Interview / Kenya / People / Story types

The long awaited birthday gift: James Gachanja transitions

In this article James Gachanja, who has just retired from ILRI, the place that has been his home for the past 23 years, looks back on his journey at ILRI as he excitedly goes to pursue his farming dream.

James Gachanja, ILRI lab technician From an early age, James Gachanja understood the value of livestock. He was educated and brought up from an income on milk and fondly remembers how he used to help around the homestead with various livestock related task like helping the animals during calving, milking and feeding them. The exposure and these experiences made him to harbour a dream of working with livestock that saw him trained as an animal health worker and medical lab technologist.

Prior to joining ILRI, the then International Laboratory for research on animal diseases (ILRAD) in 1989 as a lab technician, he had been working with the Ministry of livestock at Kabete Vetlabs. While working at Vetlabs as a medical technologist, James was attached to a collaborative project between ILRAD and the Kenya government on a Dutch government sponsored wildlife project under Dr. Grotenhus, while there he learnt tissue culture, a research area that comprised his subsequent assignments over the years he worked in ILRAD and ILRI. He extensively worked on Theileria parva and more recently on peste des petits ruminants (PPR) vaccine. His other duties included carrying out monoclonal antibodies hybridization – a technology that involves the invitro fusion of hybrid cell lines from immuno-competent mice spleen cells and myeloma cells.

A fulfilling work and social life

The past 23 years at ILRI have been very exciting and rewarding for James, among his achievement in science was the successful modification of the ELIspot technique currently being used by the ILRI Biotech group from a human protocol that was used in Oxford. The technique was especially useful in the Theileria parva recombinant vaccine immunisation trial experiments. It greatly increased efficiency and has become a major technique for immunisation trails in ILRI. Another rewarding experience has been in the production of monoclonal antibodies that have been in use in ILRAD/ILRI and in other local and international research institutions.

‘Patience, persistence and integrity are qualities that I had to apply daily in my work’. It is such traits that enables scientists to spend long hours in the lab trying out different techniques and methods while waiting for months or even years before they can see and apply their results.

Social life at ILRI started on a high note for James, barely 6 months into his new job he was co-opted into UTAFITI SACCO and elected the SACCO’s treasurer six months later. He was involved one way or the other in recruitment of the current staff. He was also a member of the performance site review committee for many years where they tried to ensure fair and just performance ratings, rewarding and promotions were achieved across the institute. In addition, he served as the chairman of the electoral body of the ILRI National Recruited Staff (NRS) council for over 10 years. In his free time, he enjoyed playing squash with his ILRI colleagues and has represented ILRI in the Nairobi squash league a couple of times raising the ILRI banner in the sports arena.

He has become a reference person to many who seek to find out how the institution has changed over the years and for his valuable opinion in many staff welfare issues. James never shy’s away from interacting with the old and the young and cherishes the wisdom and insights from his elders, a trait learnt from working with farmers in his first job.

‘I believe that there is a good reason as to why we pass through certain life paths and meet different people. six years ago, with my former supervisor Jane Glew, we started visiting Thomas Bernados children home over Christmas and since Glew left Kenya, she has been sending money for the Christmas feast of this home every year. Through this involvement I have developed a longing to help the less fortunate and am now serving as a board member in another children’s home.’

Despites various challenges that have been along the way, among the thing that James is grateful to ILRI is the introduction of the staff development funds that gave employees the opportunity to pursue further studies in their area of interest. Through these funds, he was able to undertake his master in theological training at the African International University (formerly the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School (NEGST).  ‘I gained lots of knowledge and wisdom from AIU which  has greatly helped me in my personal interaction with the young, the middle and the old folks and has also helped me to live in harmony with myself, others and the world around me‘

ILRI’s Potential

ILRI honours the life of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai

James Gachanja describes a book published in 2007 by ILRI and the World Resources Institute (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

As he is leaving, James sees an institution that has a great potential particularly where ‘wet’ science is concerned. Looking at the existing capacity, ILRI has a lot of room to broaden its research to include many other livestock such as pigs, poultry, sheep, goats, camel and also increase the scope of livestock that it’s researching on to include emerging livestock such as rabbit, ostrich and others that are presently receiving little attention. The current effort that the institution is applying in improving the livelihoods of poor farmers and changing the agricultural situation both here in Kenya and other developing countries is only a fraction of both the existing farmers’ needs and ILRI’s research potential.

While we are on an era where communication and specifically social media has taken us by storm, James is doubtful about the adoption and use of social communication tools by the scientific community. He argues that in most instances results from scientific experiments take very long to realise and the accuracy of the information being reported is crucial, as such scientists are faced with a dilemma on what to communicate and how often to do this.

His true north

From the time he started working, James purposed in his heart to retire when he reached 55 years, on January 26, he celebrated his 55 birthday and gave himself the long awaited birthday gift! He retires to follow his first childhood love and to work on an activity that brings him a lot of gratification, farming! He will be farming at his Thika farm in central Kenya, initially starting with pig and coffee farming with future plans to bring on board dairy cows and goats, chicken, fish as well as establishing green houses for horticulture.

‘In life you have to do what you love and if you cannot get what you love, love what you are doing and if you cannot love what you are doing then quit, otherwise you are lying and killing yourself.’

Known by many as a ‘storyteller’, he summarises his reflections with the Winston Churchill story when in 1941 he was invited to give a speech to students and said, “Never give in. Never give in. Never give in.”

One thought on “The long awaited birthday gift: James Gachanja transitions

  1. James was one of my best guides when I got introduced into serious scientific research. Whenever I do tissue culture, which is essentially part of my daily routines, I fondly remember him, Reeves, Catherine and Dr Taracha. Together, they made science interesting, and James and Reeves in particular were fathers to me, with constant encouragement to Never give in even though I was close to giving in more than a million times. Thats one more friend leaving ILRI, am sad. All the best buddy and colleague in your future endeavors. I will surely visit your farm, not to bleed your cattle, but to enjoy fish from your ponds. Fredrick.

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