- Dr Bilal feels he’s much more scientist than administrator
- Yearns to see TZ becoming a scientific nation
- Had false start in the first two terms of Form One
- Earned US university scholarship in Form Five
- His father failed to pay 3,080/- airfare to the US
- Suffered two accidents at a lab and on football ground
MOHAMED Gharib Bilal (PhD), a nuclear scientist and mathematician, is a humble and down-to-earth elder, who climbed ladders to the top second national post against his dream.
Dr Bilal’s political life started when he was appointed Permanent Secretary in the newly introduced Ministry of Science Technology and Higher Education in 1990 after spending 13 years at the University of Dar es Salaam as a don. He served the post for five years until 1995.
Serving this post, opened Dr Bilal’s route to a political career, which propelled him to the Vice-President’s post.
“I didn’t want to leave my department of physics which was getting its teeth on the ground…to a government post,” Dr Bilal opened up to the ‘Daily News’ last Friday on the operating realities during his time in office and his experience working with the country’s top leaders.
The Department of Physics was established in 1965. The first Head of the Department was an Australian, Prof D. Osborne. Dr Bilal was the fourth head (1982–1988) and the third Tanzanian to hold the post after Professor Paul Vitta (1972-1978) and Professor John Nkoma (1979–1981).
He felt that the department needed him most as its head because he was the only nuclear scientist in the country and the well-being of the department might hang in balance.
“I love the department,” Dr Bilal said “and was worried that the department and students may face some difficulties ahead. Besides, I was convinced that I’m a scientist, not an administrator,” the soft-spoken nuclear scientist said at his residence in Dar es Salaam.
Dr Bilal,78, the father of four, was born on February 6th 1945 in Unguja, Zanzibar. He started Standard One at Makunduchi Primary School. At Standard Two, his father was transferred to Mfenesini Dispensary and he was compelled to start Standard One afresh at Mfenesini Primary School.
Dr Bilal completed his primary education at Makunduchi, Zanzibar in 1958. At Standard Seven, his teachers felt that there was no need for him to study at Standard Eight, that means he sat for the Standard Eight national examination and he passed.
He joined secondary education at Beit-el-Ras in 1962 and later joined Lumumba Secondary School in Zanzibar. Thus, he joined secondary school without setting a foot in Standard Eight.
Before completing Form Five, Dr Bilal received a scholarship to study at Howard University in Washington, US, graduating in physics and mathematics in 1967.
“I was selected to study civil engineering, but after a year, I changed the discipline to physics and mathematics.
“I found out civil engineering was boring, while physics was lively and interesting to study,” he jovially said and recalled that it was physics, mathematics and chemistry that made him number one student for his entire secondary life.
The nuclear scientist, the third born out of 22 children of Mr Bilal, said the science subjects made him shine at secondary school after a false start in the first two terms of form one.
“Ever since I concentrated on science subjects and graduated with first grade at Howard University and rewarded a master scholarship,” he said.
He earned an MA in physics from the University of California in 1969, and a PhD in physics in 1976 at the same university.
At the California University, he met with Ronald Regan, who was the Vice-Chancellor and the Governor of California. On top of that, they share a birth date. He also shared the birth date with Bob Marley.
“I don’t know what that means but we both had our ambitions and somehow we fulfilled them. He (Regan) as politician and me as a scientist,” he said. Mr Regan later became US President.
The Scholarship News
The family received the US scholarship news with mixed reaction. Others were happy, but my father faced a difficult situation. He was supposed to pay some 3,080/- for my airfare to the US.
“The news for fare payment came at the eleventh hour and caught my parents unprepared. As a dispensary worker, my father was not in a position to pay the sum at short notice,” he said.
Dr Bilal, who has two wives said the Isles government came to their rescue and later paid the fare.
Another scholarship challenge was the fact that he was only 18 years old and travelling thousands of kilometres away and communicating with family takes time. A letter from the US to Tanzania in those days took at least seven days to arrive.
“I used to write a letter and tell my family that at a particular time and day, I would call them via a neighbour’s phone,” he recalled.
“It was a challenge but we managed to go along fine. And, for that reason, I accepted the master’s scholarship without proceeding straight to a PhD. I needed time to go back and greet my family.
“We were four Zanzibaris who went to the US and I was the only one who did not complete Form Six… and 18,” he said. He was in the same university with Mr Daudi Balali, a former Central Bank Governor and Dr Aleck Che-Mponda, a political scientist.
In 1969 he came back home briefly and lectured at the University of Dar es Salaam for three months and went back for his research. He was also teaching at the University of California while doing his master’s.
His research took longer than anticipated from 1969 to 1974.
“I had two accidents. One a lab accident concerning the research itself and another I broke my leg when playing football,” he said adding: “I still have an iron rod on my leg. But it does not bother me,” he said.
He said the lab accident happened after heating molecules, which needed water to cool the material and analyse their behaviour but the water inflow was little as many were using them. Hence, he didn’t close the taps, despite calculating that the level of inflow would fill the instrument the next morning.
“Little did I know others had closed their taps and the water inflow and pressure to my instrument, which increased overwhelmingly to burst the pipe. The entire lab was filled with water. It took a year to return things to normal and continued with my research,” he said.
In 1976 he joined the University of Dar es Salaam as a lecturer in physics and in 1983 he was picked Head of the Department of Nuclear Physics, which he played a big part in its establishment.
In 1983, he participated in establishing a national organisation of radiation and contributed professionally to the preparation of the draft of legislation that led to the law of use and control of nuclear radiation in Tanzania.
In 1988 he was appointed Head of the Faculty of Science at the University of Dar es Salaam and continued in the office until 1990, when he was appointed Permanent Secretary in the new Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education in 1990–1995.
As Permanent Secretary, he was involved in initiating the process of sharing the costs of higher education and the introduction of loans to students of higher learning institution. Also, the ministry introduced the Open University, along with establishing control over higher education institutions—accreditation council.
In 1988 Dr Bilal was a project initiator in Zanzibar’s science camp aimed at motivating young people to study science and to help all secondary schools in Zanzibar—Unguja and Pemba—get equipment to facilitate testing of students to understand science more practically.
The project eventually was adopted by the Ministry of Education in Zanzibar. The project encouraged many young people to study science and gave them the challenge of learning many different topics about Zanzibar environment.
As a lecturer at the University Dr Bilal was able to participate in several boards, such as the Commission of Science and Technology (COSTECH), National Radiation Commission (NRC) as Chairman of the Science Panel of the Inter University Council of East Africa and also participated pioneering studies on environmental science (1990).
In 1995, Dr Bilal was appointed Chief Minister of the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar until 2000. From November 2010 to November 2015, he was the Vice-President of Tanzania, under President Jakaya Kikwete.
On top of that, Dr Bilal was not only good in his studies but also outside the class, he was a good athlete. He loved, among other sports, to play football which later cost his research. He used to play as an attacking midfielder (number eight).
“I love all football teams but my friends are saying I am a Yanga fan,” Dr Bilal said teasingly.
Mzee Bilal’s only wish is to see the country develop to become a scientific nation to accelerate its economic growth. He gave examples of South Asia nations—China, South Korea, Taiwan and India which have developed rapidly after embracing science and technology.
“The difficult moment of my career was adopting political life from a scientist. In politics, you have to balance your words based on the situation at hand, but in science are facts, and in most cases based on research,” he said while insisting that he was privileged to save as Vice-President of Tanzania, a position which he didn’t dream of.