I got to know Zawadi from LinkedIn, through a mutual friend called Maggy Sikulu. Her fascination with the human-environment interactions got me fascinated too. Here is our interview about her STEM journey;
Hi Zawadi, thank you for accepting to be part of this initiative. We can’t wait to share your journey with the world!
Hi Winnie! A friend of a friend is definitely a friend. Your post with Maggy was great. I am a huge supporter of this initiative myself; I am glad someone is actualizing it. I am very happy and honored to be featured because I believe all our stories are unique and essential to motivate others into STEM.
Thank you for the kind words! We are also honoured to host you today.
Can you tell us your full name please?
My name is Zawadi Mageni Mboma – Mboma being my husband’s name that I took up for the culture 😊.
What do you do currently?
I am a Research Scientist at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. I also double up as the Grants and Contracts Officer. In that position, I support the scientific functions within the institute and the implementation of all the research work that’s done here.
How did you end up in the health care sector?
It’s very funny you have asked! I used to be overly obsessed with environmental science as a child. Recently I run into an autograph book with a page where I wrote what I wanted to become when I grew up; my answer was “Environmental Scientist”. I remember participating in many essays with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) way back in my primary school. These were mainly about cleaning the environment and making good positive impact towards conserving the environment.
Moving on to undergraduate, I did a degree in Environmental Science and Geography. But then towards graduation, I was informed of a research internship opportunity at the Ifakara Health Institute. The good thing is that I had spent the whole summer doing research because one of my semester assignments had spilled over into a research project for the summer. My supervisor too realized that I had a passion for research and encouraged me to pursue it further. So the Ifakara internship opportunity came at the right time. I was advised that all the things I was doing then in real estate and Geographic Information Science Research could be applied to Health Science Research.
I was a little bit on the edge about the whole idea but then took a class trip to India. This was the beginning of my “wow” moment. India is seen as a developed country but when you go there physically, there’s a lot that doesn’t look like development – at least for me it didn’t! I started asking myself what development really meant because I have been to African countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and the middle of busy towns is much cleaner than what I saw in India. So why are we not regarded as developed countries? The diseases that are associated with overpopulation, slum-life, and other things in India made me really doubt my understanding of what development was!
I also took a medical mission to Nicaragua and started exploring how humans and the environment interact. You know, things like, “at what point do we take care of our lives and when do we forget to?”. This trip made me realise that being a doctor was too much for me hence I spent most of my time then supporting the pharmacy. So with the Ifakara internship opportunity in sight it was a beautiful 360 moment in mentorship realizing that I didn’t have to be a medical doctor to be involved in the research of health.
So I applied for the position at Ifakara and have been here since June 2011. I have grown up with the institute. That’s how I transitioned into health research.
Ifakara must be an amazing working environment! It hard for someone to stay with an organisation for all those years, unless they really feel fulfilled and accomplished in what they do!
I always tell new entrants (particularly my fellow youth) who join, that what they make of their experience at Ifakara is up to them. It is by far the world’s best platform for anyone to grow when it comes to research and capacity building. Imagine I came in with an environmental science and geography background but I just graduated recently with my PhD in Infectious and Tropical Diseases. It’s been learning all this while across various fields.
I have explored different aspects of malaria research to the point where I am comfortable with what I am doing. Even then, I continue to transition into the administrative role now with the grants office where everything is now making sense, especially the finances and other non-scientific yet essential units for successful project implementation. At the end of the day, all research amounts to a monetary amount that is being invested and everyone wants accountability of that value for money. This experience for me has been beyond what I ever imagined it would be. Every day has its highlight.
You have had this amazing career journey, have you found any challenges along the way?
Haha, challenges are the motto of the day! I embrace them all.
For me the biggest challenge has been lack of women in this space. It’s not “lack” in terms of them not being available because I have met many amazing women here at Ifakara. It’s rather in the sense that you start with this amazing team of women and along the way they fall off for some reason or another. So that lack of stability where you can’t see anyone constantly walking the same journey with you is what I mean. I think we can call it lack of peer-to-peer mentorship.
Another thing is that in health science research, the problems that the people are interested in are not the problems of the city! Sometimes you have to commute to that last mile village to get to the bottom of everything. Battling whether to take the commute for months on end as a mother/wife or leave it for something else is another problem. You constantly feel like you are missing out on life as a young person! It took me 7 years to finish my PhD because I was trying to balance being a young woman and seeking a career. But I made it, so I thank God, haha.
Wow! These 7 years must have been something! Why didn’t you give up along the way?
I have to commend God’s daily voice in my life. You know how he says “what is for you will be for you”? I always kept that in mind; whether it took 4 years or 2 years, if it was mine, I would eventually get it.
Then there is family. I come from a family that celebrates education extravagantly. Over 20 members of my family showed up for my undergraduate graduation and they were LOUD!!! It was quite the spectacle. Quite embarrassing for me as it left my fellow students wondering whether I was the first graduate in the family or some local “royal” – neither of which are true – haha. We just celebrate every family member’s educational milestone. So, family is always my source of encouragement.
The other thing is my fellow scientists here at Ifakara; one of them who really supported me through my PhD and now continues to be my mentor is Dr. Sarah Moore. I admire the way she manages her time and all students under her mentorship. She is ever authentic. She doesn’t hide the fact that you don’t have to be the best at everything but can use your potential to consistently manage assignments, relationships and achieve your goals.
Also talking to other colleagues who are on the same journey. Just because we started at the same time, it doesn’t mean we have to finish at the same time because we are not moving at the same pace. So it’s always nice to remind ourselves that. The cohort I enrolled into IHI with, we often get time and touch base for accountability. If anyone is lagging behind, we use that time to encourage them and remind them about the journey. We want to see everyone in our circle happy and prosperous.
Please share with us some of your prestigious moments along this journey
My proudest moments are the fact that my undergraduate, MPhil/PhD levels were sponsored through scholarships.
If it’s nothing to do with research and Ifakara, what do you enjoy doing?
I love to travel! I literally work to travel. I enjoy mountain climbing; I have been to the peak of Africa (Mt. Kilimanjaro), Mount Meru, Lord knows I will be up something else at some point.
I am also a mother of 2 children under the age of 2. As you can imagine that is quite chaotic, so I will continue with the travels later. Until then, I am getting crazy and creative with my people. Appreciating the nature and environment around me while I still can.
What is your favourite quote?
At the moment I have one that’s ringing; you know these favourite quotes change with time, haha. “I have found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie. Lord knows I love this woman! I need to meet her in my life time.
The more I grow, the more I appreciate the environment that is Africa. You see even with your initiative, it’s about African women for other African women! When I was graduating high school and going to the US, my only dream was to go there, live the American dream and never come back. The irony of it is I graduated and within a week I had packed my bags to return home. Even when coming back, I still had that view of what’s in the West is the best, and ours is the wrong thing. I spent a lot of my time trying to “correct people”, so to speak. I later realised that there was nothing wrong with our culture and the way we do things. If we don’t appreciate who we are and how we are, we will never be able to find solutions that actually work for us.
I will give you an example of the time we were distributing mosquito nets to people in a given location. I was so confused about why people were not using these mosquito nets yet they were given out for free. I forgot that we were introducing something new to them but expected them to catchup and follow it like it was a prescription drug! This quote reminds me take a step back from the narrative of global health and think specifically about what’s important for my people and my community. It has also taught me to put myself in that space first before introducing something; “if I were in that place, would I accept something from someone I don’t know just because they say it is good for me?”. If I don’t think I would accept then I should be okay with another person questioning my efforts. And with that, it means I have to clearly understand the cultural norms and how they affect how people interact with health interventions.
Now 11 years since my return to Tanzania, I am not even interested in taking on a job overseas! I am sure employment life and perks abroad are great but how do the discussions at the table translate and help to preserve the culture and tradition of Africa while providing solutions that are sustainable and respect what we believe in and our heritage? That conversation is most important to me and the impact I hope to have with my career.
What word of advice would you give to a young African girl in STEM?
I would share another quote with her. Pastor Harvard Stephens – who used to be a pastor at my undergraduate church – once said, “this is no time to live an uninspired life”. I would tell that young girl to speak her truth, and live her truth. You are constantly going to meet people who will try and throw you down with all sorts of words and situations but as long as you find peace and joy in your heart about something, go for it. One thing for sure is that God will make a way. At the right time, everything will align and all those challenges you face will be your strength! They will have prepared you for the journey ahead.
It took me 7 years to finish my PhD, with this knowledge-sharing, I hope it will take the next woman a much shorter time. We are all here to support each other and also inspire the younger generation.
Thank you Zawadi for trusting me to do a good job with the words you have shared with me. I am truly grateful for sharing this wonderful time with me.