Keto Mshigeni

Dialogue with an Adventist marine biologist, vice-chancellor of Hubert Kairuki Memorial University, Tanzania, and the board chair of Tanzania Atomic Agency Commission

How does a little boy growing up in the tall mountains of Tanzania, who never saw the ocean until adulthood, become a marine biologist? How does such an unlikely, unimaginable career path become destined? It can only happen when that life is charted by the hand of an omniscient God.

From a prize in the fourth grade for memorizing 147 Bible verses to many awards and distinctions from around the world, Professor Keto Mshigeni has been a studious person focused on excellence. However, he does not credit his success to his perseverance or his degrees or his career. He testifies that he is where he is for the sole purpose of giving God the glory.

An active member and supporter of his local church, Keto Mshigeni currently serves as vice-chancellor at Hubert Kairuki Memorial University. Additionally, as an appointee of the president of the United Republic of Tanzania, he serves as chair of the board of the Tanzania Atomic Agency Commission.

His first trip to explore marine life took him and his wife, Grace, to the warm islands of Hawaii as a newly-married couple. The trip awakened Mshigeni’s curiosity about life, both on the island and in the sea. The melting pot of cultural diversity around him and the infinite ocean mysteries at his disposal gave birth to an insatiable desire to explore and travel. Even today, nothing brings Professor Mshigeni more joy than traveling with Grace to a new part of the world to share his research while learning about more about people and about plant life.

How did Adventist faith and Christian concerns influence you to make progress in your education?

Very early in childhood, my Adventist faith exposed me to the discipline of memorizing Scripture. Every week, there was one more verse to memorize and recite. The first eight years of my education were under Adventist teachers, who continued to instill in me a love of reading, understanding, and memorizing Scripture. I think it was this early childhood practice of learning things with thoroughness that enabled me to do well in all my studies.

Why did you decide to pursue marine botany?

Raised a Seventh-day Adventist, I missed all my Saturday classes and examinations in high school and at the University College in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. But I was always blessed to have understanding and accommodating teachers, who made arrangements for me to make up my absences on Sunday, particularly the practicals. On one such Sunday, I was finishing my missed practicals in the botany laboratory when I saw Dr. Erik Jaasund sorting some very strange-looking plants. I had never seen such interesting specimens – all different colors, shapes, and sizes! Dr. Jaasund told me they were marine algae, commonly known as seaweed. He took me to the sea, where I saw these wonderful plants in their natural habitat, and I was amazed at their beauty and diversity. I learned about species such as Martensia elegans, which is known for its graceful fronds, and Vanvoorstia spectabilis, which has a distinctive and intricate architecture when viewed under a microscope. From Dr. Jaasund, I learned that many of these plants were edible and valuable for their medicinal and industrial uses. Ice creams, various types of cosmetics (including toothpaste, shaving creams, body creams), medicinal syrups, textile-printing pastes, and more contain ingredients extracted from seaweed.

Wow! I think many of our readers will be surprised to learn how they might use seaweed in their everyday lives.

I think so too. It’s also surprising that a person with my background would become a marine botanist. Mpinji, Mamba, where I grew up, is on the southeastern slopes of the Pare Mountains in Tanzania. That’s nearly a mile above sea level! I was 20 years old before I even saw the ocean for the first time. So it may seem as though my career was somewhat of an accident.

Looking back on your life and career, do you think it was an “accident”?

Definitely not. I know with certainty that God’s hand guided me through my education and professional life. I know I’m where He wants me to be. He paved the way for me to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii under a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship. And two decades later, he brought me to Namibia just when they needed a scientist with my expertise and experience. That’s not an accident; that’s providence!

Besides marine botany, are there any other scientific fields that interest you?

Yes. I’ve had a longstanding interest in ornithology. My fascination with science was sparked when I observed a flock of birds flying by my high school in Tanzania. Four of those birds were yellowish-brown, but one had distinctive black and orange-red plumage. I was intrigued by what I thought were two species flying together. I reported my observation to my biology teacher, who told me that I had seen the polygamous Bishop bird. The black-and-red Bishop was the male, flying with his four female partners. My curiosity was piqued by this phenomenon. My teacher encouraged me to further research the species. I examined and documented 40 Bishop nests in the course of my study, and won the Swynnerton-Burtt prize and the Commonwealth Development Corporation prize. Although I did not continue with ornithology in my career, I am forever grateful to that teacher, John Reynolds, who fostered in me a sense of curiosity and wonder for the natural world.

It sounds like your biology teacher was instrumental in your choice of career. Do you credit the influence of any other teachers?

Yes, many! In fact, I think my story is an illustration of the remarkable impact that inspiring and encouraging teachers can have on their students. I remember several outstanding teachers from primary and secondary school, such as Mwalimu Mishael Muze and Elinihaki Tuvako, as well as Roger Lewis, who shared blessings with all his students and inspired us to use our own spiritual gifts. And of course, Dr. Erik Jaasund, who introduced me to the field of marine botany. I am also grateful to Professor Shuting Chang, who piqued my interest in mushroom biology when I was already a full professor myself. I am truly a believer in lifelong learning!

Has there ever been a time when you doubted yourself or your career path?

I wouldn’t say that I ever doubted my career path; my love of nature and science was inspired by great teachers at an early age. And even today, I profoundly enjoy teaching. But, as most people do, I felt discouraged when it seemed as though pursuing marine botany was an upward climb.

I was attending the University of Hawaii for my postgraduate research under Dr. Maxwell Doty, a leading authority on a type of seaweed that was of particular interest to me. I had with me 400 beautiful specimens of seaweed, some of which were common to Tanzania and found nowhere else in the world. I had hoped to spend my postgraduate research studying the Tanzanian Eucheuma, eventually returning to Tanzania to apply my work toward developing experimental farming procedures of selected species. To my disappointment, Dr. Doty did not think my work demonstrated sufficient originality to merit a Ph.D. award and was concerned that I did not meet the foreign language requirements. For the language requirements, he advised that I take German and French, and for research, he counseled me to stay in Hawaii longer to investigate native seaweed species rather than return to Tanzania as I had planned.

Such criticism was difficult to hear, and I felt it somewhat unfair – especially after my hard work compiling the 400 specimens of Eucheuma and considering my proficiency in English and Swahili! But I remembered a Swahili proverb illustrating the wisdom of flexibility in a difficult situation: “Ukitaka cha uvunguni, sharti uiname,” which means “If you want to secure something hidden low, low down, you must be prepared to bend down to the floor, and to stoop.” So I complied with my teacher’s advice, somewhat reluctantly, and persevered to accomplish my dream of returning to Tanzania with my research.

It sounds like you were up against some difficult requirements – and learning two new languages! How did you cope with the situation?

I worked hard – very hard – but, through it all, I was energized by the message in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” (NKJV). I successfully completed all the graduate courses recommended by Dr. Doty, and chose Hypnea, a Hawaiian seaweed species, as my new research topic. As for the German and French class requirements, I completed them within the first 15 months at the University of Hawaii. And with God’s grace, I passed comprehensive oral examinations for both languages within three more months. I successfully defended my dissertation, and my research on Hypnea resulted in breakthroughs regarding its potential for cultivation, which I was able to apply later to seaweed farms in Tanzania.

How did you discover the potential for seaweed farms in Tanzania?

As with my academic career, in this too I felt God’s guiding hand. In 1969, Dr. Jaasund helped me secure a NORAD Research Fellowship, which for two years allowed me to undertake detailed studies of seaweed found along the Tanzanian shoreline. Tanzania’s seaweed has a rich biodiversity, and is used locally to bait fish, dress wounds, and treat skin conditions. One particularly valuable seaweed species is Eucheuma, which, since the 1940s, has been collected, dried, and sold by Tanzanian fisherman for export. I observed that Eucheuma were often torn off from their original habitats and moved by ocean currents to rock pools, where they began to regrow and regenerate. Noticing this, it occurred to me that the valuable Eucheuma could be farmed to create a more efficient resource to benefit local economies!

It was a blessing that I communicated these observations and ideas to Dr. Doty at the right time. He invited me to test my ideas in experiments on seaweed farming in the Philippines, and it was then I realized that farming Eucheuma in Tanzania was an achievable dream. Surely here, too, God’s hand was involved.

I am curious. You are a biologist. How did the President of Tanzania come to appoint you chair of the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission, a nuclear science post?

I think it was God’s will manifested through my diligent studies and contributions to science. When the government of Tanzania became aware of my work, honors, and awards – both nationally and internationally – it was felt that my expertise would assist them in the application of nuclear science in biology, agriculture, human health care, etc.

Being a scientist, and being an Adventist and believing in the creation story, do you find difficulties? How do you reconcile the so-called contradictions?

The knowledge we have in every field of science today is but a tiny fraction of things yet to be discovered. Being an Adventist scientist, I am humbled by God’s wonders of creation. The deeper I go into science, the fewer are the contradictions. When I study the skeleton of dinosaurs and fossilized logs of petrified forests, I am only further convinced of the power of God as expressed in Psalm 92:5: “O Lord, how great are Your works! Your thoughts are very deep” (NKJV). In all my life activities, I am strengthened by the message of Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (NKJV). By faith, I am an Adventist Christian. That context does not disturb or contradict my vocation as a scientist.

Are you involved in local church activities?

I support my church as much as I can. In my local church, I contribute to the needs, be it new furniture or the choir’s outreach ministry. In my community, I support our Adventist university as a member of the council.

How do you find time to support the church?

One cannot find time to do everything one would like to do. But developing good time management and organization skills has helped me accomplish most everything I want to do. One of my favorite quotes is from Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the founding father of Tanzania: “To plan is to choose.” I choose to do things I do and therefore choose to find the time to do them.

As a person of notable accomplishment, what would your counsel be to Adventist students studying on non-Adventist campuses? What are the challenges, and how does one meet them?

Be open-minded. Your mind is like a parachute; it functions best when fully open. Always remember that we are all very different from one another. Strive to understand others and adapt yourself to live and work in harmony with others. Read different perspectives, be a team player, and trust in God implicitly.

Fylvia Fowler Kline (M.A., Pune University, India) is a prolific author and is currently serving as the marketing manager of Hope Channel at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Maryland, U.S.A. E-mail: klinef@gc.adventist.org.

K. Mshigeni e-mail: ketomshigeni@gmail.com.

See page 35 for photos.