Joseck Matheri Chege is a HIV Specialist at a multinational research-based biopharmaceutical company. He is also an ardent proponent of healthy living through proper nutrition. He has a chat with EDNA GICOVI about his work in the pharmaceutical industry, food as medicine for the body, and building a strong marriage and family.
For the last six years, many students at the Gatumbi Primary School in Murang’a County have strived to excel in their end of term exams at the end of every school year. Though it’s generally expected of students to want to pass their exams, there’s an added incentive for the exceptional students of Gatumbi – a brand new pair of shoes courtesy of Joseck Matheri and his family.
Matheri, an alumnus of the school, was barefoot during his eight years at the primary school. “None of us wore shoes in primary school. That’s just the way it was then. You wore shoes when you got to form one. The joy of enabling someone to have the shoes we did not enjoy drove me to want to give back in this particular way and it has really made the students work extra hard to qualify for the shoes and in the process raised the standards of the school and my village as well,” he says.
The first of four children from a strict Christian family in Murang’a, Matheri recalls informing his teacher Mr.Kamau while in class four that he wanted to be a minister in the government. In his eyes, ministers were admired and respected and seemed to play an important role in the community. Looking back, though his nine-year-old self at the time was unaware of it, Matheri feels that this aspiration stemmed from a desire to take charge and be a problem solver in his community, an endeavour he is already involved in through different initiatives.
“I don’t have to be a minister as we know it to make a difference. A minister is not a boss but a servant and to be a minister is actually to serve,” he says.
Perhaps it is this potential for greatness that his mother noted in him from an early age. Knowing that her son wanted to study but sometimes got lonely staying up all by himself, she would keep him company and keep herself busy by weaving a kiondo (hand-woven sisal bag) as Matheri studied.
“During exam time she would bring a basin with cold water for me to dip my legs so that I didn’t fall asleep. Sometimes, during my earlier years of schooling she would read with me. She was a big motivator and I owe a lot of what I am today to her, not forgetting the arduous task of balancing much of our dad’s absence who worked for the government at Vanga near Lunga Lunga. Our dad scores an A+ in provision and discipline irrespective of the challenges of distance at the time,” says Matheri.
Venturing into pharmaceuticals…
Matheri attended Njiiri School where he fell in love with chemistry and continued to pursue this when he proceeded to the Egerton University. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 2000. The talk of there being no jobs for graduates was rife in the country at the time. Following his graduation, an idealistic Matheri turned down a job offer as a chemistry and math teacher at Mandera High School. Mandera was too far away and he was sure he could get a better job. A month later with no other job prospects in sight, he accepted the teaching position. He enjoyed teaching both subjects and mentoring the students.
He left the school after only a term of teaching, to the surprise of his colleagues. “I prayed and felt that it was time for me to move on to something else so at the end of the term I packed all my belongings and travelled back home with nothing in sight except faith,” he says.
Shortly after his return, an elder from his church who happened to be a doctor had a chat with him about the opportunities in the pharmaceutical world that he could take advantage of, something Matheri hadn’t considered. He landed his first job at Adcock Ingram, a South African pharmaceutical company, not too long after this discussion.
For the last 13 years Matheri has worked in the pharmaceutical industry with different multinational companies including Link Pharma, Solvay Pharma, Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD). He is currently working for a US based pharma company. He has also undergone numerous trainings in pharmaceutical sciences. MSD, an American pharmaceutical firm where he was managing HIV products for different parts of Kenya marked his foray into the HIV pharmaceutical world. He was hired as a HIV product specialist in charge of the East Africa region by a US based pharma company in 2008.
“My work involves a lot of relationship building between the company and many other key players in HIV, both local and international. The company sponsors HIV education for thousands of doctors every year in its programmes in different parts of Africa. HIV is a very dynamic field of study and there is new research and new drugs coming up every time. There are also new challenges to those drugs that keep coming up. I am involved in organising a lot of trainings for doctors so that HIV patients have the best of care,” he says.
He continues, “What we were doing with regard to HIV five years ago is now overtaken by other discoveries. Sometimes even a year makes a huge difference in research. We have to keep up the pace and I’m proud to be involved with a company that is leading in innovation and research and able to play a role in saving the lives that would otherwise have been lost.”
“HIV is a complicated disease,” says Matheri. One HIV virus mutates and produces about 10 billion viruses a day and with these constant changes, it cannot be fully suppressed by some drugs forever since the viruses ‘learn the drugs’ leading to drug resistance and hence the gigantic challenge with HIV medicine globally. He feels that more people need to invest in research and innovation in this particular field of study.
One of the factors that Matheri finds frustrating in the course of his work is the presence of numerous counterfeit medicines in the market. “Some people have perfected the art of counterfeiting and it’s really affecting people who are suffering from different diseases. We need to get back to a place where we are serving people and making money comes a distant second,” he says. Though the dispensing of fake drugs is a complex issue, he feels that through the partnership of government agencies and private companies, if the issue can be tackled as a matter of security some headway would be made.
Let thy food be thy medicine…
Away from pharmaceuticals, Matheri is passionate about promoting optimal health through proper nutrition. “My wife and I felt that we needed to serve in this area. We knew of different people who were suffering from various ailments because of ignorance and thought that if they had the proper health information, this would change. We also wanted to get involved in addressing the lack of awareness in matters of health in the general public,” he says.
Matheri approached an experienced nutritionist and together they started organising health talks. They approached a vicar of a local church in his home area of Murang’a in 2005 where they hoped to give the first talk. With material translated into Kikuyu and some take-home informational booklets, Matheri, his wife Janet, and the nutritionist went to the church and gave a brief half-hour health talk during the service. The talk was extended to the afternoon after too many questions arose from the congregation.
“The afternoon session ended up taking three more hours. People asked a lot of questions and I could tell that many were being set free from bad habits that were pushing them towards disease. It was a very humbling experience for all of us,” says Matheri.
It has been nine years since that first health talk. The vicar who gave them a first chance to speak at his church is currently the bishop of ACK Murang’a South diocese, the Right Rev. Julius Karanu, and through his help, they have been able to visit many other churches in Murang’a and carry out educational seminars on health. They have seen the information they provide changing lives and Matheri couldn’t be happier. “This is what it means to me to be a minister – serving people,” he notes.
“We encourage lifestyle change. We do not go for these talks with any medicine, neither do we charge for these services,” he adds. He strongly believes that watching one’s nutrition is critical in the maintenance of good health and quotes the renowned ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Since his active involvement in the promotion of health through good nutrition, he has also received a number of calls from different organisations to train their staff. Matheri sees himself being part of the health revolution in the future. He also looks forward to adding to his knowledge on the subject by pursuing a health course that will take him in the direction of health management.
His service to the community also seems to have reflected on to his family. “My wife and I are happy to see that as we have ministered health to other people, God has ministered health to us in such an amazing way. Our three children have never been to hospital because of any ailment in nine years to be precise. This has given us a lot of peace of mind. We also lead a very healthy life and encourage our children to do the same. We have invested a lot in the health of our family through good nutritional practices,” he says.
Matheri started a family group of four couples called Solid Rock whose objective is to get family members meet regularly to share their lives. The group also discusses marriage and other family issues and encourages their children to form strong, positive relationships. “When we started out, we were all strangers. We have been together two years now and we have become a very close-knit unit. We also pool money once every three months and visit each other’s parents with gifts and spend a day with them. The positive impact created by this group has been wonderful and we hope that this idea can be used to build stronger families,” he says.
Unlearning the “right way”…
Matheri and his wife, a manager at GlaxoSmithKline, recently celebrated 11 years of marriage. “She is a lovely girl. She was the only girl I dated,” he says fondly, adding that they are not only celebrating over a decade in marriage but also11 years of love and friendship. “Much of who I am today has a lot to do with her. She believes in me so much that I just have to keep aiming higher,” he says.
Matheri and Janet have three children, Moen, nine, Jewel, six, and Roy, two and-a-half. Matheri enjoys parenting and considers his children divine gifts from God. He says family always comes first for him and his wife. “There are some prestigious, well-paying jobs that we have both turned down simply because they would disorient us in terms of family. I make time to be with my family on the weekends and on weekdays I have to be home early at least twice a week. I don’t want to get home and find my children asleep every day. We also try to incorporate our children into our weekend engagements whenever possible so we can spend time with them,” he says.
Matheri says that one’s willingness to unlearn what he has always considered the “right way” of doing things is very important in marriage. “Marriage requires flexibility, which includes learning different ways of doing things. Of equal importance is shared friendship, which makes life easier and enables a couple to trust one another and move forward together. When your spouse makes a mistake, you will not think of it as an act of malice or regard them with suspicion. People make mistakes,” he says. He adds that though there are legal papers binding two individuals in marriage, a couple’s friendship should ultimately supersede this and be the strongest glue.
Of utmost importance to Matheri is God’s presence in his marriage. “I would be wary of a man or woman who is accountable to no one. The fact that I fear God keeps me from doing a lot of things which could produce negative outcomes,” he says.
Matheri stresses the value of pursuing a purpose in life. “Find the reason why you were born and pursue that. It is both fulfilling and exciting. The moment you start only going after the money, frustration sets in. If people can find out why they were born, why they have had to go through the unpleasant and pleasant moments and appreciate those moments as necessary lessons to destiny, life can be very sweet. You were born to do something that the world will not be able to ignore,” he says in conclusion.
Published on October 2014