A Girl's journey to a Math Science doctorate

Dr Cecilia Wangechi Mwathi

Friday the Tenth of July 1998 was a very special day for me and a lot of other people. It was the day I shook the hand of H.E. Cde R. G. Mugabe henceforward defined as H.E.R. It was a fulfillment of a dream I had since those days when words like logarithm, algebra, SOHCAHTOA etc seemed `exotic' (read enticing) to me. Little did I know that those words and a host of their relatives would be the vehicle to the realization of my dream.

Going back to my dream, H.E.R. had invaded my life via `pastsubject' (read history). In addition, our local daily had a mention of H.E.R. every day and so I can be forgiven for wanting to meet this African giant. Well it happened, thanks to mathematics.

Because I was so dreamy I did quite well in the pastsubject. That is up to form two. At this juncture we had to decide whether to dwell in the past or to submerge in the world of wonder. Pick your choice. I took the second option and joined the group of `scientists'. Subjects: maths, physics and chemistry. This caused a stir in the staff room because my highest mark was in pastsubject and I was the best student in the subject. My Physics teacher prevailed when he pointed out that though my mark in physics was not as high as in pastsubject, the second best student in physics had twenty less than me. So we part ways with past events.

Those were the days when older students took great pride in failing in science subjects. They would boast to us that when the national results arrived every new year, the column for mathematics always got unbroken nines. (I have had the discomfort to meet them in the past few years and how they wish they could rewind time!!!). So great was the pleasure in failure that they would deliberately walk out of every math lesson. So great was the doomed mob psychology that teachers watched helplessly.

For the few of us who chose science subjects, there had to be something wrong with us. Either you were shaggy, ugly, had no boyfriend, were crazy etc. This I have heard for all my life as a student of mathematics. The source of those unfounded arguments is still a mystery to me. But I always knew a day would come for me to have my sweet revenge.

All these happenings took place while I was in a girls-only school. For my A-levels I was spirited off to a mixed school against my wish. Not that I feared mixed interaction. Far from it. I just did not feel that the school deserved me (talk of personal pride). I had finished my O'levels with distinctions in all science subjects- and Religion (It seems funny now). So why would they take me to Chania High School instead of Alliance Girls? This is one of my unsolved problems.

Being in a mixed science school is the ultimate test of your survival. Whereas in the previous school the girls were their own enemies, in the mixed school we had external foes as well. Here were boys very well trained (mostly by our elder sisters) in the dogma that girls must come last. And here were girls who had clear distinctions in most of the subjects they took at O-Level. The boys had to quickly devise a method to make sure those girls remained at the bottom. My first year in this school was real hell. The only thing the boys could not do was to hit us as this would have meant instant dismissal for them.

We were only three girls in a class of twenty three. All our teachers were male. Some were shy of us and one of them kept jeering at the boys whenever it looked like we were coming to the surface. By the end of the year I realized that no one was going to save us. I came out of my disappointment and worked quite hard.

After our exams, I was admitted to the university (there was only one then) to study physical education and chemistry - the reason being that I was good in swimming and athletics and the country needed physical education teachers. I actually attended a few classes in PE. One particular class was practical soccer. I spent the entire first half of the event without touching the ball. In the second half the ball decided to make contact with my ear and I had to be carried out of the field. That was when I quit PE. I had a choice to study math and chemistry or just math. I chose the latter.

In our first year we did a little of each of statistics, algebra and applied math. By the end of the year I was hooked on algebra and everything else seemed eternally boring. At the end of the programme I was more interested with family matters and I even swore I would not read even a newspaper from then on (picture such a teacher!) For teaching was my new career.

I taught in a few schools for three years. In fact I taught in all types of schools. That is girls-only, mixed schools and boys-only. In all schools my experience was that the students reacted in a similar manner. At around this time our dailies kept blaring that girls were doing very badly in mathematics. I was very happy when I got the opportunity to teach girls only. That was at Kenya High School. At first the girls were apathetic towards the subject (just like boys had been in a previous school.) But by the end of my first term there, you could almost touch the enthusiasm. When my first results came, Eighty per cent of the girls had between A and B-. Soon the girls were writing to tell me that though they admired my work, they felt I was destined for bigger things.

I was finally persuaded to go back to the university for a master's degree. In exactly sixteen months I had completed my degree. I was offered a teaching post at Jomo Kenyatta University where I am still teaching. There are very few female students (14%, which ironically is the same as our staff percentage). Best Wishes to all you young Zimbabweans studying mathematics! Cecilia Wangechi

reference: the world wide web


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