Loss of a mentor

It wasn’t until much later that I found out that my story was not unique.

My association with Calestous began in August 2009. I had recently moved to Boston from Texas, and was putting together a meeting on higher education in developing nations. Someone mentioned that should reach out to Prof. Juma at Harvard. This was a new area for me and I had never heard of him. I googled him, chided myself for my ignorance, quickly reached out to Calestous and invited him to the conference. In what turned out to be a typical Calestous style (and one that I did not know) he responded back immediately and asked me to call him. I did.

My work and my life changed from that moment.

Calestous started off by saying that he could not come because of another meeting that he had committed to already, but then he went on about what I should think about, who else is working in this space and above all what are some key questions to ask. He was frank and open. His characteristic laugh was peppered throughout the conversation. It was our first interaction, but he made it feel as if we had known each other for decades. I made a mental note to see Calestous at the first chance I could get.

I met him right after he came back from his travels. Calestous in person was just like Calestous on the phone. A man with a big heart, infectious warmth and incredibly generous with his advice. He helped me get started on education and development in Africa and connected me with people who are now lifelong friends and mentors. I know so many rock stars of science and policy who hold their contacts under wraps and give superficial advice. That was not how Calestous operated. He would connect me with anyone who could help me, be it the Prime Minister of a country, the national science advisor or the head of a UN organization. I have never met anyone else who would do that for his or her mentees.

As my work in Africa started to mature a bit, I reached out to Calestous in November 2010 again, asking him for advice. He put me in touch with colleagues at the UN Economic Commission in Addis Ababa and helped me launch my program. That program, Africa Biomedical Engineering Initiative created departments of Biomedical Engineering across several African countries and subsequently led to other Africa wide initiatives in Biomedical Engineering education and research. These programs and departments are now thriving across the continent. Calestous’ legacy lives on through the education and training of thousands of students in Biomedical Engineering in Africa every year.

Over the years, I learned that even when he was not helping me directly, he was helping me in the background. Earlier this year, when the Prime Minister of Uganda, Ruhakana Rugunda came to Boston, Calestous arranged for a meeting of the Prime Minister and his delegation with me. I had never asked Calestous for this, nor did I know that the PM would be in the US. But Calestous somehow knew that this would be a right fit. He was right. The meeting became the foundation of a new program on refugee health and integration in Uganda, something that would not have happened had Calestous not initiated this.

The list of initiatives in my own research, which happened directly because of Calestous is long. In every single instance, whether it was in Zambia or Tanzania, Ethiopia or Kenya, he was able to help me get things off the ground.

For the longest time, I thought that despite his incredibly busy schedule and a never ending list of commitments, Calestous somehow finds time to mentor me. Little did I know that I was among thousands of others who were being mentored, guided and supported. I have personally met his mentees in New York and Nairobi, in Karachi and Kampala, in DC and Dakar. Every single person that I met, whether he was based in Norway or she was working in India, has told me my own story. It is a story of an incredibly generous mentor, who takes his job seriously, but tells his mentees not to take himself or herself too seriously. It is the story of a wise man, who encourages discussion and debate. It is the story of a kind scholar, who even in disagreement, ensures constructive discourse. Above all, it is the story of a friend, who opens doors for you without you ever asking him.

This realization that my story was not unique was both shocking and inspiring. Shocking for I could not believe that someone had the time, energy and generosity to help so many. Inspiring because that is what I aspire to do for those around me, knowing full well that I will fall short.

I once asked Calestous, how does he do that? How is he able to help so many. He laughed his hearty laugh in response. He didn’t know, he said. That was just who he was.

Indeed, that was who Calestous was. Honest, frank and above all generous with our most prized possession: time.

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