This young woman was once terrified of everything to do with mathematics; the math teacher, the math lesson, exams… but you wouldn’t know it by reading her CV.
Twenty-seven-year-old Idah Makena Mbaabu is on her way to getting a PhD in mathematics.
Yes, you read that right: PhD. And this after being the only woman in her Master’s class.
The terror has blossomed into an intense love for all things numerical. But it wasn’t as easy as one, two, three.
“I was born in Igoji, Meru,” begins the first born in a family of two girls. “My father, Francis Mbaabu, was a farmer while my mother, Salome, was a businesswoman in Meru Town.
Although, we were not rich, our parents worked hard to put food on the table and provide us with good education. It’s the finest inheritance a child can ever get from a parent.”
Idah began her schooling at Kamuchatha Boarding Primary School in Meru. Like many other girls, a cold shiver raced down her spine at the mere thought of the word ‘mathematics’.
“Mathematics was usually a double lesson, and we got scared whenever we saw Mr Munene, the maths teacher, walking down the corridor towards our class. Working out equations and formulae for 90 minutes every day was not a cup of tea.”
Nevertheless, it looked like her teacher was bent on shoving the subject down her throat.
Idah vividly recalls a thorough spanking she got while in Standard Six after dropping five marks to score 58 per cent in an end-term math paper.
“I got a whipping which Mr Munene promised to carry on with until I scored my previous marks.”
Idah says that this is when she began to wonder what it was about mathematics that only boys could grasp.
“I wanted to prove to my teacher that I could do it,” she says.
Eventually, Idah became friends with the subject, albeit gradually.
“I sought help from my parents and older friends,” she says. “Eventually, my grades began to improve and from Class Seven onwards, I never scored below 80 per cent in mathematics.”
In 2000, she joined Kieni Sacred Heart High School in Embu. Idah admits that while the subject looked a bit tougher in secondary school, she didn’t have problems with it.
“I did not struggle. I had inculcated a passion for maths and with encouragement from my teachers, there was no turning back.”
Subsequently, Idah’s conquest of the hitherto labeled ‘anti-girls’ subject extended to regional mathematics contests where she won accolade after accolade.
Her efforts bore fruit in 2003 when she scored a straight ‘A’ in Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) mathematics.
“But I got a B+ overall,” she adds with a look that suggests she would have wished to score all As.
Aged 20, she joined the University of Nairobi for her Bachelor’s degree in science (Bsc), majoring in mathematics.
Ironically, Idah had dreamt of becoming a nurse while in high school.
“There’s something about the selflessness that a nurse embodies which greatly moves me,” she says.
Things seem to be looking up for Idah, but her life took a nose dive in May 2005 when her father succumbed to a short illness.
“It was abrupt. He did not stay at the Kenyatta National Hospital for long,” she says with a trembling voice.
Two years later, in November 2007, she lost her mother to a road accident along the Sagana-Makuyu road.
“I was devastated, and felt as if the weight of the whole world was on my shoulders. At only 22, how would I cope? Who would pay my college fees? Who would see my sister through high school?”
These questions dimmed the light that had been shining in her life to a flicker.
However, her relatives came to her rescue, marshaling resources to keep both girls school. One of Idah’s aunts, Sarah, took her in.
Pregnancy and heartbreak
Things began to look rosy again when Idah fell in love for the first time in early 2008.
“He was handsome and generous and seemed to understand what I was going through. He gave me the reassurance I craved.”
But their days of coffee dates, sunny Sunday afternoon outings and movies at the Kenya Cinema came to an abrupt halt when she conceived.
She explains her reaction after learning that she was pregnant: “I was shocked and I went for a second test, even though deep inside I knew the first one was correct. I was worried about how I would face my aunt and tell her about it. How would she react? Would she kick me out?”
On the contrary, her aunt did not kick her out or harshly condemn her.
“To my surprise, she embraced me and assured me that I had just erred like many other girls have. She told me that becoming a young mother was not the end of the road for my dreams, and that I should not see my child as a mistake. I thank God for Aunt Sarah.”
On the opposite extreme though, was her boyfriend: “He began by accusing me of negligence, saying that I ought to have been ‘careful’. He then suggested that ‘I take care of it’ since he was too young to become a father.”
But Idah chose her child over her relationship.
She admits that it was not easy for her to let go and accept that her love had irreparably crumbled: “I took time to get over it,” she says.
Eventually, she picked up the broken pieces of her life and heart, and with help from her loved ones moved on. Her daughter, Kay Karembo, was born in late 2008.
Idah had to shuffle between the clinic, the kitchen, the baby’s room and school, but says she has no regrets: “My baby is the reason I’m strong and determined to go on, and even worker harder to achieve my dreams.”
In 2009, she graduated with a first class honours degree. So brilliant was her performance that she immediately earned a scholarship to study for her Master’s in mathematics. She started her course the same year in November.
Idah continued to shatter more ceilings when upon graduation last year, she was offered a job as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
This April, she achieved another milestone after landing a scholarship from the DAAD Scholarship Fund to study for her PhD in ecological modeling at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Studies in Leipzig, Germany.
The go-getter whose favourite field in mathematics is numerical analysis leaves for Europe on Sunday.
While her impressive CV certainly portrays her as an exponentially gifted mathematician, Idah says that she sees herself as an ordinary girl.
“I have learned that humility is the key to a happy life. I cannot afford to beat my chest, for I am who I am today because of other people. I am not any special. I make mistakes, cry, and hurt just like any other young woman.”
Her hobbies include making new friends and solving Sudoku puzzles.
She encourages girls in school to stop fearing mathematics.
“Girls have internalised a phobia for mathematics. They dread trying even where they can easily succeed, yet mathematics can be as simple as any other subject. You only have to love it, not fear it,” she says with conviction.
Saturday Magazine wishes Idah all the best with her PhD.