Sheila Navalia Onzere

June 19, 1977 – August 31, 2019

It is with a sense of incredible loss that I report the death of Sheila Onzere, HURDL’s research scientist. Sheila died yesterday in Nairobi, Kenya, after a sudden illness. She had been home, taking care of her mother and working some short-term contracts while HURDL waited for longer-term work to come through. The shock is overwhelming. I was messaging with her last week. Multiple members of the HURDL family were messaging with her yesterday morning. We were all talking about projects and plans in a future that now will not happen. None of us know how to process that.

Sheila came to HURDL in September of 2014. The lab had only existed for a little over 18 months when she joined. To that point, I had been the only non-student member of the team, but the amount of work we were doing had ramped up and it was clear we needed another professional to keep things moving. I put out an ad for a research associate, and narrowed the pool to a few candidates. I still remember the Skype interview with her – all the members of HURDL at the time, Kwame Owusu-Daaku, Tshibangu Kalala, and Daniel Abrahams, piled into my office and subjected this poor Kenyan woman, operating on a weak internet connection, to the full HURDL experience – questions followed by digressions followed by jokes followed by nobody listening to me at all. In retrospect, it was an ideal interview, as it presented the most honest picture of HURDL possible – and Sheila took the job. The lab and all its members were much better for it.

Sheila made us a better organization. She brought a Ph.D. in Sociology (Iowa State) to the lab (though this lab full of geographers will always claim her BA in Human Geography from Moi University was the one that counted), and with it substantial experience working with farmers both in the US and in Africa. But as much as her technical and academic skill, Sheila brought a sense of responsibility and enthusiasm to the work of the lab. Her willingness to always step in and cover something not only kept HURDL glued together, it helped establish the ethic that made the lab such a fun and interesting place to work. She was kind, generous, and very funny. Her laugh was infectious, a reward for anyone who could make it emerge. Even her sigh of exasperation (which I elicited plenty of times) was surprisingly kind and gentle. She was unique, perfect for HURDL and all the people that had the fortune to work in it while she was a part of the team.

A while back, commenting on the structure and organization of HURDL, someone told me that it ran more like a family than a formal organization. This was not meant as a complement, but a statement identifying an institutional weakness. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. That observation helped me understand what I loved about the lab and the people in it. We were, and are, a family. When the lab came to my house to eat and hang out, it felt like a family dinner. That feeling is what makes the day-to-day of the lab worth it. We’ve lost a family member, and we are mourning like a family. It hurts intensely, but that is because Sheila meant so much to all of us. I would not have it any other way.