Tucked in a nondescript location of Wilcox library is a nondescript sculpture of the head of a seemingly nondescript former William Penn student from Kenya. The sculpture is of Miriam Khamadi, an artistic rendering of a largely unknown alumna.
Undoubtedly, Penn has boasted a number of acclaimed graduates who have set the world on fire. But few have had the accomplishments of the person behind the sculpture, Miriam Khamadi Were.
The sculpture has been in Wilcox’s possession for years, if not decades. Although Wilcox Head Librarian Julie Hansen says the sculpture is often displayed in the foyer during the summers and garners much attention, the student’s identity had not resurfaced in years, until now. A simple Google search of Miriam Khamadi would re-direct to Miriam K. Were, the chancellor of Moi University, the second public university to be established in Kenya, after the University of Nairobi.
Pull up Chancellor Were’s Wikipedia, and her various accomplishments are listed. Some of those include receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Gold Medal for Outstanding Contributions to International Public Health, the medal of the Italian Cabinet in 2006, and being named by Forbes in 2012 as one of the women changing the world in health.
Miriam Were is both a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-all whose journey to success started at Penn in 1961.
One person who saw her potential early on was a former professor of music and voice, Pearl S. Wormhoudt, who made the sculpture.
Chancellor Were remembers the sculpture fondly. She had developed a close relationship, and would often confide in Wormhoudt.
“She said to me I like the way you ask questions. You a very clear [in your way of speaking] and you have a very wonderful spirit,” Miriam Were said.
One particular day, the Penn alum had gone to Wormhoundt to ask some questions.
“I went to ask her why am I getting so big? And she would laugh and say that, she is also big, and not to worry,” Miriam Were said.
According to the Moi University chancellor, Wormhoundt admired her spirit and tenacious attitude.
Without a doubt, Miriam Were had made an impact and left an impression on Wormhoudt. However, the Penn alum also faced numerous challenges before and during her time at Penn.
A Pioneer in a Challenging Time
As renowned humanitarian, Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.”
Education institutions hope to develop students that go on to become world changers and shapers. In most cases, such individuals are faced with obstacles.
At a time, when few were going abroad to the United States, the chancellor took a risk backed by her family, to pursue an education abroad.
Even more rare was Chancellor Were’s educational choice, which was not the norm during her time. She chose to study natural sciences, when women, minorities or foreigners were lacking in that field. Even in Kenya, she went to an all-girls high school, one of only two in the whole country. Back then, the schools did not have access to laboratories and the students were only able to study biology and mathematics. This posed problems for Miriam Were who hoped to go into health sciences.
“I used to pray to God that, ‘ God help me, I don’t know what to do,’” she said of the challenges.
Chancellor Were’s saving grace came in the form of a nurse at a nearby Quaker youth camp, she used to attend in her area. The nurse needed volunteers to help with childcare. Miriam Were, who was accustomed to caretaking for her younger siblings was the perfect candidate.
The nurse, unbeknownst to her, was actually keeping record of her work, and she encouraged the rest of the members of the mission station to motivate Miriam Were into medicine and healthcare.
Subsequently, the head of the mission station approached her to pursue an education in the United States, at Penn College. At the time, she was unsure. Her mother had died at an early age and she feared losing her father while abroad.
“By the time, they were talking to me, they had already applied for me a place at William Penn because the head of the mission had gone to William Penn himself, and he liked that college,” Miriam Were said.
The chancellor was admitted and began her journey to Oskaloosa, Iowa.
But it wasn’t a smooth process. She faced another problem: culture shock and racial tension. Miriam Were was the first African at Penn, at a time when diversity wasn’t embraced nationwide.
Miriam Were graduated in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, which ended segregation and discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
“There were two other black people, but I was the only African person. When I came in the sixties, this is when racial issues were strong. Even though it wasn’t very strong in Iowa, it was sometimes reflected in the student body,” she said.
However, she upheld her Christian values in adversity.
“I believed I was made in the image of God and I was alright,” the chancellor said.
One that Miriam Were vividly remembers happened during her first time at Penn. While in chemistry class, chancellor Were, who was previously not exposed to chemistry, was unaware of H2O and CO2 . The Penn graduate proceeded to ask in class the reason for both molecules possessing the “2.”
She remembers the class laughing at her question. However, her professor reassured that her questions were valid and assisted her after class with books on basic chemistry.
One should note that chancellor went on to obtain a doctorate in Public Health, from Johns Hopkins University.
Similarly, she faced another obstacle, one that all college students traveling miles across states and continents can understand: homesickness.
The chancellor remembers a time when she contemplated running away. She then looked at a map of Africa and realized the distance.
“If I wanted to run away I couldn’t because I would sink in the ocean,” she said humorously.
The next day, Chancellor Were saw another image that reassured her.
She said by God’s grace, she saw a picture of Penn’s president in 1961, Arthur Watson, in the corridor handing a student a diploma. In those days, according to her, presidents of colleges were like “gods.” She realized that if Watson was the one giving diplomas, he would give her one as well when she finished. She said that realization completely filled her head and heart.
“I’m here for Dr. Watson to give me my diploma, then I’ll go home and work with my people,” the chancellor said.
The kindness of the president was evidence of the chancellor’s experience with the whole community at large. She emphasized the kindness of the Friends Church and its role in helping her adjust to the cultural change.
“I was very well-received by the Friends Church in Iowa.I felt like it was home,” she said.
For Miriam Were, William Penn and its Quaker heritage were not only fundamental to helping her maintain her values during challenging times at the university, but also in laying the foundation to her beginning.
A Life Facilitated by Quaker Values
Kenya is said to hold the largest population of Quakers in the world. Numerous individuals across the world, and in Kenya in particular, have been positively affected by the opportunities and initiatives in education and health started by the Quakers.
Miriam Were is one of them.
“Something that the Quakers did, they taught my village about the importance of hygiene and using latrines [toilets] for human waste. It was clean, we were hardly sick. So it was a very happy village,” she said.
As a result, the chancellor understood how health is fundamental to happiness.
“I assumed that everyone lived like that, so when I went to other places and found that people didn’t have latrines and children were dying, I was so shocked. I said I must tell them and learn more and help to make people healthy. That pushed into the health area,” she added.
William Penn University President John Ottosson echoed similarly that Penn’s Quaker heritage allowed for Miriam Were to have an educational foundation, an anomaly for the times.
“When you look at our heritage of being a Quaker school, it’s always been of trying to reach out and make the community better. To have someone [like Miriam Were] where her community is the global stage; it just reinforces who we are and what we do,” Ottosson said.
That’s how one can see where the future chancellor of Moi University’s life crossed with the Penn heritage. Much like Miriam Were, Penn has had a history of progressive views on promoting opportunity and diversity. Even more because of the opportunities from Quaker organizations and Penn, she focused on being able to live a life of giving back.
A Life of Service
Ottosson and Hansen both reiterated that Penn was founded on Quaker heritage. One being the value of a life of service.
Ottosson regarded Miriam Were’s success as an example of the virtue of helping others.
“It’s just not about how many toys can I get, how much of the comfort of life can I enjoy; true success is helping those around,” Ottosson said.
Similarly, Hansen added that the chancellor’s devotion to tackling issues related to healthcare like the AIDS epidemic in Africa, is an example of servitude at its prime.
“So often we see those huge issues and think there’s nothing we can do. But there is, and it takes a brave person to tackle them. Dr. Were has had an incredibly life of fighting AIDS in Africa, we are so proud of all our graduates,” said Hansen regarding Miriam Were’s role in health initiatives.
The chancellor admitted that Penn was part of her experience and development into a life defined by success and servitude.
“William Penn opened the door for me, for my life now,” Miriam Were said.
Success Driven by Education
Miriam Were’s acclaimed international career counts numerous initiatives and positions. In 1985, she was named Chief of Health and Nutrition in UNICEF Ethiopia, then in 1990, was called to be a representative of the World Health Organization in Ethiopia and Director in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), leading a team in providing technical services in population and reproductive health in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2000, since retiring from the United Nations, Miriam Were has been named to other senior positions including current chairperson of the National AIDS Control Council under the Office of the President of Kenya that tackles the national HIV/AIDS response in Kenya. She is also chairperson of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) Board.
In 2006, Miriam Were co-founded UZIMA foundation. It is a charitable organization that targets health-related education with the youth. The purpose is to mobilize, educate and provide alternative activities to reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV, AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and substance abuse.
In 2013, she was appointed as chancellor of Moi University.
Miriam Were accounts her success to the value of education, one that Penn propelled.
“I became fascinated by knowledge. I found that there was so much. It is important to know so as to reduce the ignorance that one has,” the chancellor said.
Miriam Were often relays to the students and graduates at Moi University that education is of utmost importance. One reason being education’s ability to reduce ignorance.
“It is not that you must only get good grades, although good grades are important, but the most important is that you get rid of ignorance, gain understanding and if you understand the world better, it opens your mind and other people,” Chancellor Were said.
The chancellor emphasized that having a global outlook, breaks down mental and cultural cocoons and can be a tool to solving current issues.
“You feel more secure and manage your life better,” she said regarding education.
One issue that the chancellor and education system as a whole in Kenya are facing is the aftermath of the Al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University, in the northeastern province of Kenya. On April 2, 147 students were killed in a pre-determined massacre led by members of the extremist Islamic group.
As a result, it was recently announced on April 8, by the Kenyan Senate that students of Garissa University would be admitted at Moi University’s main campus under the guise of Chancellor Were. This was done so as to give the students an opportunity to continue their studies and heal.
“It has broken our hearts, we lost so many students,” the chancellor said of the wounds left from the attack.
According, to the chancellor, the Garissa area has been a known hub of illiteracy and the university presence there was an initiative by the education sector to promote literacy and reduce ignorance.
Unfortunately, the terrorist attack proved that the education initiatives were used as a rationale for detrimental means.
The chancellor added that Moi University is promoting dialogue and guidance in the troubled times.
“We try to tell our students that life in this world is dicey, but it’s not the end of everything,” said the chancellor.
For this reason, along with health issues, the chancellor is passionate about creating opportunities for education. Miriam Were echoed how the high prevalence of illiteracy in part of Africa is a core issue. She further relayed that education is a crucial solution. Miriam Were provides a simplistic approach for all in regards to education.
“If I know, I can solve problems,” she said.
For all the responsibilities and achievements that Miriam Were has garnered, she relishes in the micro-scale accomplishments.
“My greatest accomplishment is internal. Although, I’ve had a lot of education and exposure internationally, I have worked a lot at the village level. At the same time, helping Africa to bring health to the village,” Chancellor Were said.
Clearly, Chancellor Were still remembers the promise she made to her younger self about helping her village and others.
Miriam Were is an example that great things are possible through opportunity and one may never know where the journey to success starts.