By Vision Reporter
Born in a polygamous family of 17 children and three mothers in Akuca Witim village, Gomb Ngai, Oyam district, Prof. Jasper Okengâ€™s father made sure he went to school after witnessing the benefits of education overseas, during World War II.
He says by village standards, his father was a rich man because he owned a lot of cattle and land and grew enough food for his family. He used the money to pay school fees for his children and others in the village.
â€œWar exposed him to education and he paid fees for strangers in our village. That is why we have many doctors and engineers in our village. I went to school when I was young. My uncle, an untrained teacher, took me along to study whenever he went to teach,â€ Okeng says.
He recalls that he moved from school to school because back then, few schools had upper classes P6 and P7. He went to Akuca and Awio primary schools before completing P7 in 1966 at Ngai Primary School. â€œWe were the first group of Ugandans to sit the Primary Leaving Certificate with class eight pupils. This is because the government was phasing out Primary Eight. Many Primary Eight pupils failed because they thought they knew a lot; they dropped out of school, got married or joined the army,â€ he says.
As a boy, Okeng looked up to his father whom he emulated and later wanted to join the army because he thought army men were smart and obedient.
â€œI considered joining the army, but when I grew up, I wanted to become a chemical engineer and discover things. But in Aâ€™level, I was more interested in biology and wanted to be a doctor. My mother did not want me to become a doctor because she wrongly thought they resurrected dead people.â€
Okeng helped his parents in the garden during the holidays. â€œI also loved sports. In 1972, my father bought me a radio and I listened to a live broadcast when John Akii Bua won a gold medal.â€
Okeng studied at Teso College Aloet in Soroti district for his Oâ€™ and A'level from 1967 to 1972. He obtained a medical degree at Makerere University in 1974 and later a masters in clinical pharmacology at the same institution. He completed his PhD in the same discipline at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1998. He worked as a lecturer at Makerere University from 1990 and became a full professor of pharmacology in 2005. He is also the founder and dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Gulu University.
He then served as the deputy vice-chancellor of Gulu University and currently does some administrative work at Makerere University, besides research and teaching at universities in Dar-es-Salaam and Mwanza in Tanzania, and Cape Town in South Africa.
Okeng is also involved in health research ethics. In 2002, he served as a member of the Pharmacovigilance Committee of the National Drug Authority. He was responsible for studying the effect of drugs in the body.
â€œSome drugs have adverse effects on the body. For example, some peopleâ€™s skin peels off as a reaction to malaria drugs. My role is to study the effect of these drugs and find a way to prevent future adverse side effects.â€
Okeng was also the malaria expert for eastern Africa until May 2009. He has also published several research papers addressing community health needs.
He also serves as a member of the Developing Countries Research Committee and the World Health Organisation panel of experts. His role is to look at policies of different countries in medicine, control drugs and what governments should address in health.
He has one wife and three children. During his free time, he reads novels and watches people dance. â€œIt refreshes my thinking.â€