Pretoria, South Africa
FROM the village of Muwele in Chief Chiundaponde in Mpika district to the edge of Table Mountain at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa leading a team of world-class researchers, is the inspiring life story of an award-winning Zambian professor of organic chemistry.
A second born in a family of three, Professor Kelly Chibale is the son of Elizabeth Malekano Chanda and Harrison Chibale.
He did his primary education at Muwele Government School in Mpika district and later proceeded to Mungwi Secondary School where he did both his junior and secondary education.
Afterwards, he proceeded to the University of Zambia (UNZA), where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1987.
From UNZA, he briefly worked at Kafironda Explosives in Mufulira on the Copperbelt before winning a Cambridge Livingstone Trust Scholarship to pursue a PhD at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom in 1989.
He then won a Sir William Ramsay British Research Fellowship to pursue postdoctoral studies at the University of Liverpool in the UK and subsequently won a Welcome Trust International Prize Travelling Research Fellowship for further postdoctoral studies, this time, at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, United States.
Growing up in a village with no electricity, running water and sharing a single bed in a small room with his brother, Prof Chibale did not let the circumstances of the moment weigh him down.
His perseverance and faith has propelled him to being named among the 50 greatest leaders in the world by Fortune Magazine. His favourite saying that “it’s not how you start, but how you end up that matters”, has indeed been proven right.
With qualifications and training in the field of synthetic organic chemistry from some of the world leading institutions in the UK and USA, one would not need to be a rocket scientist, magician or indeed prophet to understand that it is resilience and hard work that have propelled Prof Chibale to who he is today.
Additionally, Prof Chibale has the unquestionable grace of exhibiting a true spirit of humbleness. He is down to earth to the extent that one would fatally mistake him for a lab or office assistant.
Yet, he is the founder and director of Africa’s first integrated world class drug discovery center also known as H3D based at the UCT, arguably Africa’s number one University.
When I paid him a scheduled visit at his office on the seventh floor of the PD Hahn building in the Chemistry Department, I first met a man outside Prof Chibale’s office who was modestly dressed in a green stripped T-shirt, blue jeans and canvasses that an average Zambian would refer to as Kamwala. He was emptying a small paper bin into a bigger bin, and in my mind, I had no doubt that the professor was not yet in. I thought that the man cleaning the office was his assistant.
But as the adage goes, never judge a book by its cover.
Indeed, I was deceived when I mentioned to the man standing outside a strictly access controlled area my mission and who I was scheduled to meet, only to be told “Oh, you are right on time, I was expecting you.”
He continued: “Please come in and make yourself comfortable, I was just making my office a bit tidy, for some reason, all the administrative staff and my secretary are not here today, so I have to answer all the calls and attend meetings. In fact, you did well to come in good time because I have another scheduled meeting at middle campus in the next 40 minutes, so I can spare 30 minutes for us to chat. May I offer you some water?”
Who would expect a celebrated and accomplished researcher and academician with over 20 years’ experience of groundbreaking research in trying to better the lives of many people across the world especially Africa, to be this meek and humane?
However, Prof Chibale credits his inspirational success story to the goodness and gracefulness of God as well as his mother’s extreme hard work.
Indeed, it is when you take into account the hardships he had to go through in his early years as a village boy before migrating to the Copperbelt with his mother [his father died when he was only two months old] where they lived in different townships such as Kwacha, Kamitondo and the famous Buchi in Kitwe.
Prof Chibale got fascinated with chemistry as a subject in his formative stages of secondary education at Mungwi Secondary School where he made a decision to pursue it further as a career despite all the fears and myths surrounding the field. For him, he considers his field of operation as a calling from God to help improve the life of mankind rather than a career.
He feels Zambia has a lot of potential and talent to produce world class scientists given the necessary infrastructure. This is why his appeal to Government is to establish scientific infrastructure as a basis on which groundbreaking research will flourish.
He also has free valuable advice to the young and upcoming Zambian scientists. He says they need to establish networks and globally aligned scientific projects as science is universal and also for them to tap into the resources that they do not have on the ground.
Based on his experiences and not as a prescription, Prof Chibale further calls on Zambian scientists to establish dedicated teams with integrated skills that complement each other as dictated to by projects.
He further gave three pieces of general advice for young Zambians: Firstly, make the most of every opportunity – you never know where each will lead; secondly, be consistent and stick to what you believe and the calling you have received; and lastly, remember you will always have critics, naysayers and people who will mock you – remember to run your own race because you were uniquely created by God to run your own race and not someone else’s.
“Guess what, I did not start by mentioning money. It’s not that money is nothing or it falls from trees. Accessing money is competitive and a problem everywhere you go in the world but I did not mention money first because money will follow infrastructure, money will follow a good project that is globally aligned, money will follow a dedicated team with integrated skills and money will follow experience,” he told me.
Prof Chibale is a good example of resilience and what Africa and Zambia in particular can produce despite coming from an underprivileged background.
Solutions to Zambia’s challenges are within Zambia. Indeed, it is not how you start but how you end up, that matters.
Like other sons and daughters of Zambia that have achieved remarkable results in various disciplines both at home and abroad, Prof Chibale goes into the history books as one of the scientific fine brains that the country has produced.
He is proudly flying the Zambian eagle high and higher.
(The author is First Secretary Press and Public Relations at the Zambian High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa)