Dr. Nick Ngwanyam is a household name in Cameroon. Very active when it comes to talking about national issues, this indigene of Nkambe in Donga Mantung Division of the North West region didn’t have a childhood of affluence. He had to struggle to supplement his school needs, but that difficult childhood eventually became the fodder for the hard work that made him a successful surgeon, and now an astute businessman.
But his days as a medic under the Cameroon payroll were fraught with intimidation.
At the height of Cameroon’s political turmoil, Dr. Nick Ngwanyam withstood government pressure to issue falsified autopsy results.
“In March of 1993, Mr. Abondo Langvoue Louis, a 29-year-old married man with 4 kids was beaten to death behind bars. The administration asked me for an autopsy report and gave me a quiet hit that the man had been poisoned. I established that he had been beaten to death while in custody,” he recalls.
He says hell was let loose as he was accused of using the autopsy results for political reasons.
“I was dismissed from my duties,” Ngwanyam recalls.
The Medical doctor who now runs a line of medical schools across the country sat down for a conversation with Timescape’s Killian Ngala. Following are excerpts of that conversation. Dr. Ngwanyam begins by taking a walk down memory lane to reveal his childhood and upbringing.
It is when we look back that we sometimes understand what was brewing earlier in our lives. In the struggling phase, we think we were suffering. Life is very interesting. What matters is not what happened to you but how you responded to the stimuli. The Holy Spirit was with me and preserved me all along.
I was born poor in a family of six. (I went to primary school without shoes). Four have passed on. I am alive with my junior brother who is in Houston, United States. My mother is strong and kicking. I clocked 65 on July 27th. I was born in Nkambe in Donga Mantung Division. My father came from Ntundip and my mother from Nseh. They settled in Nkambe where I attended the Basel Mission Primary School which later became the Presbyterian Primary school. In 1969, I passed the common entrance examination but could not go on to secondary school because my father was away in Zambia studying fine arts.
I repeated class seven and in 1970, I was admitted into CPC Bali, but my deposit came in late. That is how I ended up in JMBC Ndu where I studied for two years. My father got transferred as a grade three primary school teacher to Bali and I went back into CPC continuing from form three until I finished high school.
I have many short stories covering this period of my life that would be a subject of a whole book. Who I am today came from those early days and the paths I took.
In primary school, I was already aware of our poverty and realized I had to pick the coffee beans instead of playing after school. I was living alone in our farmhouse as my father was teaching in Tabenken.
I remember selling firewood, some vegetables, and fresh corn in the Nkambe market. While in Class seven, there was this Doctor Ngassa who used to drive his Range Rover up and down our dusty roads at a very slow pace. I felt I should be a doctor as well. My paternal grandfather made a wish on me as I was leaving Nkambe for secondary school. He said I would be able to operate human beings and get them to live again. I also wanted to be a pilot to fly to all the big cities at will or an industrial farmer like those in America.
To achieve my dreams, I had to study the sciences. That was it. I was programmed on autopilot from then on. I had a keen sense of responsibility and time use.
You ended up as a surgeon. What inspired you?
While in Bali, my father went off to England. I was in form five when my mother took ill and was operated upon at the Regional Hospital in Bamenda. My junior sisters and brothers were living in Bali town on their own. Margaret (RIP) had baby Victorine at the time and was looking after our mother in Hospital. I used to go to town to keep an eye on the others, then trek to the Regional Hospital to see my mother. At some point she needed blood. I trekked to Bamenda with four of my classmates to give her the blood she needed. Dr. Emanuel Bah Awazi, Dr. Kangsen Martin and Festus Baya were among the four. My mother was very sick and lost a lot of weight. Pus was pouring out from her abdomen. The surgeon, Dr. Rosenkeimer, was a great German with a lot of empathy and attention to his patients. The students of the Bamenda nursing school were a great delight and a blessing to us. I confirmed my desire to become a surgeon and help others live.
In October of 1977, I was admitted to a class of 60 or so as the 9th batch at the medical school (CUSS) of the then University of Yaounde; I was coached and encouraged by Prof. Jato Johnson (RIP) and Mr. Emmanuel Gamnje (RIP).
It is good to say here that in from 3 at CPC, I went to a photo studio in town during the summer holidays and learned how to take black and white pictures, develop the negatives, print out the pictures and sell them. I did this at school to earn some money. As a teacher’s son, part of my fees was paid by the Church (Scholarship). Mr. Samuel Nfonyam (our principal, RIP) never sent me out during the fee drives. I used to buy my reagents for developing films from Awa and Sons in Bamenda. In the lower sixth, I had all I needed for a whole studio including an enlarger, developing trays, a darkroom, and a photography club.
When I went to CUSS in 1977, I carried my camera and my skills with me. It was the era of colored photography. I would pocket my ego and go around taking pictures; put the negatives together and fly them to Photo Rush at Cedex 16 in Paris. After a two-week wait, these will come back to me. I would sell and earn an income. I added this to my bursary (student allowance) and lived a bourgeois life.
Let me mention here that in my two years in JMBC Ndu, I was part of the 5-C Club which was involved in gardening. We had farms in the valley, and I grew the best tomatoes and lettuces that I sold to our white Canadian teachers.
In my time in CUSS, I was mentored by great teachers like Prof. Annomah Ngu Victor, Prof. Lantum, Prof. Jato, Prof. Nasah, Prof. Leke, Prof Ngu Jacob, Prof. Bejanga Beltus, Dr. Youmbissi, Dr. Fomuluh Nelson, Dr. (Prof.) Titanji Vincent. There was a host of French-speaking doctors and professors including Titus Edzoa. All of them contributed a lot to my training. Prof. Annomah Ngu gave me the WHO scholarship to study Surgery in Nairobi and Urology in London.
What I did not like in CUSS was the fact that Anatomy and Physiology were poorly taught. This turned out to be a huge embarrassment for me in Nairobi. I had a hard time correcting those errors during my training. Mental Health, therapeutics, and Pharmacology were my other areas of weakness.
You did work as a civil servant for some time. What was the experience like and why did you migrate into the private sector with all the uncertainties and insecurities involved?
I started work as a junior doctor at Azi Hospital in Lebielem. Four months after that, I was called back to the Central Hospital in Yaounde where I worked in the Nephrology Unit and Maternity respectively. Thereafter I was posted to Betare Hospital in the East Region. Two years after graduation, I went off to study Surgery in Nairobi and Urology in London. On coming back, I was posted to the Regional Hospital in Bertoua.
In March of 1993, Mr. Abondo Langvoue Louis, a 29-year-old married man with four kids was beaten to death behind bars. The administration asked me for an autopsy report and gave me a quiet hint that the man had been poisoned. I established that he had been beaten to death while in custody.
In those days in Bertoua, I noticed how the civil service was overbearing and subjecting the local population to a life of misery and subjugation. There was a class of masters/lords and commoners. I was treated as one of these commoners. You had to be in the administration to have some weight. A technician has no consideration in Cameroon even as we speak.
I went through a lot of gendarmerie harassment with their investigations. They accused me of using my autopsy findings for political ends and that I had generated a fake medical report.
I was dismissed from my duties. That night, I kept a vigil and sang till dawn. I lived alone and was afraid I could be hurt at night. The next day I drove out in my white Mercedes car 230 through Abongbang to Yaounde. All along I sang to my God and prayed for safety as I could be hurt in the forest.
I went to see the Director of Health at the Ministry. He gave me a dressing down and called me names and that I was not worth my salt as a doctor.
I saw Prof. Victor Annomah Ngu who blessed me with his time and support all along this time of my Calvary walk. I was on the phone with him as well as Dr. Solomon Nfor Gwei of the Human Rights Commission at this hour of distress.
Prof. Annomah Ngu prayed with me, he encouraged me and gave me a CFA F 2,000 (about USD4) note which was the only thing he had in his purse then. He said, ‘Take this money. Do not look at the physical value, but the spirit with which I give it to you. He was moved by this gesture when on his advice, I accepted that I would forget about the civil service and open a hospital in Bamenda. He was ready to give me land in Mutengene if I had chosen the then South West province. I was afraid I might not be given a license but who would dare if the Professor showed up?
I eventually got my license and started the St. Louis Clinic and Maternity in Bamenda in November 1994 after a quick trip to Head Bridge Market Onitsha to buy basic hospital equipment.
Dr. Solomon Nfor Gwei prayed with me and read out Psalms 139. The then Archbishop of Bamenda, His Grace Paul Verdzekof said special prayers with the Christians of the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province. He wrote out a personal letter of encouragement to me. H.E. Christian Cardinal Tumi blessed me and made me his son until his death when he handed Elijah’s mantle to me. All my four mentors are of blessed memory and today I must stand on my own feet proclaiming the message of life, truth, love, faith, and worship. I have been groomed in the mold.
Working as a medical doctor has had its fair share of challenges. I know how French-trained doctors and English-trained doctors differ in approach from my time as a student in CUSS. The Anglophones want you to understand and be able to explain why you do the things you do. The French training pushes you to memorize and recite to be the best. They hide behind titles that are cherished to a fault.
In those days, there were no toilets for the women at ‘Maternite Principale’. The flow of water was epileptic. For a long time, it was understood that if someone came in with a fever, it was likely one of two things: malaria or typhoid fever. The latter has been wrongly diagnosed and used as a cover-up for many undiagnosed problems. Besides, the Widal test that is widely used to date as the standard and common method of diagnosis for typhoid fever is a wrong test.
I cannot begin to imagine how much money has been wasted over the years wrongly diagnosing and treating a disease that is easily prevented by proper hygiene, water, sanitation, proper food handling as well as waste disposal. There is also a vaccine for this. Till today, we still have breakouts of cholera in Cameroon which is a shame.
I am so worried that we train a lot of Ph.D. and Master students in Public Health, yet our hospitals, markets, streets, and public places are not the best. There is a chronic lack of running water, no public toilets, and unacceptable refuse disposal. There is a disconnect between our training in Cameroon and our ability to solve practical problems with the knowledge and skills acquired from our universities.
When I trained as a medical doctor, there was a higher percentage of poor kids in medical school. Today, the formula has shifted to the benefit of the rich and powerful.
You have become a very successful entrepreneur, with a university that has campuses in Bamenda, Ndu, Douala, and Yaounde. What is the secret of such success?
An entrepreneur is defined as someone who can make a diagnosis of the problems in his society and community. Then he crafts out solutions to some of these problems to the best of his abilities. The emphasis is to provide quality solutions and not the quest for quick money. This is the basis of our success. Quality services. You know, quality goes in before the name goes on.
People see, feel and touch truth in St Louis and want to be associated with it. I have been a medical doctor in Cameroon working with the government and mission hospitals. I worked in Kenya and the UK. I know how things work in Germany and the USA.
We have so many youths in Cameroon without jobs. Many pour out of our universities that are not professional and so we have social tensions. I read that the Philippines sends out 7,000 to 9,000 qualified nurses to Britain, Germany, Canada, and the USA every year. These nurses are not recruited based on color but rather on their capacity to solve problems. I wanted to give our youths a chance to access this cake.
Do you remember my struggles with poverty through primary and secondary school? All the things I was selling, and the photography were training in solving problems, selling my goods and services to other human beings. That is the foundation of my confidence and skills to launch into the dark with hope and confidence.
I am not afraid to borrow to start up a new venture. I tried in 2008 to sell medical equipment and lost 250 million CFA F because my thinking cap was not sitting properly. I have sharpened my saw over time.
All I can do is identify problems, think through the strategies, and put them to work. Borrow money from the banks and make it work for me. Then I use other people’s talents, set up great teams with a clear vision, and management strategies beefed up with internal and external control mechanisms. I do not micro-manage at all. I stay with the big picture and keep my mind.
St Louis is a collective effort. We listen a lot to innovative ideas from around the world while keeping a lid on people with negative intentions. We make good use of advertisement outlets especially TV and social media handles.
What are you offering as training in St Louis and how is that training suited to the job market?
We train to international standards. Dr. Linda Akondeng drew our attention to the fact that the training of mid-level health technicians that used to be carried out in CUSS stopped in 1986. There was a shortage on the field. That is how we train nurses, medical laboratory technicians, Radiology technicians with capacities to do ultrasounds; pharmacy technicians, physiotherapy technicians, midwives, and dental therapists to obtain HND diplomas in 3 years. On putting in another one year they get a bachelor’s degree issued by the University of Buea that mentors us.
We use highly qualified staff. Some used to come from Germany and India. We stopped because of the war.
We insist on character development, responsibility, respect, love, empathy, and teamwork. We are particular about practical work and make sure students understand processes. They know how to make the best choices in the interest of the patients and their families.
With the expansion to Douala and Yaoundé, more departments have been added in the health sector. There is also engineering, technology, and agriculture (animal and plant production).
We look forward to building a state-of-the-art teaching hospital in Yaoundé and Douala. We must work on our farms and get the production to sustainable market scales. St Louis is in the quest to effectively transfer technology to Cameroon. We are making agriculture a widespread activity as a means of creating jobs and wealth for our youths.
We are glad that many nurses from St Louis are spread out around the world given that we started in 2002. Almost all government hospitals and many private institutions have products from St Louis working in their systems. What is peculiar about us is the character brand and the savoir-faire. I continue to encourage our past and present students as well as the general population on social media, television, and radio on issues of emotional intelligence, entrepreneurship, peacebuilding, wealth creation, and living together.
This year, we are starting a foundation program at St Louis Douala. Students with proper grades at the “A” Level and BACC are admitted for one year. They proceed to study Medicine, Pharmacy, or Dentistry in Malaysia, Zambia, St Kitts, and Russia.
St Louis is one professional school at which students are dismissed at the end of the year for poor academic performance or bad character. We do not take these lightly. I always imagine that our products should be so good that I can subject my life and that of my family to their care without any anxiety. That is the acid test.
Many start-ups crumble the day they start. What do you think those who open such businesses do wrong that you get right? What would be your advice to them?
Many people lack something in their spirits that causes them to fail at ventures. You must have a real passion for what you are doing. You must have a great creative spirit and an ability to think out a lot of things for yourself. Ask for advice only when necessary and be specific. Read a lot of books and do You Tubes in what you want to do. Get to know how things work and understand human nature. Put together great teams to help you. Start small and grow.
It is about producing a product and marketing it. So, you must have social skills and emotional intelligence. Understand that the customer is the boss, and you are a servant. Empty pride has no place. While in Bamenda, I had three ladies cleaning the clinic. Besides, there were nurses next door. I had a broom in my office. If a patient came in with a lot of mud and it dropped on the floor, I would get up after him and sweep it away and wash my hands. No big deal.
Most people do not know how to handle money and potential clients. Stop spending your capital as it trickles in thus killing the chicken that lays the golden egg.
Using relatives is a great idea, but sometimes they are the ones that kill you big time. When we study we get certificates. These account for 25 percent of our success. We must know how to use our own hands to solve problems even if we employ extra hands. When workers know you know nothing, they mess you up big time. 85 percent of success depends on the character and the ability to communicate effectively with the world. What is the product? Why is it important? How is it used?
If you come to Cameroon, you will notice the Ibos and Bamilekes who are successful are disciplined and stay away from bars and alcohol. Alcohol and women kill businesses and sharp management. Cheap gossip takes your mind off creative thinking. Avoid friends who are not helping you grow in your vision. Keep negative people at arm’s length. 80 percent of startups perish. That is why we must sharpen our tools. Start in an area that you master very well before venturing into fields you have no ideas in. Self-discipline and sound financial management are great assets.
However, all investments in the food sector and real estate are great if you think things through.
Buying goods from China and shipping them to sell without doing anything that adds value makes one rich, but it is neither entrepreneurship nor creativity. Entrepreneurship is an art that must be learned and mastered in a practical way. We should read the textbooks but soil our hands. The taste of the pudding is in the eating.
How challenging do you find Cameroon’s business environment?
There are some great opportunities out here yet there are lots of difficulties as well that we must investigate to catch up with the rest of the world.
More than 95 percent of the stuff sold in our supermarkets and shops are imported. Look at the items in your office and home. What if we could make these things in Cameroon? We lack technology. Importation kills our local industry and makes it difficult for small-scale startups to thrive in the face of massive competition.
In the service sector (education), some people obtain the licenses, but the quality of their training is not good enough thus watering down the great efforts of others. The problems of water, electricity, road infrastructure, air transport, and a thousand other headaches make work rather difficult and tend to chock our efforts.
Sometimes the administration is not very helpful because of overzealous officers. One has got to be proactive and have nerves of steel. Be as sharp as an eagle, stay proactive, and stay away from fights. Letting go is very helpful. Business is the art of negotiation to sell what you produce; the better you are at it the more you will thrive. Always negotiate with a win-win perspective in mind. Be truthful and things will always work out for the better.
As a businessman operating in Cameroon’s troubled Northwest Region; the crisis must have affected you. Please do explain.
Yes, the crisis has affected us. We had a student population in 2016 of about 1600 in Bamenda. More than half were francophones.
As the violence picked up steam, the numbers tumbled following the general shutdown of schools for a whole year.
We are barely trying to pick up the pieces just like anyone else in the sector. Some doors of some institutions have remained closed for 5 years running. Business activities in the North West Region have dropped to less than 40 percent when you look at the turnover in the banks as an indicator.
Would I be wrong in guessing that the crisis has also been an opportunity in that you have extended into the Littoral and Centre Regions? Was that your initial plan?
It was always our idea to extend to these areas including Maroua. We used to think and dream about it with no timelines. The war kicked us in the ass to get going and we just had to move it. Here we are today.
We started small and we are growing from strength to strength.
Your last thoughts?
God gave me the greatest gift which is creativity and inspiration. It is the same thing as the ability to solve problems. In the few years, I still have here on earth, I want to make the best use of this gift to address problems in our nation and Africa. I have had the opportunity of traveling many times to East Africa, Nigeria, Britain, England, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Dubai, and China.
I see how others make it. We just need to discipline ourselves, learn, copy and we shall have enough to go around for everyone. This is my cry. This is my vision and mission while I still breathe. In 2006 when I came back from a business trip sponsored by the US government to the States, I wrote in my diary that I will create 50,000 jobs for youths.
If God guides my hands, mind, and steps; I will create 2 million jobs for youths every two years. This shall be a collective effort by all of us. Cameroon is one of the most beautiful and most blessed countries on earth with the best location. I dream of an industrialized nation with happy people everywhere who are proud of their heritage.