Earlier this year, I was encouraged by my friends, colleagues and family to share my ideas for making this world better. So along with my team, I introduced this blog, "100 Years." I began with a story on my grandfather on my father's side (Big Shoes to Fill), but before publishing it decided to share it with my dad. After sending it to him, we talked, and I gently asked if I could also share his own story - and as I expected, he declined, but agreed it would be good to share his father's story. He and I went back and forth – his strongest interest was that humility and service were highlighted.
Three days later, July 31, 2015, he died, passing away quietly in his sleep.
The youngest of nine children, our dad was born in 1950 in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (at the time part of the British Commonwealth, later to become what we currently call Tanzania) . He split his childhood between Africa and England, where he attended a proper boarding school, then went on to attend university in the Netherlands.
In 1970 his father died, he was left the responsibility by his father to run the family's two remaining farms, growing sisal and sugarcane, and to take care of his mother. There, he met Robert Long (A Second Set of Shoes to Fill), my grandfather on our mom's side. In January of 1974, Beth Long went to visit her parents and met our dad - they were married a few months later.
Life was blissful in Colonial Africa, and the Meghji family farms were thriving. Thousands of people were employed. One morning in early 1976, dad was having coffee on the veranda (Mom was already back in the US) when a tank rolled onto the front yard. The Tanzanian military swarmed after, carrying AK47s, said (in essence) "You are not a black African - we are seizing your land." This process had begun a few years previously and in early 1976 the last lands our family owned had been seized.
In addition to the farms and family compound, bank accounts and all other assets were seized and our dad was given one week to get out of the country. He grabbed some random stuff, packed up a few suitcases and jumped into an old Peugeot. He drove to the airport, parked the car, poured some sugar into the gas tank and flew out of the country, never to return. The region he left behind was created in large part by his family, starting with his grandfather at the turn of the last century. There were not only farms, but whole communities - schools, hospitals, cafes, shops, everything a community needed to thrive - families with children whose lives rapidly fell apart as the region fell into poverty and despair. There is nothing there now - everything built has been reclaimed by the jungle. The pictures from recent years were heartbreaking – and were part of why my father never returned to Tanzania.
My parents ended up in Urbana, Illinois (my mom’s home town) with nothing, and I was born just a few months later. He had no real net worth, no job, and had to start college over since his degree from the Netherlands wasn't recognized. He went back to college, studied agriculture, and received his PhD in eight years in a field he helped pioneer.
Today, we call it Statistical Genetics.
My sister Khatija (named for my dad’s mother – who we call Kate) was born while he was getting that Ph.d. Shortly thereafter, dad was recruited by CIBA to help create their agricultural genetics program, the beginnings of the application of genetics to agriculture. We traveled all over Europe while he helped build the technologies, programs and plans to implement genetic modification in corn and other crops. While I will share my thoughts on GMO in a future article, it's important to note that one of the problems our dad solved was the devastation of corn by the European Corn Borer. He took a trait in a bacterium and put it into corn which destroyed the pest - the first process successfully moving genes from one place to another. He holds the patent on this and has the honor of being the first to get a patent and drive over 10% increases in corn yield globally while decreasing pesticide usage significantly.
He became a policy expert, consulting to government agencies on the regulation of GMO crops, specifically because of his work in driving the highest level of scientific quality to the development process of these genetically modified organisms. To this day, the work done in environmental protection done at CIBA (then Novartis, now Syngenta), stands head and shoulders above what has been done (or frankly what is currently being done) anywhere else. It was through the global genetics programs he was part of that he first went to Costa Rica. After his first trip there, he called me and was clearly enamored with this small central American country. He retired in 2009 and moved there shortly after.
Our parents divorced in 1998, and while dad dated a few women, he never remarried. He loved scotch, he loved tennis, and he loved his friends and he loved us. The outpouring of affection from friends, family, coworkers and others all over the world has been overwhelming since his passing.
A few days after his death, my sister and I flew to his home in Costa Rice to collect the body, and deal with the estate. Going through his things while closing down his house, I found duplicates of every gadget I ever bought or told my dad about. Kindle, iPad, iPhone, external hard drives, solar powered flashlights... you name it. He loved cameras and photography, and Kate and I have hung on to more than a few of them. Kate and I didn't bring back much in addition to that - we did each take a bottle of his favorite scotch which we'll hang on to. We also saw a few things that we just so him: lightbulb boxes kept with receipts, gallons of water in case of outages, more chargers and batteries than you’d think any one person would need.
It was only later in my life I realized how similar my dad and I were, and how much like him I remain today. We shared a passion for learning, for science, for discovery, for life in many forms. As I look at my career over the last 20 years, I now see incredibly strong parallels. We both live at the confluence of scientific progress and applied advances in human society. Our dad was a loner and a deep thinker, a pragmatist and philosopher, a scientist and traveler.
One thing our dad never really reconciled the loss of his own father. He raced home from abroad when he discovered his father had died – but his brother had already had his father buried by the time he got back. This is something he and my grandfather Robert shared – they both were abroad when their fathers passed and missed the funerals and burying of their fathers. It seems poignant that Kate and I raced to Costa Rica as soon as we could to ensure his final wishes were followed and that we could bring his ashes back to the States as a first leg of a multi-year journey to return him home to Tanzania. Today, their temporary resting place is in Robert’s World War 2 trunk, sitting next to Rajabali’s shroud.
He and I developed a great relationship over the last ten years. On one of my trips to Costa Rica, we accidentally invaded Panama (which we only realized because my phone switched to a different cell network – well that and the US military vehicles down the road), shared a bottle of scotch - while I suffered only a short interrogation on my tattoos. In the end, our dad respected any decision that had a logical thought process behind it. Even if he didn’t understand it entirely.
Our dad requested that there be no burial, no funeral, no services – no “fuss”. We respected his wishes, but in one last lovingly defiant act, I am sharing part of his story in this dispatch. And we’ll use his example as we move forward – stay tuned for the Meghji Family Foundation.