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Ugandan flies high at world’s biggest pharmaceutical

By Vision Reporter

Added 27th February 2005 03:00 AM

From his appearance, gait and voice, Twaha Bukenya, 42, appears 10 years younger.
Living in America for 20 years has not really corrupted his accent. He speaks softly and naturally. He is outgoing and courteous.

By Denis Ocwich
From his appearance, gait and voice, Twaha Bukenya, 42, appears 10 years younger.
Living in America for 20 years has not really corrupted his accent. He speaks softly and naturally. He is outgoing and courteous.
Meeting him for the first time after talking to him on phone was like we had been friends for sometime. In a T-shirt and blue jeans, he looks like a golfer, who has just been to the pitch and veered to the club to cool off the afternoon heat and thirst. But he is not an ordinary Kampala guy. Up his sleeve, he has rolled up big achievements. And yet, he does not want to sing for all to hear.
We should have been his hosts. But instead he is playing the host. “Do you want to take any drinks?” he implores, as we shake hands. He ushers us on to the sofa seats.
In our phone conversation, after being tipped that he was in town, I told him that he was a success story for Uganda. But to Bukenya, that was not something worth writing home about. He dislikes publicity. He prefers a quiet life.
“Look,” I tell him: “You are heading a whole department of ‘statistical analysis’ at Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company! That is a big achievement for Uganda.”
He smiles faintly. There is a brief silence. Then, he looks into space, leans forward and says ahem. “Maybe yes, but I don’t think so.” A brief silence again, as my colleague David Enyaku clicks his digital camera. Enyaku and I sip at our sodas. Bukenya is relaxed and composed.
Speaking in a low tone, like a counsellor, he narrates his journey across three American pharmaceutical companies: “I started off as a programmer with a smaller pharmaceutical company called Berlex.”
That stint lasted about two-and-half years before he moved on to Bristol-Myers Squid, where he spent nearly four years.
Then he shifted to Pfizer in 1995. From the rank of manager, he is now a full director of “Statistical Analysis and Reporting, Development Operations.”
Son of Zakariah Bukenya, the former managing director of Uganda Development Bank (now Libyan Arab Bank), Bukenya has come a long way from the village of Kyanja, seven miles off Kampala-Gayaza Road. He is the third-born in a family of eight siblings. He had his Ordinary and Advanced Level studies at Nyakasura School in Fort Portal.
So, how does it feel working in the 155-year-old company, which employs over 80,000 people globally? “Good,” he says softly. “Being a multi-cultural city,” Bukenya says, “working in New York is enjoyable because racism is not so pronounced.”
He talks about other Ugandans working in the same firm, which manufactures an assortment of drugs, including Viagra.
Bukenya is a Makerere University graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Sociology). He graduated in 1984 and the following year, he was on the plane off to America. Although he periodically hops back to Uganda, his life now rotates around New York and Connecticut, where he resides. Many of his siblings also work and reside within the US.
“Every morning, I take a two-and-half hour train ride from Connecticut to work in New York,” says the father of two, who now holds a Masters degree in Social Research.
From last November to early February, he was in Uganda to install a data to centre at the newly-opened Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) at Mulago Hospital. The centre, opened by President Yoweri Museveni in October last year, is under Makerere University’s Faculty of Medicine.
Although seven other organisations have contributed, Pfizer is the main sponsor of the $4.5m (sh8b) regional training and treatment centre. It is part of the Academic Alliance for AIDS Care and Treatment.
“Being here has given me a sense of purpose because I am doing something that is beneficial to Uganda. I still feel that Uganda is my home,” Bukenya says. He gives a pat on the back of Pfizer’s Chief Executive, Hank McKinnell for coming up with the idea of putting the IDI at Mulago.
Uganda, he says, was chosen to host the IDI for the African region because of its “role-model” status in dealing with HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
“Uganda has done very well compared to other countries in Africa,” he says. But then, he hastens, “a lot more still needs to be done if poor people are to get better healthcare.”
“We don’t have the care that we should be giving to sick people. It is really very disheartening that we are still using obsolete technology,” he notes.
Besides HIV/AIDS-related research and free Anti-Retroviral drugs (ARVs) to poor AIDS sufferers, Pfizer has funded malaria studies in Africa. The Mulago IDI centre has already attracted thousands of beneficiaries, who are accessing free ARVs and other health services.
“The centre is going to be the hub of health training for doctors. The focus is on AIDS prevention and care.”
As he flew back to the US recently, Bukenya had one thing at the back of his mind. He visited a number of units, departments and wards at Mulago. He saw the plight of the poor, sick people. He wants to lend a hand by soliciting equipment from hospitals in the US to help the poor hospitals back home.
He says even simple machines that the US hospitals have got rid of can help: “I hope I will be able to do something.”

Ugandan flies high at world’s biggest pharmaceutical

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