Prof Murwira is no mad scientist

Sharon Munjenjema
Science continues to push the boundaries of reality, and increasingly the distinction between science and fiction is getting hazier as the envelope is pushed further.
The fact/fiction dichotomy is something that scientists always seek, and in that quest Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Minister Professor Amon Murwira is no different.

Consider the cynicism from some quarters that greeted his recent launch of the Zimbabwe National Geo-spatial and Space Agency (Zingasa).

It doesn’t faze him.

“When you do something, there are always people who will like what you do and those who won’t. Respect both,” says Prof Murwirwa.

That project has taken off and Prof Murwira is confident that the data Zingasa will mine will be central to Zimbabwe’s science-based development ambitions.

With that debate shelved, Prof Murwira is now onto university towns – state-of-the-art research institutions that will lure seekers of knowledge from the region and beyond.

He is also spearheading a massive coal-to-diesel project, skills enhancement, and something to do with potatoes and the staple diet that we will not talk about now until the minister himself is ready to launch it.

But who is this man who was recently plucked from the world of academia to head a ministry whose potential his predecessors have failed to both appreciate and unlock?

Early Life

Well, Prof Murwirwa was born in 1970 to parents who eked a living from the unyeilding communal lands of Nzuwa village in Gutu.

He was the only boy in a family of five.

His father died when he was nine, and young Amon – in between herding cattle and goats – went to Shumbayarerwa Primary, and then Rafemoyo Secondary and Gutu High schools.

Prof Murwira will tell you about the pain of walking 16km to school every day, and the strain of studying by the dim glow of a paraffin lamp by night.

But that did not break him. It made him.

He scored six A’s at O-Level – a historic feat at his school.

“I grew up in a world of possibility against adversity. From an early age, I understood that it was all about team work. I saw Zimbabwe being built with bare hands in the first 10 years after Independence and it shaped the way I now look at the world.

“This was to later influence the way I think now. If I got here after all those hurdles, what can stop Zimbabwe from achieving anything right now? It’s all possible!”

The determined rural boy read himself to the University of Zimbabwe, where he graduated with upper second class Honours in Geography in 1994, taking the Book Prize and the Geographical Association of Zimbabwe Book Prize along with him.

After graduating, he taught at Chirichoga Secondary School in Nemamwa, Masvingo.

That was to be the only job he was to ever apply for.

As the only Geography teacher at the school, the 24-year-old tutored more than 700 pupils for the next months.

“With an honours degree, I was (lured to) Victoria High School, but my headmaster wasn’t amused.”

In March, at a sports event at Ndarama Secondary School, the education regional director approached him and he was instantly transferred to Victoria High, where taught A-Level pupils.

And as he was settling into that job, a phone call came through from the then Ministry of Environment, headhunting him to join their natural resources department.

The caveat: he had to go through an interview first. Needless to say, he aced the interview and became a provincial ecologist in Mashonaland East.

The Great Beyond

In 1995, the ministry sent him to Canada to study satellites, and his head and heart were turned forever.

“It was my first time to board a plane and it was a 20-hour journey. The journey was fantastic, but the food was not good. Those days I was used to sadza only. My stomach was upset the whole journey,” he says with his trademark booming laugh.

From 1995 to 1998, he was in between Zimbabwe to Canada, until a new assignment came.

The UZ asked him to study Satellite Remote Sensing and Information Geographical Sciences at Master’s level in The Netherlands on a scholarship.

He graduated with a distinction in 2000 and completed his PhD in 2003, and the following year he was back in Zimbabwe lecturing at the UZ.

Enter Politics

Of all the amazing things that had happened to this rural boy who now studied both space and what lies beneath the Earth, a most unexpected thing happened on a Thursday evening in November 2017.

While napping at his Harare home, Prof Murwira received a phone call from his nephews.

“They referred to me as ‘honourable’, ndikati murikuti chii? Zvikanzi tarisai panews. I woke up and tuned on the news. And I heard it on my own.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa had picked him as his Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development.

The next Monday he was sworn in as a Cabinet minister. It wasn’t science fiction.

“I recall receiving a phone call from Government offices a few days before and being asked if I could be available for national duty. As a person who has served in a number of boards, this is usually how we are called to such positions and I thought this was one of those. But becoming minister – I never dreamt that!”

President Mnangagwa has described Prof Murwira as a hard-worker. The minister has given no indication that the President is wrong.

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