Maurine and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family and the University of KwaZulu Natal. We share many mutual friends from different paths of life, but I specifically got to know her through Grace Misereh. Here is our interview about her scientific journey:
Hi Maurine, I welcome you to this episode of Words That Count. Thank you for joining us today.
Hi Winnie, I am happy to be considered for a feature on this cause. Thank you for inviting me.
What is your full name please?
My name is Maurine Atieno Songa.
What do you do at the moment?
I am currently pursuing a PhD (Mathematics) degree at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. I am under the supervision of Dr. G. Amery and Prof. D. Baboolal, and our research seeks to unify notions of gravity and the quantum realm using causal-set theory.
I am also an Assistant Lecturer at Kisii University (Kenya).
I am passionate about the needs and the rights of young girls in our society. Fuelled by this passion, I started Hope for the Girl-Child Foundation, a non-profit trust that mentors, inspires and caters for the education needs of less privileged girls in high schools across Kenya.
Please walk us through your life journey
I grew up in the Western part of Kenya, in a village called Rang’ala. My mother, who was by then a single mother of three, passed on when I was eight years old. I, my siblings, and my cousins, who had also lost their parents, were then raised by our maternal grandmother.
Growing up without parents wasn’t easy as my grandmother was already frail. However, I found comfort in my studies. I loved Mathematics and I rejoiced every time I solved a challenging problem. I was growing up in a society that still believed that Mathematics was for boys, and often, people questioned why I loved it and asked how it would help me.
I must admit that it was our teachers who pushed us to work hard and encouraged us to dream beyond the life and the poverty that we witnessed in the village. When you grow up in a village and during a time when HIV/AIDS ravaged the community, leaving in its trail, orphans, tears, pain, and poverty, it isn’t easy for a child to dream about any other possibilities.
After performing well in primary school, I proceeded to Ng’iya Girls High School, which is also in the Western part of Kenya. Eventually, I made it to the University of Nairobi and was admitted to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics. Throughout my school journey, my education was often made possible through bursaries. A post-graduate scholarship from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) enabled me to travel to South Africa shortly after I had completed my undergraduate degree.
When I completed the post-graduate diploma at AIMS in 2010, I proceeded to University of KwaZulu-Natal for my Master of Science degree in Mathematics. This was in part because AIMS provided the half bursary that I so desperately needed to continue my studies. I completed my degree, graduated in 2013 and went back home to Kenya. In August 2013, I was employed by Kisii University as an Assistant Lecturer in the department of Management Science where I taught the Economics, Statistics and Actuarial Science students. My teaching practises were mainly influenced by the different approaches that I had seen the visiting lecturers take at AIMS. I had enjoyed their caring nature and a willingness to listen to the students that in a way encouraged them to ask as many questions as they could, and so I did the same with my students.
While back home, I became the founder of “Hope for the Girl-Child Foundation,” a non-profit organization that seeks to identify, mentor, inspire and pay school fees for less privileged girls in High Schools. I brought together a group of friends and we started the foundation which, has so far supported more than 10 girls through High School; three of whom are now at the University.
As a way of encouraging young women across the world, I penned my first book, “Beyond the Crevices,” in 2019. It takes a reader through my life growing up, the challenges, achievements and lessons. The book’s eventual goal was to push on the message that no matter what you have been through, and despite the challenges that young women face, they can conquer; that they can rise beyond the crevices that life throws at them. I have also authored a second book, “In Dana’s Honor,” which is inspired by the life that my grandmother lived and all that she was able to do for us. It is a compilation of short stories and encouraging, sometimes witty quotes, that give a reader one more push to strive to live fearlessly and be their best.
What have been some of your challenges and inspirations along this journey?
I have been inspired by the women I have met in life, and especially those who have excelled at STEM related careers. These women each have incredible back stories. These women have had to overcome so much, and each time they scale new heights, it is a testament that women too, are worthy; that women too, can achieve extra-ordinary things.
The most challenging bit for me, especially as a PhD student, is having to be so far from family, especially my son. From time to time, I have also needed that extra push and a reminder to focus on the end goal.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I enjoy running or taking long walks to reconnect with nature and to ease the mental strain that is brought about by the school life. I also love reading literature and especially those done by African writers. I enjoy too, singing along to music albeit in an off-key manner, haha.
What are some of your achievements and awards?
- My proudest moment as the founder of Hope for the Girl-Child Foundation has been to see three of our girls make it to the university.
- To have authored “Beyond the Crevices” and “In Dana’s Honor.”
Do you have a favourite Quote?
Yes I do;
“We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, so disciplined they can be free.” ~ Kavita Ramdas
What is your last word of encouragement to young girls in STEM?
To the young lady who has had a tough life and wonders whether she too is worthy and whether she will ever make it:
“Do not let your childhood background define the heights that you can reach. You can change all that. Dreams do come true, even those that are dreamt while learning under a tree, or while you tread barefoot on the hot marram on your way to school. You can be the best that God intended you to be. Humble beginnings can only provide you the bearing you require to unleash the most phenomenal part of your being. It does not matter how your past has been. It does not matter whether you were the kind of child who climbed onto a guava tree for lunch simply because you had no food at home. You could be the one whose mother had to toil, breaking her back, even having to sell local brew simply to put a loaf of bread on your table. All this can change. You only require the will, the desire, and the spirit to analyze your aspirations beyond what the naked eye can recognize. In solidarity with everyone who has ever conquered when all seemed impossible, work well enough to prove that you can go against the grain of circumstance and emerge victorious.”
Thank you very much Maurine for sharing a part of you with us. This is one of the stories I couldn’t wait to write; a story I knew a little bit about, lol!