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A rising power: African women in science

Esther Mwaikambo, the president of Tanzania Academy of Sciences, is a role model for women in her country – and beyond. Her advice: If women scientists keep their spirits and confidence high, they can achieve anything.

Her family had nine children, and her mother died too soon. Others might have never recovered, but as Esther Mwaikambo grew up, she decided to embrace the challenges: She moved abroad to receive strong education in science, then returned home to have a deep impact on her community and her country. Professor Esther Mwaikambo at TWAS Research Grants Conference in Dar es Salaam. (Photo: C. Serra)

Today, Mwaikambo is the president of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences (TAAS) and a senior pediatrician at the Hubert Kairuki Memorial University in Dar es Salaam. After losing her mother when she was just 9 years old, Mwaikambo decided she would become a doctor and find out what had killed her mother. Today, she is the epitome of what women can achieve if they believe in themselves and work hard.

TAAS is also a member of IAP (InterAcademy Partnership), the global network of science academies that gathers today more than 130 national and regional member academies working together to support the special role of science.

Esther Mwaikambo moved to the Soviet Union as a young woman, following a path laid out by other ambitious African scientists. She earned an MD in 1969 from the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow (known today as People's Friendship University of Russia); she returned to Tanzania to earn a master's degree in pediatrics in 1977 from the University of Dar es Salaam.

Her scientific interests cover medical education, cerebral malaria and also management of training and higher education in medicine and health sciences. A passionate advocate of women's rights, she is founder and president of the Medical Women Association of Tanzania. Mwaikambo gave an inspiring keynote lecture at the opening of the 2018 TWAS Research Grants conference on 28 August in Dar es Salaam. The conference was organized by the TWAS Programmes Office, with generous support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

During her speech, Mwaikambo encouraged TWAS Research Grant awardees to adopt critical thinking and keep up the determination and commitment needed for scientific research.

She expanded on that point afterward, in an interview with TWAS staff writer Cristina Serra. (The interview below has been abridged and edited lightly.)

Could you describe the status of science today in Tanzania: is it flourishing or struggling?

It is true that science has picked up quite a lot in recent times. However it's not moving as fast as it should. I think there is a major problem, here: funding. In addition to that, the situation could be better if we – as other countries – would not experience brain drain. Scientists leave Tanzania because abroad they are better paid.

Do they come back?

Not at all, unfortunately. I have two sons abroad and ... they are lost. But those who go abroad are not many. Still, that's very unfortunate because we'd need these good scientists. They are brilliant minds, that here cannot find good support to their research: no infrastructure, human resources, equipment, electricity and Internet. Sometimes to carry out simple experiments they have to go to a university nearby. Had they had everything in place they would do a very good job. But the lack of support towards science is a major constraint. Policymakers should understand how important the outcome of research can be.

How is gender distribution in science, in Tanzania?

There is no such issue as the gender balance. The problem is another one: women do not choose scientific career. If a woman is good in something, nothing would stop her from accomplishing her goal, and if she is competitive at school, especially at higher levels, no one would discriminate against her. But oftentimes women choose not to engage in science because other conditions stop them: family, children. And instead of taking three years to graduate they take six years to become doctors, then they leave that career. However, there is lot of gender respect in this respect: people are very considerate about that because there is much discussion on this issue at all levels, starting from primary school. Women talk about their school paths and careers also to sensitize people.

As the president of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences, do you think that your position encourages women to see you as a role model?

I was elected six years ago for my second term, and this is my last year in this position. Despite the high amount of time that this takes, I accepted because I wanted to show women that they can make it. Yes, I can be an example. I sit on so many boards and university councils and I also chair many events – this can encourage women, and give them a role model to follow. I encourage them to think: 'If she can do it, I can do it as well.'

Did you ever have to face gender opposition in your career?

Yes, very much so. After I became a pediatrician, I was chosen to become the head of the department. One of my male colleagues said he would not accept being led by a woman. Should this happen he would resign, he said. He did not resign immediately, but he did it when I left for my sabbatical, so that when I came back he had gone. Competition becomes stronger at higher levels: to become associate or full professor asks for big fights.

You have studied in several countries abroad: how important is it for a scientist to spend some time at a foreign institute before going back home?

It is particularly important if you consider where you come from. I come from a very poor country and my parents were illiterate. We were nine children and my mother died when I was nine years old. So when I went to Russia I could see my home from far away and I decided I could change things at home. And indeed I did a lot to change the situation in my village, Moshi, near Kilimanjaro. That's why I studied in Russia, United States, England and I came back despite I had been offered a good job elsewhere. And if I could do this, anyone can do it as well.

You disagree with the motto "publish or perish". Why?

Because it is much more important to do something that will make a change in people's lives. Scientists should not do research just for the sake of doing it. Even if a research leads to good results the question should be: where can I apply these results? How is this research helping anybody? Before embarking on a specific investigation, it is important to think critically, to see if the investigation is likely to bring something good to people. Getting good results, publishing them and then stopping there leads to nowhere. I encourage my master's degree students in pediatrics to collect simple cases in the world and then find correlations or unusual observation. And once they find something interesting, I encourage them to go back to these people to explain them what's going on.

Can you offer an example?

I was born in a region where, in the past, some villages used to circumcise females. Today, never in my village they would do it. It's because I launched an association called the Medical Women Association of Tanzania, in 1997; now its flag waves all over Tanzania. We have conducted campaigns to fight breast cancer and cervical cancer, but the first one was against this mutilation.

What are your goals or dreams before your term as the president of the academy ends?

My goal would be to get more women into the Academy. But not simple women: women who can become as good scientists as men. And bring about the expected impact in the community.

Do you think that conferences like the one TWAS has organized in Tanzania – with a good gender balance among participants –could be useful to this purpose?

I believe so, yes. But remember that when women want to do something, they do it. That's why they say, 'It takes a woman to do it'. And I add, 'It takes a busy woman to do it', because if you need something quickly you'd better ask a woman who has already many things on her agenda.