An interview with Cameroon’s Gottlieb Lobe Monekosso
By Walter Wilson Nana (Africa News reporter):
Prof. Gottlieb Lobe Monekosso is a revered figure in the international health sector. This Cameroonian medical doctor, former Health Minister, Emeritus Director of WHO for Africa, founding Dean of the University Centre for Health Sciences, CUSS, Yaoundé and the President of Global Health Dialogue Foundation seems to have seen and had it all in the health domain.
Recently, he had another distinction from the prestigious Royal Society of Public Health, christened Queen Elizabeth II Gold Medal Award.
This new found accolade brings to the fore, Monekosso’s huge contributions to medicine and the betterment of humanity. Monekosso, in this exclusive interview with AfricaNews, talks about his journey in the medical world and lots more.
AfricaNews: Just back from London, UK, after haven received your prize, how are you feeling?
I am happy! I will say exhilarated. 2012 looks like one of those years of awards galore for me. This is the third I am receiving for 2012. In March, I was honoured by the Medical School and Teaching Hospital of the University of Ibadan, as one of the outstanding achievers, since the institution began. My name was inscribed on the wall of honour for it not to be forgotten. I was invited by the Cameroon Academy of Sciences in Yaoundé on September 13, 2012. It was very heart warming for me. It is nice to be recognised in and out of the country. Africa News: What is the Queen Elizabeth II Gold Medal Award all about?
The Royal Society for Public Health is the oldest institution with experts of Public Health in the world. It’s a century and a half old. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth II authorised them or graciously accepted them to put a Gold Medal in her name for the promotion of public health in the British Commonwealth in general. This year, being the 60th anniversary of the reign of Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Society for Public Health organised an event for promoting public health in the Commonwealth nations.
They wrote to all the High Commissioners for the 50 countries that make up the Commonwealth to nominate one expert from their country who could win the prize above all other experts. The government of Cameroon sent forward my name and I was asked to prepare a file. I did and was forwarded to London.
On August 15, 2012, I received a letter from the Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, indicating that after examining all the files, the awards committee of the Royal Society decided that the Cameroon candidate was the winner. So, I was designated the recipient of Queen Elizabeth II Gold Medal. Africa News: Why did you make the difference?
That is the question they sent back to each participating country when their files got to England. In what aspect (s) will your candidate make a difference? The Ministry of Public Health prepared an answer for the Royal Society on my behalf.
The Health Ministry put forward my career in the medical education, particularly the creation and the establishment of the University Centre for Health Sciences, which I headed from 1969 to 79. Then, it was a new concept on how medicine should be taught. I was also invited to many other countries to share ideas on how to develop and improve their own health institutions and the teaching of medicine. What was original was adapting medical education to the needs of the people and the society.
One of the things we did was to send our students to Mezam Division, Northwest Region. Instead of building hostels for them, our students rented rooms and interacted with the population, unlike other universities where they will get their students cut-off from the population and only come for consultations. That way, you’re not connected to the people. Our students developed sympathy to their patients. T
his was the first thing cited in my file. Others included the initiatives I took at WHO, from 1980-85, when I was elected Director for the African Region. I took the initiative for the Immunisation of African children. Initially, it was not in my plan when I came into that position because I had been working in the Caribbean Islands. I was surprised that our children were not vaccinated. The children were there, the vaccines available for free and I asked myself what was the problem?
The wards of the hospital were full with measles, tuberculosis, and other diseases, while our children were dying like flies. I decided that we go on a massive vaccination programme across the African continent. The Italian government gave us $100 million and we were able to close the measles wards in most of the hospitals across the continent. Another idea that spilled over to Cameroon was the creation of health institutions closer to where people live and work.
These are the District Hospitals. I promoted that from the Chair in Brazzaville, where I was responsible for the whole of Africa. If you go across Cameroon, you will see District Hospitals. Even across Africa, you will find them in most countries. I have been consistent in my work, philosophy and God has also given me life long enough to do some of these things. When you pose an act, it takes time for it to spread. My three odd years as Minister of Public Health also gave me an opportunity to do things that people talk about today.
Africa News: Apart from the physical look of the prize, what else is in it? Nothing! This is a British tradition. When you’re awarded a very high honour, all you get is the honour and no more. The British government did not even pay my passage to the UK.
It is the government of Cameroon that took the responsibility since I was representing Cameroon in the competition. I was happy that I could bring a gold medal home in 2012 at a time Cameroon performed poorly at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Africa News: When did you go to the University of Ibadan?
I was a foundation student in January 1948. We were transferred from the higher college in Lagos, which was the only sixth form for the whole country at the time.
Africa News: You originate from the French-speaking part of Cameroon, how did you get to University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1948, looking at the language difference and Nigeria being an English-speaking country?
I come from Dibombari, Littoral Region of Cameroon. The people of Dibombari and Fako Division in the Southwest Region, over the centuries, have been mixing. During the German colonial period and subsequently, if you had a head strong boy in Dibombari, like Prof. Bassi Manga, he was expelled from the primary school in Dibombari but was admitted to another primary school in Tiko.
So, he became bilingual. In my case, it was my father who moved during the Second World War to Lagos. That’s where we were educated.[bAfricaNews: ]From Ibadan, how did you evolve?~[/b]
In 1948, the University of London refused to recognise the native hospital in Ibadan, so my father paid my way to the University of London to study out there, where I did medicine for seven years, including the post graduate. I came back to Ibadan as junior lecturer. From Ibadan, I moved to the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, as a lecturer in Medicine.
From Kampala, I got a research fellowship to the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. I will return to Ibadan as the Vice Dean in the Faculty of Medicine and Senior Lecturer. But when the Nigerian Civil War broke out in 1968, I was invited by the World Health Organisation, WHO, to Tanzania to develop the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Dar es Salaam. After that I was invited to my country; Cameroon in 1969 to head the newly created University Centre for Health Sciences, CUSS.
Africa News: From the aforementioned, you came from a privileged background?
Yes and no! Yes in the sense that my father got a good and professional education from the Germans. He spoke German very well and was disciplined. He trained us to be the first in all we do, every time and everywhere in the world. He even rose to be an Accountant, a position that only white people had at the time.
Africa News: What were the circumstances that led to the creation of CUSS?
Prof. Boniface Nasah, who was a student of mine in Ibadan though we’re of same age group, late Prof. Victor Anomah Ngu and I were at the beginning of this venture. Prof. Anomah Ngu and myself were classmates. We were at the sixth form together at Yaba.
Two years after independence, the government of Cameroon opted for a medical school. WHO sent two experts; a Belgian Professor (French-speaking) and a British Professor.
They recommended European-styled medical school to the government of Cameroon. At the time, Prof. Ngu and I were Professors of Medicine in Nigeria.
Two of us were copied the report from the WHO experts on what kind of medical school we should have and what should be taught. It was not for our taste and we rejected the report, wrote to the government of Cameroon and to our surprise, the government gave in to our points of view and asked WHO to send another mission that came from Brazil and Canada.
They proposed the formula, which had been the dream of all lecturers of medicine in Africa at the time. We were lucky that President Ahidjo got $10 million from the UNDP to be spent in seven years. While all these were going on, I came to Cameroon along the line and the then PM, Simon Tchoungui, invited me to become a member of the Commission that was preparing the medical school.
Nzo Ekanghaki was the Health Minister at the time. That’s the initial group that started the project as I jetted in and out of the country.
While in Tanzania, I got a message from Ekanghaki that President Ahidjo is informing me that the medical school is about to open and he (Ahidjo) will be pleased if I can come back home and manage such an important assignment, which I did, abandoning my international job, which was financially rewarding than the head of the medical school. That was more than patriotism. That is how I had the opportunity to come back to Cameroon after a long time.
Subsequently, I was appointed the Dean and later on Director of the Medical School. I will invite Prof Ngu to join me, who was in Nigeria and married to a Nigerian woman.
AfricaNews: Are you proud of that institution today?
I do. In the last 10 years, it has evolved positively after some years of difficulties. The school itself started with difficulties and controversies because the French colonialists did not want the style of teaching we introduced. They wanted to impose theirs and since then, they have been doing all they can to frustrate the system we had in place.
They even went to the extent of trying to divert the $ 10 million to an agro-pastoral project in Garoua and President Ahidjo said no to them. Even when I left, some Cameroonians wanted an elitist approach to the teaching of medicine, which created some problems in the school.
AfricaNews: Some observers say that the aura you came along with in Cameroon after your long stay out of the country, being part of the pioneer medical doctors, at the heart of the creation of CUSS, endeared you to so many women in particular?
It is not surprising. A lot of men also admired me. It is a natural phenomenon. Those who do things, as they feel strongly in their works, they also feel very emotional.
Africa News: As you enjoy your retirement, do you still have some health related advice to Cameroonians and the government?
I don’t have new ideas. What I want to see done are the ideas that I have left behind. They should come to fruition. I have devised a programme, which will accelerate progress in our country; this is development through health action. People should be aware of what makes them healthy and stronger. Healthy people will promote wealth, especially around young people. Most of the inventions have been done by people below 40. Jesus Christ did not go beyond 33. Africa News: Prof. Monekosso married with children?
I am married with eight children, but lost one. None of them are into medicine. I allowed everybody to choose what they wanted to do.
Source: Africa News