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Dr Purity Ngina on rewriting your story

Dr Purity Ngina

Against the odds, Dr Purity Ngina made history by becoming Kenya’s youngest PhD holder in Biomathematics at 28 years of age. The warm and bubbly academic has had a remarkable second act which on the surface appeared to be an opportunity to pass a previously failed exam but on a deeper level came down to a shot at becoming who she was born to be. Purity has navigated her way in the world of academia to become a lecturer of Calculus to students pursuing Actuarial Science, Financial Engineering and Financial Economics at Strathmore University. 

The 29-year- old talks to Damaris Agweyu about her journey and how she is using her story to help others rewrite theirs.

Purity, tell me your story

I was born in a village called Mbiriri in Nyeri county. I am the last born in a family of two and was raised by a single mother who worked as a casual labourer. As a child, I remember fetching water from River Sagana, which was at least three kilometres from our home. Sometimes, we did not know where our next meal would come from. Despite passing his KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exams with 366 out of 500 marks, my brother didn’t go to high school; my mother couldn’t afford the fees. By the time I was completing primary school, there was nothing to motivate me in life. Why put in the work at school after having seen what had happened with my brother? And given the fact that I was a girl, what chance did I even have? When I finished class eight, I got 235 out of 500 marks. I saw myself getting married to someone in my village or, at best, going to work in people’s shambas (farms) and getting some food in exchange for work- because that was what people living around me did.

But my mum knew and believed in the importance of education, she just lacked the resources to make it happen. In 2002 the Kibaki Government introduced free primary education and this gave us hope. Mum insisted that I go back to school and repeat my final year.  She promised me that if I passed, she would find a way to pay for my high school education. There is something about having a parent make a promise like that. She had taken care of me for this long so surely, she was going to honour her word. I could see the love she had for my brother and me; I could see how she was struggling for us and how it pained her not be able to provide for us financially.

In 2003, despite thinking I was a failure who no good could come out of, I re-sat my KCPE exams and passed with 369 marks out of 500. I got a letter to join Tumu Tumu Girls High School and sure enough, there was no money to cater for the fees. I stayed home for the first month as we looked at our options. Mum had no money but she had made a promise. She had a cow, our only source of income; we called her Wanja. Mum had to sell Wanja. She got enough money for school fees and nothing else. We went to my late aunt’s place to borrow some shoes because up until then, I had never owned a pair of shoes. I ended up using my cousin Grace’s shoes and the other day we were reminiscing our past and she was asked me, ‘How did you manage to walk in those shoes? They didn’t even fit you!’. Miraculously I managed to use her shoes for the next three years.

Joining form one, I was fresh from the village where I’d been taught by teachers who through no fault of theirs, had mother tongue interference when speaking English. So I grew up not quite being able to pronounce certain words in the correct way. That first afternoon, I joined the Kiswahili lesson and found the other girls learning Fasihi (literature), I had to read the word ‘Chai’ and pronounced it as ‘Shai’. Everyone burst out laughing. I felt so bad. And that wasn’t even the worst experience. I had a very old metallic box to carry my things and the next morning, I woke up early to get ready and the box made so much noise I woke up all the other girls in the dorm. They were furious! You can imagine a form one infuriating form four girls. They were like, “who is that waking us up? A mono!” The beauty is, there was a lot of discipline in school so there wasn’t much they could do to me, but there was still that anger I had to endure from them. That morning, I told myself, one day I will want my children to go to school with a nice box and shoes.

I used my situation to motivate myself to work hard in school because the only way I was going to prove to the other girls that I was as good enough was by doing well in class. In the end, I completed my high school with a B+ which was not bad considering I started off with 235 marks and been sent home many times over the four years for lack of school fees. That grade earned me a spot at the university.

In those days we’d stay at home for two years before joining the university. During that time, I came to Nairobi for the first time and worked as a house help. I really liked my employer but after two months, I went back to the village and started teaching at one of the academies as an untrained teacher. Because I was young, I could connect with my students on a very deep level. I loved teaching but I think my mum loved it more (laughs). 

When it was time to join university, we had a Harambee (fundraising) at home – by the way, I’ve basically been educated by the community. There was a particular teacher who I liked at Tumu Tumu, she was called Mrs Waruingi, I gave her a card to help me fundraise and she did. I went on to study Bachelor of Education science, mathematics and Chemistry at Egerton University.

At first, I didn’t want to go to Egerton. I wanted to come to Nairobi, you know coming from the village, Nairobi is the only place you want to go. So while I was at Egerton, I applied for an inter-university transfer, got a letter to do Bachelor of Arts in Nairobi but mum was against it. She told me, “God chose Egerton for you so that is where you will go“. She gave me examples of people she knew who had gone to study Education there and were doing well in life. I took her advice and didn’t transfer. I think parents have been given special wisdom to guide their children in life because many times a parent will tell you don’t do this and you do it any way but then you look back and wish you’d listened. I’m glad I listened to my mum.

When I was in first year, I got a scholarship worth 16,000 shillings to cover my fees after making the Dean’s list of honour. In the second year I didn’t get a scholarship so mum had to solicit funds through the CDF (Constituent Development Fund) kitty. And for making the Deans list of honour for the second time, I appeared in a newspaper. I didn’t even know about it, it’s the people from my village who told me. This one guy was like, “we are reading about you in the papers!” It was exciting. Much later, when my mum passed on in 2017, I found that she had kept the newspaper clipping among her things.

I graduated with a first-class honours and was awarded a full scholarship to pursue a Masters’ Degree in Applied Mathematics. I had qualified to do a Masters in any number of things but my first love has always been maths. I also really admired the lecturers who had taught me and hoped I could follow a similar path. I had two years to complete it.

That was when I came to realise that not everybody wants the best for you in life. There were so many people that tried to discourage me. I was told things like, “You already have a degree, why do you need more? Why can’t you go and work and uplift the standards of your family”…which is a good thing in principle but it was said to in order to undermine me. I was asked why I didn’t choose a more feminine subject. Would I even complete my masters in the stipulated two years given the constant strikes at public universities?  There was a lot of resistance from outside forces, but I didn’t listen to them. I kept reminding myself where I had come from and where I wanted to go. Because at this point, I was already convinced that Purity is an intelligent woman who can do anything.

What did your mum say?

She was just like, “Mathematics?” and I was like, “yes, mathematics”.

Did you finish in the 2 years?

I started in 2013 and graduated in 2015 and was on the Vice-Chancellor’s list of honour for exceptional performance.

You make it sound easy.

It is not as hard as many people may think (laughs). Having said that, my undergrad was definitely easier, the classes were bigger and we had more guidance from lecturers. At the Masters level, I was in a class of three and the teachers just left us on our own to get things done.

That whole experience reminds me not to listen to people who say, “you cannot“. You have to remind yourself that you are stronger and better than what others may think. You need to keep affirming this because we are what we say after the words ‘I am’, so I am…whatever you add after that is what you become.

When I graduated I was called to Strathmore University to lecture and in 2016, was awarded another scholarship by the German Academic  Exchange service to pursue a PhD in Biomathematics at Strathmore University. Through this program, I had the opportunity to visit the BTU University in Germany to further my research for six months. What an eye-opening experience that was! Those people are so committed; students will do anything including all those odd jobs that students here say they can’t do – the ones we call ‘silly jobs’. I saw students taking on jobs to ensure they were not a bother to anyone financially- and the funny thing is if you are not working you can be given money by the government but they still want to work and earn something for themselves. I really admired that.

I completed my PhD in 2018 but during my studies, I suddenly lost my mum. It was devastating. She had sacrificed so much to give me a better life. Losing her was the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through. When I was celebrating my achievement, I would have wanted her to be with me. I kept asking myself why. Her death broke my heart.

Dr Purity Ngina made history by becoming Kenya’s youngest recipient of a PhD in Biomathematics
How are you coping with the loss?

I take things one day at a time. Mum died on 24th January 2017 so its been two years. It still hurts but I’m now able to encourage those people who don’t have parents. Many people will say, ” get over it”, but it’s not that easy- it’s not been easy for me. True, it’s not unique and some people will say, “you know there are children who lost their mothers during childbirth“, but that’s not my experience; every experience is different.

I have been with my mother all my life; learning to live without her is hard, I can’t just move on.  You can’t ever know what it means to lose a parent until you lose a parent. In my case, I was so close to my mum, not a day would go by without us talking on the phone.  Following her death, I got to a place where I felt I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t sleep and needed sleeping pills every night. I needed her advice on things. Even now, there are many times I really need her- if she was alive and you had said you wanted to do this interview, I’d have asked her opinion first.

Trying to live without her and knowing she’s gone forever is hard. Now I occupy my mind with other things and have other people I can depend on for support. But of course, no one can replace her. These days, I don’t think about what’s missing, I focus on what I have. I ask myself what would my mother want to see from me? Would she want a girl who is crying all the time by her grave and taking flowers to Nyeri every weekend? No, she would want to see a strong woman, a successful woman, a person who respects humanity. This means accepting that I have to let her go and rest. I also tell myself that whatever I was doing was not just for her. Yes, I wanted to make her proud but it was also for me and it was to help uplift other people like me.

You recently got married?

Yes. He was my school mate in Egerton, we actually joined the same year in 2009 but he was sharper than me so he took engineering (laughs). But seriously, he’s very intelligent. He actually got first-class honours which earned him a scholarship, he was sponsored by the catholic church (KAAD) so he also went to Germany where we reconnected and I knew it was meant to be. Surprisingly though, he was told to stay away from me, many times…even by close friends. They were like, “she can’t be a good woman, she’s in academia, you can’t handle her, she is probably earning more than you”. But he is a very liberal man and looks at things in a different way. We love doing things together. He comes from the Meru Community where men are not supposed to set foot in the kitchen but I don’t think there’s a time I have gone to the kitchen without him. Sometimes I ask him, “are you still going to do this even when we grow old?”  (laughs). He knows we’re are in this together and our lives are not dictated by societal norms, we just do our thing. Even our wedding was different, it was not a case of you’re a man, marry Purity no. We planned everything together.

Your wedding was very low key

He had just lost his mum so it didn’t make sense to have a huge wedding. When people saw my wedding, they were like, “that was a very small budget for a Doctor” and concluded we must be very poor (laughs).  I said I needed a nice ring, a nice gown and anybody I invite has to have a good time and a nice meal. Things are expensive from videographers to caterers and most of the time we do things for other people and to be seen. We agreed to have a very small and fulfilling celebration. Today, when I introduce my husband many people will not even care whether they were invited for the wedding or not, they are just happy to see us as a couple.

I once read a story about a lady who left her boyfriend because he had set out to do a wedding of 270,000 shillings- I was like, “really?” And he was the one putting in the full amount. If my husband had put in 270 and I had put in 270 that would have been a huge wedding!

We could as well have chosen to go to the AG but a church wedding was important for both of us because of our Christian faith. Also, our parents were not there and as God is the father of all Orphans, He was sufficient.

Rather than go for a honeymoon, we visited schools in his county as well as my old school, Tumu Tumu Girls and talked to students in the hope that we could plant some seed that grow into something that will make a difference in the children’s lives. Many of these young people are very depressed. Even when they write to us, some talk about wanting to kill themselves. They need us to talk to them. I have made a deliberate choice to visit schools to give the children hope, to tell them you can write a different story because it’s true, you can become a better version of yourself, you should not be defined by where you come from or your challenges. There was a reason why you were created, you have to find it and live it.

How was it going back to your old school?

It was very emotional- the girls were screaming with excitement to see me because they know my story from all the media coverage.

You don’t mind all the media coverage?

No. If my story can give people hope then why not? I think is important because we are all shaped by the stories we hear and read.

What kinds of stories do you read?

My most recent reads are, ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama and ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah. I love reading stories about people’s lives. I am especially interested in scientists who have overcome challenges to get to where they are. I am currently obsessed with Olympia Ann Lepoint who is a rocket scientist. She failed in mathematics but worked to become one of the best in her field. She has written books that help people unleash the brain’s power. She’s an amazing inspiring woman and her teachings have had a great impact on my life.

I want to be able to impact other women in the same way and that’s why going to the schools and talking to young people is such an important part of my life. On my last visit, I deliberately chose to go with my husband because I wanted to send the message that you can be a successful woman, get to the highest level of academia and still find a great partner on life. I once read somewhere that professionally ambitious women only have two options when it comes to their personal partners- a super supportive partner or no partner at all.

I have to remind these young girls that you can still get a good partner if you empower yourself so don’t be afraid to go as far as you can because of what society tells you. By the way, many of these men want empowered women, women with something they have worked for. My husband and I were telling the girls that yes it’s possible to have it all, don’t hold back.

“We settled on a small yet fulfilling celebration” Purity Ngina
How does it feel to have become the youngest PhD holder in Biomathematics in the country?

It feels normal and it feels great. I have never felt any different. I’m still learning and growing. I want to have an impact whether through my story or my research – so when you think Biomathematics you think Purity Ngina- at the same time I want to remain humble. I never want to change who I am. I don’t live for anybody, I don’t do things because society demands I do them, I do things that I feel are aligned with who I am,  according to my morals, my values and the way I’ve been raised. If it’s against my values I’m not going to do it.

What exactly is Biomathematics?

It is the application of mathematics in biological processes. There are many biological processes you can focus on and I chose HIV because it hits young people the most and I am very passionate about young people. So with biomathematics, if one is infected and taking drugs, how do we ensure the drugs are effective? There are many drugs in the market so the first question would be, which is the most effective in terms of reducing viral load and avoiding other illnesses? We will look at your way of life and cost implications to determine the optimal dosage. Rather than just experiment with the drug, you use a mathematician to tell you what is likely to happen after 20 years of taking this drug- provided everything remains constant. And assuming everything doesn’t remain constant, what is likely to happen?

Mathematics allows you to zoom into the future and predict the results. The question then becomes, is the WHO giving the right dugs in our Kenyan context? Yes, they may be donated but are they the best for us? And since people living with HIV people take a lot of drugs, can we reduce them and introduce one drug that takes care of everything? Can you imagine if I have cancer and HIV and have to take ARVs and do chemo? Which one do I stop? And if I do, what are the effects? What drugs do you introduce to stop certain processes from happening? You can only use mathematics to model this person and get the answer.

My work as a researcher is to analyze the scenarios and try to answer these questions. So far, I’ve published three papers and I’m looking to apply for funding and get more people on board to help with the research. If you want to be a good scientist you cannot ignore maths, actually, it’s not just scientists, even a business person, you need maths to answer many of life’s questions.  Maths is beautiful.

Maths is beautiful…you don’t hear many people say those words

I love numbers. In school do you remember it was never defined as the study of something- why?  Because its life- its everything. Some people will tell you I did maths but I’m not using it. But can you imagine if you didn’t know how to read a clock?

Many of the attitudes students have towards these subjects are a direct result of the kind of teacher they’ve had

I agree. My love for mathematics was formed by the teachers who taught me.  They were close to me and cared. They never said they were too busy or this was not the time to ask questions. They didn’t even necessarily just talk about maths- they would inspire me about other things I could do later in life. I believe a teacher plays a huge role in how the student perceives the subject. I went to a conference in Uganda in 2016 and someone talked about how we teachers, especially those who teach maths, are usually the problem and not the student. Most of the time we look at the student as the problem. Like now, my students have just done an exam and if many fail I should ask myself, is it me? I should carry that burden in order to become a better teacher for them.  Many people don’t want to admit that they are human and make mistakes, especially teachers. Teachers are everything to their students.

“Many people view humility and kindness as a sign of weakness” Dr. Purity Ngina
All things remaining constant, what advice would you offer to your younger self?

In everything you do, you MUST have a purpose. By purpose, I mean you need to know what you woke up in the morning to do. I keep reminding myself that I have to leave something on this planet and that gives me the purpose to want to wake up every morning even knowing that there are many challenges to be faced. Even if you come from a family where there is no money, if you come from a broken family, it doesn’t matter you can still become a better person, you can achieve anything, there’s no limit to success. You can break every ceiling or be a better version of yourself and this goes for women especially… this is our time…we need to embrace who we are, we are not weak, we must not let society define us. As a woman, you were created by God to multiply. Multiplication is not necessarily giving birth to 10 children, you can multiply in your career or by growing other people. If I go to my old school and talk to those girls and they learn something from me, then I have multiplied myself. I love women, I was raised by a single mum and have seen the strength of women.

Spoken like a true feminist

I am a true feminist. A feminist doesn’t mean you hate men, many people make this mistake. A feminist lifts other women up. Because women are already so disadvantaged, we have to do more to help them. I feel bad when I see someone looking down on another because she’s a woman. After I graduated I was reading comments from people saying things like, “How did she make it? How many men did she have to sleep with to get there?” Sometimes I look at such comments with my husband and we laugh. This is a society that regards women with a very low opinion. People don’t think a woman can get anywhere without being helped, and if you are helped you can’t ask for help without giving something back. And that is what I want to disprove- you can be a successful woman with dignity.

In my case, my work speaks for me. My PhD thesis was marked in Italy by someone who doesn’t know me. The narrative will change if we speak up, we need to stop being shy about who we are. We need to lift each other up.

Dr. Purity Ngina receiving her award from H. E Sibongiseni Dlamin-Mntambo, High Commissioner of South Africa in Canada during the Women in STEM in Africa held in Canada in March 2019
If I had asked you at 6 years old what you wanted to become, what would you have said?

If not a teacher, I would have wanted to be in the army and I’ll tell you why. When I was growing up, the children whose parents were in the army or police force had shoes to go to school, they had concrete houses, they went to high school…that was the life I wanted for myself and my children in future. In university I tried to get into the army once but didn’t make it, I’m too short (laughs). But seriously, I wouldn’t mind working in the army- if I can go there and lecture, why not? Those guys do a lot for this country. Aside from lecturing, I also wouldn’t mind going to Somalia to bring peace… but that will never happen.

I don’t know. You seem pretty determined to see things through.

The sky is the limit.  Maybe I’ll be a president of this country one day.

Why not?

And automatically, I would become the head of the army (laughs)

Any plans for children on the horizon?

We can’t wait. We want to name our parents. If we get a boy, my husband’s father will be named if we get a girl, my mum will be named. They will have big shoes to fill (laughs), but no, we won’t pressure them to get into academia, they can do whatever they want.

What is your definition of success?

Many people see success in terms of having money but for me, It’s definitely something beyond money. Success is when you live a purposeful life, an intentional life and creating a positive impact on other people’s lives.  If I see people rising against all odds to become the best they were created to be then that is success.

In terms of my work, if my research can make a contribution to society, you know the way you read about Albert Einstein, Olympia Lepoint, Thomas Edison, Stephen Hawking- these people left a legacy, their contribution will remain even after they are gone. We still talk about Wangari Mathai why? Because she left something behind that no one can ever take away.  If I can do that in my own small way then I’d say I had a successful life. 

For more wisdom and insights from Dr Purity Ngina, get your copy of Different Paths, One Journey HERE.