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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Uganda's top biochemist is also a preacher, instrumentalist and and singer


A diminutive man in big spectacles and lines of seniority on his face stepped on the platform at Makerere Full Gospel Church and was moments later strumming his electric guitar and singing his heart out in an old-school style reminiscent of American country singer Johnny Cash in his heyday. The song, Give Me Grace Today, was a hypnotic preamble that got congregants lifting hands and singing along. The man’s zeal extended into his sermon on Walking in the Power of God’s Might, eliciting mighty “Amens” from his listeners. His name was Prof. John Lubega, in the country for a short visit, and Pr. Fred Wantaate had seized the opportunity and invited him as guest preacher.

Prof. John Lubega
    But this is Prof. Lubega’s real claim to fame: “I’m the only Ugandan at the moment who’s experienced well enough in laboratory medicine; there is no other.” Also the first Ugandan to become professor of biochemistry, he has for 35 years worked in some of the world’s best universities and hospitals, and distinguished himself with some inventions too. For example he was the first to crack the mystery of how a pregnant woman’s defense molecules cross to her unborn baby without leading to auto-immune diseases.    “I managed to work out the molecular configuration involved – the way the anti-bodies cross – and my work was the first to elucidate on how this process works.” 

       Now a Professor of Laboratory Medicine and Biochemistry at the University Hospital, the Medical School of the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Prof. Lubega’s life has been one roller-coaster! Born in 1948 at Nsambya Hospital, his father Dr. John Lubega (after whom he’s named) had other wives and didn’t play a significant role in the bringing of his son. So Lubega and his sister were solely raised by their mother, Dorothy Namuddu, a nurse. 

     In the early 1960s when Pentecostalism was beginning to take root in Uganda, his mother embraced it, and one Sunday grabbed her then 12-year-old son by the collar and dragged him to the alter to get saved. Lubega reminisces mirthfully: “It was the craziest but most important decision my mother made for me. I was very stubborn but after that dramatic conversion, all the demons of boyhood left me and for the first time I experienced real inner peace.”

      Lubega attended Aggrey Memorial Primary School but failed examinations, on account of which he was denied admission to Mengo S.S. Still believing in the competence of her son, his mother managed to get him a place at Lubiri S.S. He repaid her mother's confidence in him by coming on top of his class from then on.  In fact, when he got into S.2, he decided he deserved a better school and wrote to the headmaster of Kings College Budo about it. To his delight, his prayers were answered!  This was in 1963 – the year his mother quit her nursing job to become a full-time preacher. Lubega panicked but somebody somewhere always appeared and paid his tuition fees. “It was the first greatest lesson I learned from my mother,” he says, “that whoever serves Jesus never lacks.”

    From Budo, Lubega went to Makerere University to study medicine on government sponsorship. After graduation, he landed a scholarship to the University of Cambridge. He pinched himself not believing he was in the same university that Charles Darwin of the Natural Selection fame attended. Surely this was God's reward for his mother’s faithfulness and prayers. Moreover this was in 1976, at the height of Idi Amin’s reign of terror when doctors were not allowed to leave the country. Lubega was helped by his diminutive physical stature; he left through Kenya disguised as a local boy in torn shorts and slippers! Lubega graduated with a Masters of Medicine top of his class and was retained as a student scholar. 

     He later moved to the University of Leicester for his PhD in Biochemistry, where he also took Fellowship exams in Medicine and Surgery. The University recruited him as a lecturer, and made him the second black person in the UK to become Head of Department in his field. The first is also a Ugandan - Dr. Richard Ddungu. 

    In 1985, Prof. Lubega left England after noticing that black children there rarely progressed beyond Form Four. “I felt there was some kind of deliberate move of discouraging them from getting certificates and beyond, so black people live mainly in the inner city where there are more problems and they get involved in drugs…I said let me move out of UK or my children may never be educated…”

     He got a job in Saudi Arabia, at Riyadh Central Hospital, the oldest and largest hospital there. After four years, Prof. Lubeba moved to Kenya and worked as Consultant and Head of Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Nairobi Hospital.  

      “In 1991, the Ministry of Health in Kenya recruited me and about 10 other doctors to design how to do HIV testing in the whole country but it’s me who started it there before the Kenya Medical Research Institute started to deal in HIV as well,” he says. “I also set up a top lab at Nairobi Hospital dealing with everything to do with laboratory medicine.”

       He was also teaching at Nairobi University when he was recalled to Saudi Arabia in 2005 to set up the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at King Fahad Medical City, the largest hospital in the Middle East. He says, “When the people at the University of Sharjah where I am currently, heard that I had set up ultra-modern facilities at King Fahad Medical City, they asked me to go and set up the same for the government of Sharjah. Sharjah is the third largest of the Emirates after Abu Dhabi and Dubai Emirates.” 

        After 35 years, Prof. Lubega feels he’s now well positioned to help improve facilities and provide better medical care in East Africa. “I’m negotiating with the American company Siemens, which deals with large medical equipment and has now taken over in the world in diagnostics – the things that can be used in laboratories to diagnose diseases, to see how they can assist us in East Africa to set up diagnostic facilities across the region. We’re going to start in Kenya next year, before coming to Uganda. The facilities at Mulago are overstretched. The private sector has set up a few hospitals here that are very expensive. In between, the common man has nowhere to go. Uganda needs at least five hospitals like Mulago but nobody seems to care,” he says, adding he hopes the situation changes as it has in Kenya where he has set up various businesses supplying technical items to hospitals. 

      Prof. Lubega attributes his success to assiduous reading and researching, and being alert all the time. He doesn’t drink or smoke and is always on the look out for challenging opportunities in his field, and taking them on by faith. “Most of all, I attribute my success to my mother who knew the secret of getting things from God – through daily, persistent prayer,” he says with a smile. “Everyday from January to December she would lay hands on me and pray for the blessings of the Lord to follow me wherever I went.”

      That’s why Prof. Lubega can’t help being a preacher every chance he gets. It helps that he’s dexterous with the guitar (he also plays the organ and drums which he grew up playing in church), and has composed over 100 songs through which he, accompanied by his guitar, expresses his gratitude to God from making him the preacher, composer, singer and biochemist he is. He is married to Esther Lubega, a computer scientist, and they have five children one of which went to be with the Lord.