When JACKSON BIKO calls Dr John Odero Ong’ech, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, to set up this interview, there is rhumba dripping in the background.
In his office at Nairobi Reproductive Health Services where he is the CEO, he plays it at low volume. Dr Ong’ech is a voluminous character, full of mirth, and tales.
He is a well-respected fertility doctor, having worked extensively in the public sector, his last posting at Kenyatta National Hospital as a Deputy Director, Surgical Services, and Chief Medical Specialist in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
He has worked in dozens of missions in Africa as a consultant, authored books, research papers on maternal, and child health.
He has two Master’s degrees in Public Health (International Health), Tulane University, New Orleans and in Obstetrics and Gynaecology from the University of Nairobi.
What has been your best decade in life?
Interesting. In my 30s, things were shaping up, I was finishing my Master’s programmes in Kenya [Obstetrics/ gynaecology] and in New Orleans [International Health] I had two children, now I have five. The future was shaping up nicely. My 40s started very well after laying a good foundation in my 30s. My career was set on a firm road. I was doing a lot of research, traveling all over the world with international collaborations. I felt I was on top of the world. Perhaps my 40s were my best years so far.
Was that your tipping point?
I climaxed in the 50s — I’m 54 now. I think I’ve arrived now, I’ve stabilised. I get to choose the things I want, like turning down the Kenyatta National Hospital offer wouldn’t have been possible if I was younger. Financially, I’m secure. My children are grown, one has finished university, I can also see my daughter doing medicine.
How old are the children now?
My eldest is 21, my youngest two and a half.
How do you find fatherhood now as you compare to 21 years ago?
It’s different. Twenty one years ago, I feared failing as a father. In fact, I thought if my son failed then that would be my failure. So I was extremely strict, I raised the rod a few times. Now I’m more compassionate and flexible.
Tell me the story of this lovely painting in your office. [A picture of a cottage by a river, framed by mountain range] What does it mean to you? It looks like it comes with a story.
I love nature. This was a gift from one of my clients who had lost four pregnancies before seeing me. Now they have two babies. I think through talking— I talk a lot with my patients— they realised that I love nature. If I had it, that could be my dream place to stay in. I have built a small home in the village and planted a lot of trees. I love orchids.
Do you believe as a fertility doctor God works through you?
Indeed. I have many women who come here unable to conceive but end up getting babies. I feel that it’s a calling and God has given me some special gift in my hands. To prove that point, not that I judge women, but I won’t terminate a pregnancy. I’m pro-life but not in a dogmatic way. I mean, a woman would make their choices, but I would not use the same gifted hands to take away a life. My hands aren’t for destruction. That’s a decision I made a long time ago.
Did you always know you wanted to be a gynaecologist?
No. The person who mentored me in this profession was the late Dr George Hayanga. He was a big influence in my choosing this path.
What would you say is the biggest misconception of your profession?
With gynaecology obstetrics, we’re dealing with the sacred area in human reproductive tracks. So it is the place where people don’t talk. The mystery, I think, is that you can be able to navigate this area of medicine and still lead a normal life with your partner, and maintain professionalism. Some people always ask me, maybe jokingly, if I got into this profession because I like women, but come on, women are so many, how many can you like? (Laughs)
Now that we’re here. When you spend the whole day looking at what you call the sacred areas, does it affect your marital life at home?
(Chuckles) No, no. You have to distinguish that work is work and home is home. When I’m here I approach it like a dentist approaches a mouth. When I leave work I switch off completely and when I get home I’m a husband. That balance is very important.
How was your childhood?
Aaah. The usual. I was born in Siaya County, Bondo sub-county, in Yimbo. My dad who is now 97 years old fought for the British in World War II. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. We had enough to keep us going.
I wore my first shoe in Form One. I was always the brightest student in my school, so I was popular because of that, students wanted to be my friend and teachers had a soft spot for me. Then I just worked hard and doors kept opening; from Yimbo to the US and back.
What’s your biggest struggle now as a 54-year-old?
(Laughter) To stay healthy. I am gyming morning and evening. I have bought a treadmill, bicycles, gym equipment… They’re all in my penthouse upstairs. I’m keen on what I eat. I make sure I do low carbs, less fatty foods. I don’t smoke. I stopped taking alcohol 10 years ago.
But don’t read me wrong, I can do champagne if I’m in a celebratory mood but it must be a high-class champagne, Dom Pérignon. I also avoid stress.
How do you avoid stress?
I let things pass. What I can’t deal with, I say let it pass. It’s never too serious. When I was younger, I’d want to be in control of everything, to be on top of everything but you grow older and learn that you can’t.
When did you attain financial independence?
Do you ever? But I think it’s when I finished paying my mortgage and things eased up. The mortgage was a killer. (Laughs). When it was done, I felt released. I don’t have loans now, I’m not under pressure, business is thriving but I’m still a work in progress.
I’m now free to focus on my legacy; give direction to my children, make sure I don’t impose my values on them. I’ve built a hospital for my community and a water dam. How will I be remembered is my biggest question now.
Who is your favourite Rhumba artist?
Franco Lwambo, who else? Has there been anybody better? I love rhumba, the music of my youth and now of my adulthood. I listen to it here in my office, in my car and at home. At the hospital when I go into the theatre, they play for me Rhumba. My life is surrounded by rhumba.
What do you fear?
One, poverty. Oh, poverty isn’t nice at all, Biko. The second thing is death. I don’t want to die. (Chuckles) I want to live long to see my legacy that stands the test of time.
On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your level of happiness at this moment in time?
I’m ten. There’s nothing I’m worried about. I’m very happy with my marriage, I’m very happy with the way the family is coming along. I only hope they live to achieve their dreams.
I’m happy with the medical practice, my health is very good. I have some savings if it starts raining very hard. And I have Rhumba. (Chuckles)