BENEDICT TEMBO, Lusaka
FOR Croffat Kazhila Chinsembu, working outside Zambia is brain circulation.Professor Chinsembu is in the Faculty of Science, Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Namibia (UNAM) in Windhoek.
He is a professor of molecular biology and microbiology, with a specialty in medicinal plants.
“The University of Zambia has not lost because I will be back. It’s just brain circulation. But we shall be back,” Prof Chinsembu, who worked as a lecturer at UNZA between 1996 and 2002, says.
Now based in Namibia, he has achieved some milestones in that country.
Prof Chinsembu has published two books which he says are a snapshot of what medicinal plants can do to heal diseases in Africa.
“They are seminal scholarly works; the first in the field,” he says.
Prof Chinsembu says the two books are of great value to Africa, not just for UNAM, because the fight against disease cannot just be left to pharmaceutical drugs.
“It must become multivalent, multipolar and multiplayer. And medicinal plants are the new normal, the future,” he said.
His first book, Green Medicines: Pharmacy of natural products for HIV and five AIDS-related infections; was published in 2016, while the second book is called Indigenous Natural Medicines for Diabetes, Obesity and High Cholesterol; published in June 2018.
He says they are the bestselling in Book World and Planet Books in Lusaka
In recognition of his contribution to the medical field in Namibia, Prof Chinsembu was appointed to the Namibia Medicines Regulatory Council (NMRC) where he will be advising the Council on herbal medicines.
“The appointment is a practical significance of the many years I have invested into research on medicinal plants. My lab has discovered new plant chemicals that work as antiretrovirals. We have also discovered new anti-malarial from plants. So this appointment is a culmination of all these milestones, including the authorship of the 2016 and 2018 books (Green Medicines and Indigenous Natural Medicines),” he said.
With his feat, Prof Chinsembu hopes to help Zambian researchers, government and health institutions to actualise the promise of medicinal plants as a safe and effective window of dispensary.
“We need to move away from the mentality that health is just dependent on medical doctors. Allied health professions can help form a co-equal arm of health care. Africa should not just depend on dead medicines, pharmaceutical drugs donated and dumped in our countries by foreign agencies,” he says.
Prof Chinsembu is advocating making complementary medicines safe for citizens because some plant medicines can kill faster than chemical poisons.
“Therefore, regulation of herbal medicines is important especially in the area of posology. Zambia can learn a lot from Chinese Medicine. Stated differently, we need to diversify the provision of drugs, because some herbals are even more efficacious and safer than pharmaceutical drugs,” he says.
Prof Chinsembu says regulation of herbal medicines is the key.
“This is an area Government must strengthen. Because we don’t want men high on mutototo to be rushed to cholera centres. Therefore, we must make sure that we understand the activity, safety, posology and pharmacovigilance of herbal drugs. This is the work that I’m involved in; to help Zambia and Africa tap into the wealth of our medicinal plants, our green copper, our green diamonds,” he says.
Prof Chinsembu was born in Zambezi and went to Chileng’a Primary School in that district.
He attended Zambezi Secondary School from 1980 to 1984.
Prof Chinsembu studied Biological Sciences and Chemistry at UNZA, graduating with a merit in 1989. His first job was with the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Insect Physiology and Ecology.
He earned his MSc with distinction from the Free University of Brussels and his PhD from UNAM.
In 2015, he was one of five eminent Zambian professors shortlisted and interviewed for the position of vice-chancellor of UNZA.
This is the man who was marred by polio during his childhood. He went to primary school without shoes.
They were born seven in the family. His father was a carpenter and bricklayer struggling to make ends meet.
Chinsembu’s first ever trip to Lusaka was when he was selected to UNZA.
“I’m a village boy. Up to now I have a phobia for big cities,” he says.
He is married to Grace Mukumbo, the daughter of the headmaster at the primary school that he attended.
“My wife and I have two daughters. One [Wana] is a Master’s graduate in commercial law from the University of Cape Town. The other one [Lusa] is studying medicine in Russia,” he says.
“As a student, life was great. Food was great. Made new friends from all over the country. There was no tribalism,” Prof. Chinsembu says.
Prof Chinsembu has made several friends over the years – starting from the days as a student until now as a lecturer.
But he has fond memories of minister in the Vice-President’s Office, Sylvia Chalikosa, whom he calls a family friend, a great woman and leader.
Recently, Prof Chinsembu applied for the position of vice-chancellor of UNZA, but despite not being offered the job, he has no regrets as the person who is there is capable.
“I was not disappointed when I didn’t get the job of vice-chancellor. My time will come. And the person who was appointed, Prof Luke Mumba, was my tutor, my mentor. He’s the right man for the job right now. I respect him. I want to work with him, he’s a great scholar, a giant,” he says.
An avid reader of Chinua Achebe’s books, Prof Chinsembu has pledged loyalty to Prof Mumba and his administration.
“Chinua Achebe said he who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness, so I pay my respects to Prof Mumba. He’s the best for UNZA at the moment in time. We all need to support him. I’m ready to help,” he says.
Prof Chinsembu feels that the Zambian academic diaspora must partner with UNZA, even by video- conferencing, to offer courses.
“I also have access to scholarships to help Zambian students. So we’re all in the same boat. You love your country more when you’re outside. And I know that Zambia is precious to me. Don’t set it on fire,” he says.
Commenting on his appointment to the NMRC, Prof Chinsembu says it ties in well with his work on medicinal plants.
“This is in line with what we call academic citizenship. It’s also in honour of my late mum, Nelly Chikwama, herself a citizen doctor, a traditional healer. I dedicate this appointment to her,” he says.
Prof Chinsembu considers his job as a professor as the best in the whole world.
“It is my destiny, my calling, my first love. But I stand on the shoulders of giants such as Professors Emmanuel Chidumayo, Andre Mbata, JJ Moore, Siwela, Poor Phiri, Geoffrey Howard, William Banage, and Semakula Kiwanuka. Without these, I would be a nobody. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr Suleiman Okech, who was my mentor during my first job at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology,” he says.
He eulogises Dr Okech and Mr Albert Chalabesa at Mount Makulu Research Station as having been great teachers.
“They taught me to be a good scientist. They gave me my first chance in science. Mr Chrispin Kaposhi and Patrick Mundia, too, at National Council for Scientific Research (NCSR), taught me a lot. I owe them,” Prof Chinsembu says.
During his spare time, Prof Chinsembu enjoys jazz music.
Prof Chinsembu’s wish is to take sabbatical and return to teach at Chileng’a Primary School and Zambezi Secondary School in order to inspire the kids.
His next move?
“I will be back much stronger, much wiser, much more. Believe me,” he says.
BENEDICT TEMBO, Lusaka