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The dream factory called life

Portrait: Said Jongo

I n athletics, Africans are unbeatable over the long distance. But even those who have successfully completed their education in countries like Tanzania know how to run the hurdles. Like Said Jongo, for example. The doctoral student at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) was born in 1977 as the oldest of 10 children in rural

Tanga region. His mother takes care of the household. His father is poor but blessed with a broad knowledge. “The wealth of children in my family home was only surpassed by

the wealth of books,” recalls Said Jongo. On the shelves in the living room of the house, spines of books crowded together. But young Said Jongo rarely got to read. From an early

age, he slipped into the role of a parent, caring for his siblings and serving as a role model for them.

Success at school is a prerequisite for a reasonably secure future. As in many parts of the world, private schools in Tanzania are out of reach for a majority of families. Everyone else

tries to get into an inexpensive public school. The national exams to continue to the next level of education determine whether a student advances. “After each exam, we immediately tried to find a job, because it was never clear wheth-er the educational path would not come to an abrupt end,”

Jongo recalls. Until the exam results are published, he repairs cars in his uncle’s workshop, or teaches his friends the secrets of the computer. His aunt is an entrepreneur and one of the first persons in the town to own a computer. It is a computer of considerable size and weight and sits on the aunt’s desk. The aunt herself is more mobile than her technological acquisition and often travels. And so the computer guide who should have been teaching the aunt is teaching her nephew, Jongo, who in turn is passing on the new knowledge to his students. “My reputation as a computer professional soon made the rounds in the town,” he still says with pride.

And then, for the first time in his life, he has to say goodbye to his parents and siblings. In the back window of the bus, the 19-year-old sees his home town disappear in a cloud of dust. The destination of the journey is a boarding school for students with special talents in Arusha, in the north of the country. Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, enforced

the idea of being assigned to a different region to discourage tribalism. This was called nation building back then. The dormitory of the boarding school is as large as a factory hall,

with beds packed close together. “But we could have managed without a place to sleep,” recalls Said Jongo, laughing.

“We studied day and night in the library. Anyone who overslept was an outsider.” The cramming pays off. The advanced certificate of secondary education in Arusha got him selected for a government grant to study a degree in Doctor of Medicine at Muhimbili University in Dar es Salaam. In addition to the theory, it is the practical work that occupies the young student: shattered bones, inflamed appendixes, heart attacks. The whole spectrum. And yet something is missing. “Patients in hospitals are cared for their individual ailments,” says Said Jongo.

“A lot of it reminded me of my uncle’s auto repair shop, only with additional, unique emotional experiences and strength to keep providing the highly needed healthcare. But I was more interested in clinical research which deals with ailments at population level. I was drawn to research.” After successfully completing medical school, his thoughts turn eastward. He and his wife are learning Chinese. They apply for a scholarship at Tongji University in Shanghai. And are accepted. In Shanghai, he deepens his knowledge in Masters of Medicine in internal medicine with a major in cardiology. Rides the magnetic railroad but cannot imagine a life in China.

In China, Said Jongo experienced for the first time what modern clinical trial centers are all about. But he could not believe that such centers also exist in his home country Tanzania when he first sees the research facilities of the Ifakara Health Institute (IHI) in Bagamoyo, a coastal town north of Dar es Salaam. With the support of Swiss TPH, state-of-the-art trial centers have been built here in recent decades, well equipped also for the first phases of a clinical trial.

Vaccination trials conducted from the very first moment in affected populations: this is also what Said Jongo dreams of. “Normally, clinical trial protocols are developed and early phase I trials implemented in the U. S. or Europe,” Jongo explains. The problem with this is that these populations differ greatly from the actual target population in Africa interms of their genetic and immunological profiles as well as socio-cultural backgrounds. “The solution to this problem would be a stronger involvement of African scientists in developing protocols and implementing GCP compliant clinical trials in the relevant population”, says Said Jongo. Both,

the infrastructure in place and the engagement of African experts assure the sustainability of programs to deal with ailments on population level. As the principal investigator and senior scientist, Said Jongo has taken a responsibility for capacity building and strengthening on implementing clinical trials for the potential malaria vaccine candidates and therapeutic interventions in Tanzania and other countries in Africa through strong south-south and north-

south collaborations. “I am proud to contribute to the fight against diseases that still afflict a large part of the population,” he says. “I would never have dared to dream this when

I first walked into a classroom in Tanzania.”


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