Grant Keeble Kululanga is a colossus of a figure in engineering. Over the past 23 years, he has dedicated his life to enriching the theory and practice of engineering, eventually becoming the first home grown professor of engineering in Malawi. To mark the attainment of the status of a full professor, Kululanga will on December 18 2014 deliver an inaugural lecture on the challenges of engineering. JACOB JIMU chatted with him one sunny morning recently and presents a sketch of his life.
GOn an afternoon that nearly turned tragic, a stubborn young man defied his mother’s warning and plunged into the deep end of the water. He reasoned that if the other youngsters could swim, why not him? After all, he convinced himself, he was more energetic than the boys who were swimming effortlessly on this patch of Lake Malawi in Nkhotakota.
With everything apparently on his side, jumping into the lake was an easy decision to make despite the elements being rather unkind on this day. That was until he realised the hard way that swimming is an art that is learned and perfected.
“If it wasn’t for this gentleman, I should have been dead today. I almost drowned. That was the worst moment of my life,” he recalled with a smile, grateful to be alive.
As he trudged his way home, the spectre of being whipped by his mother for disobeying her orders was uppermost on his mind, but the stars contrived to save his skin again because it was not until two weeks later that she knew about the incident. The person who related the survival tale to his mother did it so mildly that she was only happy that her first born son had survived the brush with the fangs of death.
“That hasn’t left my memory,” said Grant Keeble Kululanga in his cushy office at The Polytechnic where he is the principal.
The comfort and serenity of his office are a world away from the choppy waters of Lake Malawi. A step into the office, the leg senses that these are no ordinary environs as the feet sag into the wall-to-wall carpet. The wall hangings are not your everyday items: everybody who matters at the college has their name on a special board; the college architectural design occupies a pride of place in the office; photographs capturing key moments in Kululanga’s life such as the prestigious awards he has received sit comfortably.
And, of course, the cushiony leather chair is resilient and spacious enough to accommodate his considerable frame. Behind the chair sits the portrait of President Peter Mutharika who, like some invisible hand, watches over the head of The Polytechnic.
This is the place Kululanga has occupied since 2010 when he became principal of the college. It is a remarkable journey for the son of Wells Keeble Kululanga, a civil servant who worked in the Malawi Prison Service, and Rhoda Kemilton Kululanga, a housewife. On December 18 2014, the road takes him to the academic epitome at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre where he will deliver an inaugural lecture to mark his formal entry into the hallowed circles of a professor of engineering, the first home grown for Malawi.
The inaugural lecture will discuss how engineering can provide solutions to the many ills that haunt Malawi such as slums in cities and towns, an ever growing population as well as the problem of transportation infrastructure.
“This nation requires the right quantity and quality of engineers and other professionals in related fields. These are the issues I want to address in the lecture because what I see is that there are a number of challenges that should be expected if we don’t do anything. For instance, the population of Malawi is growing at a fast rate. By 2050, this nation will have 50 million people, more than double the current population. Most of these people will come to towns and if the poverty rate remains as it is or worsens what it means is that most of these people will be living in slums.
“The engineering profession should be able to conceive innovative interventions to address such challenges,” said Kululanga, who was born on October 20 1959 at Zomba General Hospital as it was called at the time.
It all began on a blank slate for Kululanga. As a boy growing up with his seven siblings in the many districts where his father worked, his ambition was simply to go as far as possible with his education. Whatever he would eventually find himself doing, he had no idea. But even in those years of walking blindly, his fierce ambition and drive to succeed were undiminished. It is these traits that have taken him to all manner of schools and colleges, culminating in a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and a PhD in engineering with a bias towards civil engineering.
After doing his early education at primary schools such as Mzuzu LEA, Chigoneka Primary School and Conciri in Lilongwe, Nkhotakota LEA and Saint Augustine Primary School in Mangochi, Kululanga earned a place at Dedza Government Boarding School in 1977. Four years later in 1981, he was among the first group of A-Level candidates who were selected to the elite Kamuzu Academy in Kasungu as founding students.
The A-Level certificate he obtained from Kamuzu Academy took him to The Polytechnic in 1983 to study for a degree in engineering, completing the programme in 1986. After obtaining his degree, Kululanga worked in the civil service from 1987 to 1990 as project research engineer for the United Centre for Human Settlement in Association with Rural Housing Project. In 1990, he joined the University of Malawi, The Polytechinic, where he has worked for the past 23 years as a lecturer in engineering, vice principal and now principal of the college.
The first degree was only a stepping stone to bigger things as it gave him the licence to join the University of Loughborough in the United Kingdom for master’s and doctoral studies under the Commonwealth Scholarship. In 1999, he left the university with the weighty prefix ‘Dr’ affixed to his name.
A boy who was groping in the dark regarding what he wanted to become in life had now found his feet and direction, a feat the staunch member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church attributes to God and the contributions of people like his parents.
“My father was a disciplinarian. He could not tolerate nonsense. He didn’t mind disciplining you whether it was at school or at the play ground where your colleagues were there,” he said of his father, a man who had the skill and passion for football.
His father’s sense of discipline has rubbed off Kululanga who said he believes that a life without discipline, direction and structure has little value. He has given his sons, 23-year-old Michael and Martin, 16, and 11-year-old daughter Miriam, all the freedom they need to pursue their dreams, but he wants them to grow up into adults whose lives have a purpose.
True to Kululanga’s principle of letting his children decide their career paths, Michael is studying towards a degree in marketing at the Malawi Adventist University while Martin is doing degree studies in chemical engineering at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST). As for little Miriam, who is in primary school at Royal Heritage in Blantyre, she is still wandering about, not sure what career she wants to pursue. Once in a while, though, she shows some passion for space science.
“The best is to engage children in the principles of life as guided by the Bible. Understand and engage them so that they are free to discuss issues with us parents,” said Kululanga, his face brightening up at the mention of his children.
The smile on his face also betrayed the affection he has for his wife, Ida, a senior lecturer at the Kamuzu College of Nursing. Like him, she also holds the highest academic qualification, a PhD in nursing. You may begin to fear for the Kululangas, given that two academic elephants occupy the same turf, but the engineering professor said he and Ida are the best of friends, so they don’t worry about a clash of egos.
“Let me thank my wife for the support that she has given me through and through. I married her in 1990. I met her at Soche SDA Church in Blantyre. The time the relationship started and the time I married was about seven years. What I had wanted was to marry after obtaining a Master’s degree,” he reminisced.
The word God is a constant companion of Kululanga’s lips. His faith defines and shapes everything he does. The turning point was one memorable day in Mangochi during his days of youth.
“My highest moment was when I met Christ in Mangochi. Pastor Mandala had come to Mangochi to conduct evangelism, so I went there to attend. Before that, my life was ordinary, controlled by my parents, but without a structured way of thinking,” said the boy from M’memo Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Makwangwala in Ntcheu.
With God holding his hand, Kululanga has trodden the academic and professional path extensively. In 2012, he received a gold medal as one of the most outstanding scientists of the 21st century for publishing an engineering paper in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Architectural Management. He was also honoured by the Malawi Institution of Engineers in 2011 for publishing a distinguished journal article in construction. The same year, he was recognised as one of the ten top authors globally in construction engineering. To further illustrate his stature in engineering, over the past 10 years, Kululanga has been involved in 20 international research projects that have made significant contributions to the theory and practice of engineering.
“I should say that it’s God’s blessing that I have come this far. Certainly, it’s not because of my abilities,” he said.
If you visit Kululanga at his home in Blantyre one Sunday afternoon, don’t be surprised to find him reading science books as a form of relaxation. It may be hard and unfriendly stuff at a time he should be going easy on his life, but the desire to connect the dots of the science of cosmology is an obsession for him. You are also likely to find vegetables on his lunch table that Ida will have prepared for him. But if you want to avoid rubbing him the wrong way, always keep one thing in mind: Don’t pretend.
“I want people to be truthful. I like people who can say ‘I can’t do this’,” he warned.
For somebody who has sparkled all the way to the top, it is paradoxical that when he looks back on his life, he wonders whether it has been worth it. Kululanga said given an opportunity to go back in time, education is one thing he would do differently.
“Well, life is very short. I think I would have done certain things very differently. What I would have done was to say well, I don’t have to pursue education this far, but there is a duty God has given me to serve my colleagues. Yes, you pursue things this way and that way, but at the end of the day it all comes to nothing,” he said. n