From Cameroonian village to Stellenbosch Professor – top TB researcher reflects on a remarkable journeyProfessor Novel Chegou heads the Diagnostics Research Laboratory which forms part of Stellenbosch University’s Immunology Research Group. PHOTO: Supplied

From Cameroonian village to Stellenbosch Professor – top TB researcher reflects on a remarkable journey

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In 2004, Novel Chegou left his home country, Cameroon, in search of a better life in South Africa. With high hopes and not much money, he sold African crafts – beads, masks, and carved stones – next to the village green in Stellenbosch to save for his studies at the town’s university.

Today, Chegou (44) is a full professor in Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. He heads a tuberculosis (TB) biomarker research laboratory and has contributed to several patents for TB diagnostic tests, which are already being used around the world.

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Last month, the Royal Society – the independent scientific academy of the United Kingdom with luminous fellows such as Albert Einstein – announced Chegou as this year’s winner of the Royal Society Africa Prize, an annual award recognising innovation by a research scientist in Africa.

Deadly childhood TB

Lately, one of Chegou’s main interests is TB meningitis [TBM], or TB of the brain in children. Better TBM tests are urgently needed since children are frequently diagnosed too late to stop the onslaught of irreparable brain damage or death. It is for his work in this area that Chegou was recognised by the Royal Society.

“TB meningitis, TB of the brain, it’s a very terrible disease,” he says. “I started working on TBM a few years ago, learning about the challenges in diagnosing the disease. The majority of my work has been on adults but then we started learning about the challenges that are happening with children. So children are coming to day hospitals up to six times before they get diagnosed with TBM. But by then often the brain is gone. It’s one of the most difficult types of TB to diagnose. You really need advanced tools and expensive equipment. Most of the time children will never be normal again by the time it is diagnosed; there are so many neurological consequences – even if they are treated successfully. The problem is the poor accuracy of current diagnostic tools. Also, there are very non-specific symptoms and children can’t speak well, they can’t describe how they feel.”

Of children successfully diagnosed with TBM, he adds, an estimated 20% will die.

“It’s really bad,” says Chegou, himself a father of three. His wife holds a Masters in Agricultural Economics at Stellenbosch University.

The family lives in Bellville, but the scholar is often on the road. After our interview, Chegou was set to catch a flight to Durban for South Africa’s seventh annual TB Conference, where he delivered a talk titled “Progress in the development of host biomarker-based tests for the rapid diagnosis of tuberculous meningitis in children.” Two weeks prior to our interview, he was presenting his work at a TBM conference held at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

‘opportunities every step of the way’

Inside Chegou’s sun-washed office overlooking Tygerberg campus, we are looking at his computer monitor, where he has called up his research papers listed on Google Scholar. He points to his third most cited paper titled “Host markers in QuantiFERON supernatants differentiate active TB from latent TB infection: preliminary report,” which was published in the journal BMC Pulmonary Medicine in 2009.

“This one is special, I’m really proud of it,” he says. “It was a part of my PhD research. Actually, it was the reason for my MSc project to be upgraded to a PhD, and led to my first patent.”

On the walls in his office are Stellenbosch University certificates of recognition and a patent certificate for “a device for diagnosing tuberculosis” granted by the Government of India.

Outside, a train rumbles past. Chegou gestures at the window, saying this was the same train he used to take between Stellenbosch and Tygerberg back in 2005 when he was still working as a part-time street vendor.

Reflecting on his past, Chegou throws back his head, emitting high-pitched peals of laughter. His demeanour is that of wide-eyed wonder at the fortuities sprinkled across his journey.

“So yes,” he says, “in life, it’s about taking a chance. If an opportunity comes, make the most of it. Look at me, look where I come from. It seems like what happened to me is this – God put people to help me everywhere, opportunities every step of the way.”

I used to walk to school, a very long distance,” he says. “In Cameroon, we don’t even know the distances or measure it. I would start walking in the morning at 6 am through the forest, you know, along little paths, walking the whole day, arriving in the village where the school is maybe at around 7 pm.

‘I will work and you will go to school’

One of four siblings born to poor parents in Ajei village, in the Anglophone northwest of Cameroon, Chegou was orphaned when he was 14 years old.

“Unfortunately, my mother died when I was about seven years old. Then my dad died when I was 14. I had just started secondary school, so it was terrible. I was like, okay, is this it? I won’t be able to go to school. But then my brother was like, I will work and you will go to school.”

Of the four siblings, Chegou’s brothers did not finish school. His younger sister later studied from home and became a nurse.

“I used to walk to school, a very long distance,” he says. “In Cameroon, we don’t even know the distances or measure it. I would start walking in the morning at 6 am through the forest, you know, along little paths, walking the whole day, arriving in the village where the school is maybe at around 7 pm. I’d carry all my food from home – oil, you know, those things. I had no money. Luckily in Cameroon food is very cheap. If it wasn’t for that, there’s no way I would have survived.” In the village where he attended school, Chegou stayed over with a cousin.

Growing up, he knew he wanted to become a doctor, but there were hurdles.

“By the time I finished high school, we only had one medical school in Cameroon which was taking a maximum of 75 students a year, for the whole country – like 10 provinces. So to get in was very difficult. I don’t think it was always on merit either,” he says, laughing.

Defying the odds, he not only completed his degree that year, but the SA Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology named him the “Best Honours student in South Africa for 2005”.

This medical school – at the University of Yaoundé – was in the French part of the country, which was in regular conflict with the Anglophone region where Chegou was from. But as luck would have it, a year later a second medical school opened at the University of Buea, in the Anglophone northwest. An uncle gave him money to register for the entrance examination, and he passed.

“Then suddenly, they changed the minister of higher education,” says Chegou. “And the new guy came out of nowhere and started giving scholarships to the top students in each programme. This covered my second, third, and fourth years at university – the school fees. It was like 53 000 Francs, which is about R1 000 then. And then after I graduated, I think that guy, they removed him. They stopped that scholarship thing. So I’m like, it looks like that scholarship was created especially for me!”

While at university, Chegou and fellow students would share money, food, and textbooks. For some time as a student, he lived with a relative who was like a father to him – Reverend Achowah Umenei – free of charge.

“That pastor was very good, there were so many young people living in his house,” says Chegou. “He was like a father to me and we all called him ‘Daddy’. There was a time when he actually gave me money for books, out of everything else that he offered us. Nobody else ever gave me that much money. It was like 100 000 Francs. We’re talking about R2 000, you know? I had never touched that kind of money.”

‘Next to the Checkers in Stellenbosch’

After graduating from the University of Buea as a medical laboratory scientist, Chegou moved to South Africa.

“I was struggling to find a university to study further,” he says. “I was applying around the world. [During] that time my brother, my older brother, found himself in South Africa. He was staying in Stellenbosch and he said to me, there’s a nice university here, come! Okay. So I came here in 2004 and I started applying to Stellenbosch University and to UCT [the University of Cape Town]. My brother was here on business, he was a street vendor. And at the beginning, I worked with him too.

“Next to the Checkers in Stellenbosch, next to the church, we used to sell African art. From masks to carved stones to beads. We used to get craftspeople coming from Kenya, from Cameroon, from Zimbabwe. We used to sell that to tourists and to some locals too.

“In 2005, when I started my Honours, I used to go to that market in the morning to unpack our display goods, then I took the train to Tygerberg for school. At the time I had people helping us sell the crafts during the day. After university, I’d take a train back to Stellenbosch, to pack up our stand and to collect the money.”

Defying the odds, he not only completed his degree that year, but the SA Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology named him the “Best Honours student in South Africa for 2005”.

Professor Novel Chegou in the lab at Stellenbosch University
Professor Novel Chegou in the lab at Stellenbosch University. PHOTO: Supplied

Training the next generation

At Tygerberg today, Chegou supervises nine postgraduate students collecting data at his laboratory.

The lab consists of long white desks with machines that can test for up to 500 proteins and other biomarkers simultaneously, glass bottles and stacks of test tube kits. During a tour of the premises, Chegou introduces technical officer Candice Snyders and Honours student Leandré Van Rooyen, who are busy experimenting with liquids in plastic tubes.

Talking to his colleagues, Chegou emits more of his trademark peals of laughter. One cannot help but join in.

All things going well, Chegou will likely travel to the United Kingdom to accept his Royal Society award in November.