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“Kenya needs me”

Young Kenyan female academics discuss their lives and tell others about the opportunities they have received as a result of DAAD funding. They seek to motivate other women to embark on academic careers, providing them with active support in the process.

In Nairobi, traffic moves at a very sluggish pace. Taking a taxi through the streets of the metropolis to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in north-east Nairobi is a time-consuming business. It is a hot day in March 2019, shortly before the onset of the rainy season. Gladys Mosomtai is waiting at the barrier of the sprawling grounds surrounding the research institute, and leads her visitor through the car parks, steaming in the heat, past fields full of experimental plants to her office.

“Solving African problems”

“Here, in the shade, I work with high-resolution satellite images,” says the doctoral candidate. The environmental scientist is interested in the population dynamics of pests infesting coffee plants. “I analyse the conditions favourable to pests and diseases, and investigate the influence of environmental factors.” The satellite images provide her with information about the landscape structure in a specific region, revealing whether cultivation takes place beneath tree cover or without shade, on a hill or in a depression, and if monoculture or mixed cultivation are used. She subsequently synchronises the geodata with field studies. “The objective is to provide the region’s farmers with recommendations and help them to avoid pest-related losses by employing cultivation methods adapted to the environmental conditions.”

Gladys Mosomtai earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental planning and environmental management and a master’s degree in geo information systems and remote sensing from Kenyan universities. “I wish to use my academic expertise to help solve African problems,” she says. And she does this on the ground. The DAAD is funding her doctoral thesis at the ICIPE. In 2018, Gladys Mosomtai was the recipient of the “Sub-Saharan Africa Fellowship”, part of the prestigious L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards. Since receiving the award, she has come to view her situation as a female researcher in Africa differently: “academic careers are by no means a given for African women – but they should be.”

“Discovering my potential”

Gladys Mosomtai was fortunate. Her large family encouraged her to pursue one stage of educational training after the next. However, when she reached 30, many of them changed their tunes out of the blue, commenting that academic studies weren’t the be all and end all, family was important too and claiming that men are afraid of women with PhDs. “But relationships are subject to their own particular timing,” rejoins the researcher. “I’m more interested in discovering my potential as a woman and as a female academic.”

As she pursues her chosen path with the aid of her scholarship, Gladys Mosomtai wishes to act as a role model and inspire other young women. She talks about the reality of life and work as an academic – with her cousins at family parties or at the large-scale alumni meeting organised by the DAAD Regional Office Nairobi in early March. She’s interested in creating a new narrative. “Someone has to start raising the story of African female academics to a new level,” she stresses.

   

“Linking research interests and development”

Dr. Rose Mutiso also feels obliged to do this. She is the co-founder and director of the MAWAZO Institute in Kenya. The Institute, which is situated on a hill in northern Nairobi, promotes women working in scientific fields. The office is part of a co-working space, in a building surrounded by a large park. Here, peace and shade stimulate thought. The working atmosphere under trees or in an outdoor café is inspiring, just like the young Kenyan, who completed a doctorate in materials science in the US and subsequently decided to pass on her opportunities to others. “I was at a crossroads: I could either choose to pursue an academic career in the US, or return to Africa and combine my research interest with social development.”

Rose Mutiso did so well at school that she gained a university place to study medicine – in Kenya, an honour reserved only for the brightest pupils. “But I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Rose laughs. She turned down the offer. Instead, she now devotes herself to energy issues in her capacity as research director of the think tank “Energy for Growth Hub”, and also trains talented female academics to develop their leadership skills: interdisciplinary thinking, public speaking, communication, presentation and much more. Gladys Mosomtai has also benefited from Mutiso’s expertise, attending a training course offered by the MAWAZO Institute in cooperation with the DAAD. Rose Mutiso’s key task now lies in tapping resources to be able to promote research projects conceived by African women. “If you bear in mind that just 15 per cent of articles in the field of African studies appearing in the world’s top journals are written by African authors, then it’s obvious where the problem lies.”

Taking responsibility

Dr. Betty Mayeku knows what it feels like to be out on a limb, alone in the crowd. “My interest in mathematics ensured that I was always the only girl in a large group of boys,” she says, laughing.  She never had trouble asserting herself. However, the 40-year-old didn’t learn this during arguments with any brothers – on the contrary. “We were all girls at home, and, as a teacher, my father was pretty clumsy with his hands, so I was always the one to mend the broken TV or kettle.” Later on, a DAAD scholarship led her to travel to Göttingen, where she completed a doctorate in computer science

Betty Mayeku now needs all the assertiveness she can muster for her education policy work as a member of the County Executive Committee (CECM) for education and professional training in the Kenyan administrative district of Bungoma. She chuckles as she recalls how surprised everyone was to hear that she, as a talented academic, had chosen to work at the Kibabii University in the Kenyan province of all places, an establishment still in its infancy. “I’m the only one here with a PhD, but Kenya needs me more than Germany does.” Instead of pursuing a well-paid job in industry abroad, the computer scientist seeks to develop capacities where these are lacking. She wants to take responsibility and drive change.

Betty Mayeku is also familiar with the challenge of having to withstand social expectations as a Kenyan woman. During an official job interview, she was asked to explicitly state that she had no intention of renouncing her Kenyan passport in the event that she married her German boyfriend. “There is a widespread cultural notion that when women marry, they somehow become a man’s property,” she says, with a grin. Rose Mutiso, too, tells friends and family time and again that, at 33, it’s by no means too late to start a family, unlike in other countries. “That’s another area in which I want to act as a role model: having kids post-career is definitely possible!”

DAAD Alumni Conference in Nairobi

Gladys Mosomtai, Rose Mutiso and Betty Mayeku were united at the DAAD Alumni Conference, which took place from 1 to 3 March 2019 in Nairobi and was attended by almost 180 participants from 23 countries. At the conference, which had as its theme “Young Scholars in Africa – Challenges and Opportunities”, young academics of both sexes exchanged views on career opportunities and obstacles during a diverse event programme, as well as investigating various funding options.

 

Author: Bettina Mittelstraß

This article was originally published in DAAD Aktuell.

April 2019

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