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'The heart of the matter': from academic success to personal fulfillment

For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science we asked women leaders, scientists and innovators involved in the Newton Fund to share their stories and celebrate the impact of women in science.

By Jennifer Githaiga

As an aspiring academic, one of my highlights was obtaining my PhD. I was now, or so I thought, an authority in my field. Within a few weeks I realised that a PhD merely earns you a place at the starting line. From here, the journey of self-discovery really began, as what I thought I knew was challenged and refined. I could only hope this process would eventually lead me to the heart of the matter; an understanding of what really motivates us to strive for excellence.

In January 2017, I found myself in new terrain when I was appointed to manage a Newton funded research project, part of which sought to determine what women in South Africa know (or not) about breast and cervical cancer symptoms and risk factors, and where they would seek help if they noticed any symptoms. Late diagnosis is prevalent in these contexts; cancer is often a death sentence. Yet, if women know about possible symptoms, they are likely to seek help sooner rather than later when the cancer has spread.  

It was quite a steep learning curve. Instead of spending most of my time interacting with university students in and between lectures, I now spent much of my time interacting with community members. I had some theoretical knowledge and some practical experience in community-based research, but not in the South African contexts of an urban township and a rural community. Over the next two years, I became more of a student than a teacher. My theoretical understandings of conducting community-based research were challenged (and some discarded) as I engaged with the locals and learnt from the local experts (the residents) how do research among women. Here, what mattered was not individual excellence but collective achievement as we met with the various stakeholders and negotiated the way forward. I quickly learnt that project timelines needed to be presented tentatively as the ‘when’ depended on ‘what’ else was happening in the community.

At some points, the task seemed daunting. As a foreign national with no understanding of the local language, I thought "I can’t do this. I don’t even understand the language!" However, after a few trips to our rural site, I saw how limiting it was for me to reduce language to verbal communication. Smiles, warm handshakes and hugs became a big part of our shared vocabulary of acceptance and solidarity. My new friends also taught me a few local words and phrases in exchange for a few words and phrases in my own local language. We talked about what could be done to reduce the suffering of women around us who had breast and cervical cancer.

Over the course of the research project, I experienced a mental shift from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I think I can’. I began to dream about the possibility of accomplishing our project goals while simultaneously empowering the local communities.

One of my greatest joys has been seeing some of the more timid young women I trained as fieldworkers gain confidence in their ability and grow in knowledge. While in the field we shared about our personal journeys and the challenges of living in resource-limited contexts.  Some of the women dreamed of going to university but were deterred by lack of funds. I encouraged them not to give up their dreams and shared my story of how my dream to do a PhD became a reality when I decided to look beyond my shame of appearing poor and dare to apply for a bursary to fund my studies. By then, I was much older than many of my classmates.  Nevertheless, what mattered most to me is that I fulfilled my dream.

For me, achieving my full potential as an academic means being teachable (even when I am tempted to think that I know it all!), dreaming about possibilities (within and beyond the borders of my continent) and sharing what I have and know with those around me. Beyond the academic endeavour and accolades, I want to see the lives of those I encounter being transformed in the process of encountering me as a caring, expert professional. As an African woman scholar, I hope to empower fellow women not only by striving to teach and conduct research with excellence, but also by being a practical role model in demonstrating that we have all the capacity to rise to our full potential and make a difference in our worlds. This, then, is the heart of the matter.

'Improving timely diagnosis of symptomatic breast and cervical cancer in Sub-Saharan Africa' is a Newton funded project led by Jennifer Moodley and delivered through the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the South African Medical Research Council.

Jennifer Githaiga is based at the University of Cape Town, South Africa where she gained a PhD in Psychology. She is currently managing a Newton funded multi-site cancer research project focused on breast and cervical cancer symptom awareness in two Sub-Saharan African countries. 

She is passionate about teaching and research in issues around health and social psychology including: psychosocial dynamics and social constructions of wellbeing and illness in Sub-Saharan Africa; the politics of informal gendered caregiving in Africa, and; adapting qualitative health psychology methods for contextual relevance.