Celebrating Professor Fred Newton Binka
Any doubts I might have entertained that Prof Fred Newton Binka was a mosquito…I beg your pardon, I meant a transformational leader before a health research scientist, were dispelled last week when a cross section of his peers, friends, relations and students conspired to have a power-lunch at the plush Holiday Inn Hotel, Accra in honor of his recent international exploits.
As it turns out, Fred Binka has in one fell swoop won two prestigious international awards; the Sir Ronald Ross award and the British Medical Journal’s Research Paper of the Year Award for 2010. Sir Ross of course is credited with “the momentous discovery of the malaria parasite in the female anopheline mosquito thus demonstrating that the mosquito was the vector of malaria on 20 August 1897.”
Binka is clearly a transformational leader, having amply demonstrated in over thirty years of professional life, a knack for great pioneering leadership, excellence in overcoming challenges encountered and in the process leaving a rich lasting legacy. Perhaps more significantly, he has shown the will and ability to create space and raise other leaders after him while he thirsts further afield after fresher conquests. This he has repeatedly shown as past Director of Navrongo Health Research Centre and the INDEPTH network, on various WHO committees served on and/or chaired and in his current position as Dean of the School of Public Health, Legon.
As an epidemiologist and the head of Field Work in Navrongo in 1989, young Binka first shot to international prominence with his team’s work on Vitamin A supplementation which demonstrated “a 20 % reduction in the all-cause child death rate.” This triggered immediate global policy implications and led to Navrongo Health Research Centre being made a demographic centre of excellence in 1992 with then Dr. Fred Binka as its first director. As Director, he would spearhead yet another trial that demonstrated a further 20% reduction in child mortality with the use of insecticide-impregnated bed nets, an integral part of malaria control now.
At this point, it had become increasingly obvious that evil though the mosquito might be, it had met its match although the copper colored Binka bore no resemblance to it. Determined to ride on the back of a tiny insect to fame, accomplishment and prosperity, Binka with others established the INDEPTH network – a network of around 30 demographic surveillance sites in developing countries and was a founding member of MARA (Mapping Malaria Risk in Africa). To build African capacity to conduct trials of malaria treatments and vaccines, Prof Binka has been the main force behind the Bill and Melinda Gates funded Clinical Trials Alliance of which he is the current director.
Appointed Dean of the School of Public Health, Legon, in 2007 after twelve years of the school’s existence, keen observers have likened the first three years of his tenure to a revolution of sorts. Indeed it is a phenomenon I have christened in my more sober moments as a “Binka-rization” of the School. This has thus become the era of aptitude tests, selection interviews, restructuring of various courses for greater impact, introduction of a new programme on clinical trials (the only such program in Africa), timely submission and defense of the student dissertation, robust mentoring and active recruitment of students with potential into doctoral programs to augment ageing faculty. Last but by no means the least is the trademark loud annual partying in the Dean’s posh residence with enough drinks to go around those students who double as fishes!
Clearly, I couldn’t have made my entry into the School at a better time. An inspirational teacher, Professor Binka made us understand that the aim of the student dissertation is not necessarily to win the Nobel Prize but basically to acquire the rigorous discipline of raising a research question and adopting an appropriate research design to answer that question. “You may well discover in the end that there really is no problem, but that is fine,” he said.
His students credit him with insomnia, a disorder that manifests in his guaranteed prompt response to emails sent to him at 2:00am within thirty minutes even if he was not one’s official supervisor. At that ungodly hour, Prof Binka would feed you the kind of response that will drive sleep very far away from you for the rest of the night. On sensing the least tardiness and rough edges of the research proposal, he would immediately offer his Saturday for mock presentations by students. As it would turn out, only the brave and bright would show up.
Unfortunately, I would not be counted amongst them having strategically surmised that with such poor preparation, it was not worth making a fool of myself before the great man. This would be called chickening out and for days afterwards, I would maintain a respectable distance from the Dean! On graduation day however, I would reckon that the strategy of losing the battle and winning the war has worked and the Dean is happy after all.
Quite recently I asked him, “There is some concern that African researchers have little or no control over the research agenda because of its heavy donor -driven nature. The implication has been that perhaps our researchers are not able to answer the questions of development needed to propel Africa’s development. What do you think, Sir?”
He is kind enough to oblige me with an answer, “Generally African scientists do not set the research agenda because their countries do not set aside funds to carry out research that could solve both national and regional problems. Hence the basic problems faced every day by ALL programmes to deliver effective interventions still do not reach the majority of the people and in particular those who need it most. This situation can be traced exclusively to the inability of our governments to provide funds for research.”
“He who pays the piper calls the tune. Unfortunately, we (developing countries) need research to solve the challenges facing our development process most. In rare instances our colleagues in the developed countries in a bid to satisfy the need to address our problems, invite a section of developing country scientists to contribute towards the research agenda.”
Well, let the Africans prioritize their research needs and fund it then, I think.
In an eight week visit to Navrongo Health Research Centre last year, I got to experience firsthand what legacy Prof Binka (codename FB) had left behind after ten years of his departure. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you would not be wrong in assuming FB left Navrongo only the previous day. “FB this, FB that, FB did it this way, FB always knew what was going on even if he was outside, FB had a good rapport with the drivers…” In due course, I would be seized of the spirit of tennis on the Centre’s flood lit court.
“FB raised funds and built this court in three months. He imported all the equipment and tools from South Africa and supervised the work day and night till they finished in record time!” someone proffered. Where he had met a desert, he had turned it into an oasis. Ten years after FB’s departure and people like me get to reap where we have not sown. It was in Navrongo I first learnt to play tennis!
Missus Charity Binka would graciously conclude this piece with her fond exertions at the afore-mentioned lunch. Luckily, women who have played an active part in the success of their husbands do have a knack for bringing brutal clarity to the issues from their unique domestic perspective. And it doesn’t help when the woman in question is herself an expert communicator and a lecturer in the subject. By the time she was done, what we had only suspected about Prof Binka’s gastronomic preferences had been amply confirmed.
As the partner who had actively co-conspired in this destructive surgical work on the mosquito, the sizable collection of friends and researchers from Ghana’s public health community were all ears for a scoop. She described “Fred” as “remarkable”, recalled his workaholic tendencies, reminisced over their joint plunge of faith when the Navrongo ‘opportunity’ had beckoned, her subsequent joblessness for a whole year and wondered about Fred’s decision at the time to ride a bicycle to work instead of driving, explaining that “the field workers were themselves riding bicycles.”
And then Mrs. Binka betrayed Prof Binka with the single statement that “Those days, it was so difficult to even get corn dough on the market.” Further elaboration was no longer required to convince the doubters that before acquiring the taste for tuo zaafi and bito soup, Prof Binka had truly missed his ewokple and grilled tilapia. The learning however was that this was one family that had whole heartedly thrown themselves into this calling.
Next time anyone is giving any national honors, I suggest they remember one nomination that is truly deserving; that of Fred Newton Binka, the veritable mosquito assassin.