Prossy and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family and share many mutual friends from different paths of life. I however got to speak to her specifically through a mutual friend called Juliet Nakakawa. Here is her STEM story:
Hi Prossy, it is wonderful to have you join us today. How are you doing?
Hi Winnie, I am doing well, thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Kindly introduce yourself to the audience
My name is Proscovia Namayanja from Uganda. I am a Mathematics Lecturer at Kabale University in Uganda. I’m also the Head of the Mathematics Department.
When did you start enjoying Mathematics?
I come from a large family but I remember growing up with my grandmother during my formative years. I remember joining school so young that someone had to carry me on their back for the interview. The school was far and I was very tired, haha. But as far as I can remember, I have always enjoyed school since childhood. My grandmother used to struggle a lot with paying my school fees. So there were days I had to miss school because I didn’t have school fees. My grandmother would suggest that we go to the garden, earn money and pay so that I could return to school but I would escape from her and run to school the following day, haha. Someday, one of my uncles came to visit a few days to my end of year examinations and paid my school fees. That is when my grandmother realised that I really liked school and tried her best to keep me there.
I remember my very first job was in Primary Six as a tutor for someone in Primary Three. I believe I did well because the student passed and her parents started trusting me when it came to numbers. So we can say Mathematics has always been a part of me since childhood.
At what point did you realise that you could make a career out of your passion?
I honestly have to say that I didn’t receive a lot of career guidance while growing up. I only grew up knowing about traditional jobs all science students know – medical doctors, pilots, engineers; even with this, I knew only electrical and mechanical engineering. For me, it was more about following the path of least resistance, haha. I never thought much about becoming a lecturer but I enjoyed the subject. It was only after my first degree that I realised I could do something in Mathematics for a career.
What steps did you take to achieve your realisation of becoming a career woman in Mathematics?
Although I was doing a Bachelor of Science with Education degree in Mathematics, I didn’t want to become a high school teacher! In my mind, I knew I needed more qualifications to skip the level of a high school teacher. During my final year at university, I got an opportunity to interact with visitors from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa. Our lecturers had told us about this opportunity – by “us” I mean people who were performing well in class. I applied to join AIMS and I was lucky enough to be accepted with a full scholarship. That was my first step. I also have to point out that before receiving the news from AIMS, I was already engaging with lecturers at Makerere University to see if I could further my studies there. I really didn’t want to be a high school teacher, yet I loved teaching, haha.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
During my secondary school days, I was staying with my sister because my father had passed on. My sister was also just starting her career and she was struggling a bit, so money, specifically school fees was a big issue. I was one of those kids who used to run to the toilet once I saw the school accountant walking around with his book. I knew he wasn’t going to follow me to the toilet, haha…. Things were not easy! Luckily I did well at the beginning of my A’level and the school governing board started paying my school fees for the rest of A’level and my sister would cover my meals and boarding. I am very grateful to the school board of St. Peters S.S. Nsambya and my sister.
My sister had warned me that she wasn’t going to be able to afford private sponsorship for me at university. My only option was to work hard, which I did with her support and joined Makerere University under the sponsorship of the Government of Uganda.
I am forever grateful to my sister because she has always been there financially and emotionally. Every time a door closed, she would encourage me to find ways of getting closer to what I wanted before. This is actually something I keep telling people; if something doesn’t work out for you, take what you have been given but find ways of using it to help you get what you intended to get initially.
What is your daily source of inspiration?
Role models! I have always had role models – the good ones and bad ones, haha. The bad ones are people I have grown up looking at and swearing to never become like them. They have unknowingly pushed me to work harder. And then there were those I admired to be like – my sister was one of them. When I look back now, I realise she was actually struggling to make ends meet but to me then she was someone I wanted to become. I wish she knew the impact she had on me because she made me dream bigger.
When I became older, I started admiring other women outside my circles. People like Justice Julia Ssebutinde; I admired this lady so much that I wanted to become a Lawyer at some point. I wish she knew that! Then I would also look at Winnie Byanyima; I would look at these people, dream, and then try to work hard to reach where they are.
This always helps me because being a girl who likes going against the norm, I need a certain level of focus.
Please share with us some of your prestigious moments
Most of my awards have been through scholarships. For example, my undergraduate degree by the Government of Uganda. The AIMS scholarship was very exciting for me because I had never been on a plane, never left the country, and here I was having all this for free. I also got funding to do my PhD from Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) way before I finished my masters degree. That was luck because most people had started their PhD but were lacking funding! I had a scholarship for my masters from National Research Fund (NRF). For someone who had been struggling very much throughout my education, these were amazing opportunities.
Also, by the time I was 29, I had already received my PhD. Today when I tell people I have been a doctor for some good time, they don’t believe it. My last but biggest achievement is; I am a family person, I am a mother with two children that I really love!
Who is Prossy outside work?
I like reading novels. If I want to completely forget my frustrations with the academic work, I just buy a novel and read. I also love travelling, a lot! This hasn’t happened recently, but I enjoy doing it. Whenever I am at the airport, I buy a book and read while in transit. I also enjoy taking strolls.
Do you have a favourite quote?
There’s one I used to like very much when young but I am not sure who the author is, or what the exact words are. However, if paraphrased, here it is; “We are all unique, and we all have our journeys to walk. So walk yours, walk it with pride, walk it with purpose” ~ Unknown
What is your advice to a young girl who is just joining the STEM field?
I would like to say something first; these days there is so much going on around this STEM topic and that is good. But on an individual level, ask yourself what it is that you want. If it is something to do with STEM then go ahead and pursue it, work hard at it and practice every day.
What you have to know is if something in life is effortless, then it is possibly worthless. Never allow people to tell you what you want, you alone know what it is that you want. If a door closes, take heart and wait patiently for another opportunity. When it shows, grab it with both hands.
Nobody is born unable to do something because of their gender, especially when it has something to do with the brain. You alone can decide what you can and cannot do.
Lastly, look for people who can encourage and understand you. Do away with negative people in your life. We all fail, you won’t believe how many times I have failed, but I always get up and try again.
This is a side note but allow me mention it; during my time in South Africa, I realised that people from low income families are so overwhelmed by their poverty that they are afraid to try out anything! I just want to encourage anyone in that situation to not let their situation determine their future. I would for example find someone with an unfinished assignment and their excuse is because they don’t have money to buy a text book. But their neighbour has that very text book! So, I want people to learn how to utilise resources around them and make the best out of them. Self-belief is very important.
Thank you, thank you so much Prossy. It has been an amazing time, thank you for the suggestions too.