corporate Affairs, KCB Group (Kenya)(9)Rosemary Ngure, ESG & Impact Manager, Catalyst Principal Partners (Kenya) and(10)Pooja Bhatt, Co-Founder, QuantaRisk and QuantaInsure (Kenya).

The Kenyan Wallstreet, a financial media firm, partnered with Kaleidoscope Consultants to raise awareness of seasoned women shaping and influencing the sector through their organizations.

The Angaza Award criteria included assessing the applicants’ area of responsibility and contribution to firm performance. Professionals in Banking, Capital Markets, Insurance, Investment Banking, Fintech, Fund Management, Microfinance, and SACCOs were invited to submit their applications or nominations via the Kenyan Wallstreet Award Web page.

ALSO READ: Angaza Awards Top Finalist; Mary Wangari Wamae

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IFC in New Partnership to Develop Affordable Housing in Mombasa County

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NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 14 – International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, has signed a new deal in support of affordable housing in Kenya.

The corporation has partnered with Belco Realty LLP, to develop a mixed use affordable living complex that will consist of 1,379 residential units and over 4,500 square meters of retail and commercial spaces in Kongowea, Mombasa County.

Together with the Kenyan firm, IFC says the partnership will help meet surging demand for housing in Kenya.

Under the agreement, IFC will help identify suitable international strategic partners to invest equity of up to $12 million, or Sh1.3 billion in Belco and to provide the company with the necessary technical support to develop the project.

The development, known as Kongowea Village, will be developed to foster inclusive and affordable community living within the city.

Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa says the project, which will be located on eight acres within the heart of Mombasa city, will aim to be a catalyst for wider city regeneration.

The project will be developed to meet IFC EDGE certification requirements and will incorporate the latest technologies in passive cooling, energy efficiency and water conservation to support sustainable urbanization.

 Kongowea Village is expected to create 1,160 jobs and business opportunities during the three-year construction period and many more after completion of the project within the themed retail arcade.

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 “Access to quality housing is a growing problem in Kenya and across Africa,” said Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu, IFC’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa.

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“Developers often target the high end of the market, but this project is aimed squarely at the lower-income bracket. Helping Belco identify the right partners for this project is expected to attract more developers to Kenya and other parts of Africa to help meet rising demand for housing.”

 IFC‘s engagement with Belco will help Kenya support its rapidly growing and urbanizing population by increasing access to affordable housing. The problem is similar across most of Africa, where population growth and demand for quality housing are combining to outstrip supply.  We are pleased to partner with a company such as Belco that is committed to contributing to solving this challenge,” said Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, IFC‘s Director for Transaction Advisory Services.

 IFC’s partnership with Belco is part of its broader strategy to support better access to affordable housing in Kenya.

In 2020, IFC invested $2 million in equity in the Kenya Mortgage Refinance Company (KMRC) to help increase access to affordable mortgages and support home ownership in the country.

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