July 14

My Experiences and Adventures through Aquatic Lenses

Published:  July 14, 2020
Renis Auma Ojwala

I am Renis Auma Ojwala, a trained aquatic scientist in freshwater and marine ecosystems. I specialized in water quality and fisheries management and formerly engaged in well-being assessment of the fisher community in coastal Kenya. Currently, I am undertaking my PhD studies in Maritime Affairs at the Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute of World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden; under the “Empowering women for the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science” programme.

I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Aquatic Science from Egerton University in Kenya and a joint international Master’s Degree in Limnology and Wetland Management from BOKU University-Vienna, Austria; UNESCO-IHE Delft, the Netherlands and Egerton University, Kenya. My interdisciplinary background has immeasurable benefits in natural- and social science related research fields.

I previously worked as a Graduate Trainee at Victory Fish Farm in Kenya, Research intern at African Blue Limited-Kenya, Research intern at the National Museum of Kenya, Research Assistant at Egerton University Kenya, Research intern at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) before joining the World Maritime University. I am also a passionate marine conservationist and took part in Sea-turtle Conservation in Lamu County, Kenya.

My interest in developing a career in the marine field has been inspired by my interdisciplinary research and work experience. It all started with my childhood passion which turned out fine. I grew-up in a small community in Kenya called Luo, near Lake Victoria, the World’s second largest. Fish forms a major part of the diet in my community and I started fishing at an early age. Every morning and sometimes in the evenings, I was motivated to join other fishing enthusiasts, young girls, boys, as well as men and women gathering at the lake shore, trying to catch fish whenever the weather was calm for their daily meal. Fishing became my hobby and it took up most of my time especially weekends. I used to spend several hours in water enjoying “fish monitoring” using a hand line as I filled my bucket with fish. Often, my legs would turn “white” from spending so much time in the water, infuriating my parents who then restricted my fishing to a few hours a day. 

Even though I had an interest in fishing, my main role model at that time was my father who was a primary school Headteacher. He loved his teaching career that inspired me to be like him. Being one of his favourite children, he used to move with me to any new school he was transferred to. I ended up studying in three different schools for my primary education. For that reason, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. By then, I used to say “When I grow up I would like to be a teacher”. I always admired his passion, support and commitment to our family, and I will forever be grateful to him.

After primary and secondary education, I joined the university but found out that the course I was enrolled in wasn’t part of my submitted choices. Like others who had been assigned to the course, I didn’t really know what aquatic science was all about. My classmates and I raised a lot of questions regarding the course during orientation seeking answers. One of the university’s female professors organized a meeting with us and gave us a motivational speech, which made everyone including me who wanted to change the course change their minds. One of the courses she mentioned was fisheries which I found to match my long term interest from when I was young. At that point, I felt God knew what I loved most. Consequently, I became passionate about the course and developed interest in fisheries science at first sight.

Joining the university was an eye opener for me. I got a chance to meet and interact with “top level professionals” including university professors, research scientists, senior lecturers, assistant lecturers. For once, I felt I had been living in a less diverse ecosystem where the only professionals I knew were teachers and of course ‘fishermen’. I immediately immersed myself in the course and performed so well with First Class Honours. After my undergraduate degree, I was offered a scholarship in 2015 by the Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) to undertake an international joint MSc in Limnology and Wetland Management in the above mentioned countries. Before that, I worked as an intern with the WWF-marine programme in Kenya, where my interest for marine science was rekindled. I participated in various interesting activities along the Lamu archipelago such as sea turtle conservation (Long-term monitoring approach through satellite tagging); strengthening sustainable fisheries; and improving livelihoods through gender mainstreaming in conservation work for the coastal community.

During my MSc studies, we had a school field trip to Lake Victoria to collect water samples for physico-chemical analysis. On the contrary, our boat captain was not pleased to see a woman in his boat. He became so loud asking why and who told me to board the boat together with my male classmates. According to the cultural beliefs, women were not allowed in the boats as it was associated with societal taboos. I stood firm and insisted on going for the boat trip as I was also a student. He had no choice but to let me in. It was a breathtaking experience to be in that boat and successfully collected the water samples without complications. My experience was not an exception. Many young girls and women are not allowed to board boats in my country as well as other neighbouring countries that often demoralize them from undertaking courses and careers that are male-dominated. From this instance, I saw the need to support the development of knowledge on gender equality and women’s empowerment in freshwater and ocean science in Kenya and beyond.

I had several role models in life but two have influenced my decisions the most. One of them is my former university female professor, who was my supervisor during my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at Egerton University Kenya; she introduced me to the aquatic science course for the first few days at the university. Another one is a Postdoc Marine Research Scientist at the University of Florida in USA, who inspired my interest in marine science. She used to invite me to regional training workshops where I got a chance to learn how to use various monitoring and data analysis tools in fisheries, and also got an opportunity to interact with some ocean science researchers as well as fisheries managers who are responsible for sustainable fisheries management globally including countries within Western Indian Ocean Region. One key workshop was on “Practical tools in Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessment” which took place at Pwani University in 2017.

Do you think there is a special need to support women retention in ocean science?

Yes, there is a need to support women in marine science to increase their recruitment and retention rates. Over time, ocean science has been regarded as a male dominated field, and women face a lot of challenges when they try to pursue such courses. Some of them face discrimination, stereotypes and not easily accepted for tenure-track jobs like me (I never had a permanent job in any of the institutions mentioned above -all were short term contracts), just as is the case in many STEM fields. Thus, there is a special need to empower women through creating mentorship programmes and having role models to build their capacity and raise awareness of gender equality in ocean science to the prospective female students in secondary education, to consider ocean science courses as first career choices for their undergraduate studies. Such initiatives are key in promoting gender balance in ocean science. The knowledge often helps women shape their way of thinking, views or perceptions, learn to value their own lives, and know their worth in society. Importantly, young girls usually get motivated when they see other women taking up marine or ocean science related roles.

Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to gender? If yes, how did you handle them? 

Yes, There were some instances of frustrations that I faced such as discrimination at work places and lower wages/salary in some companies. There is one serious, upsetting and unforgettable instance where I had to volunteer for a long period of time without signing a contract just because the director of the programme did not like my cultural background (ethnicity) and the political differences, and didn’t approve my contract. Even though I was not a politician, my name spoke for itself as anybody, including my director, could tell where I was born, and associated me with politicians whom I didn’t know in person. Gender, politics, and ethnicity are some of the main factors that affected my job search as well as acceptance for the many job positions I applied for then. I had to work extra hard to prove my competence for the position only to get a six months’ contract later on. In some workplaces, I was assigned jobs that required unskilled or low skilled labour which did not match the knowledge and skills I gained from my tertiary education and practicum experience. Similar cases have been reported in many workplaces; in others, women had to go through sexual harassment, intimidation or volunteer first for at least two months before they get a job.

What advice would you give any women considering science as a career path?

Due to the fact that women are ambassadors of sustainability, more are needed, particularly young women and girls to take part in science courses especially ocean science to enhance diversity in this sector. The application of science or scientific knowledge is valued by society, and women have this knowledge at heart. Most of the women have indigenous knowledge gained from their daily interaction with the marine resources, and their contribution in resource management is crucial in satisfying countless basic human needs and helps to improve their living standards. Lately, scientific knowledge has been found to be fundamental as well in understanding the ocean’s response to pressures and management changes in order to improve, save or reverse the declining ocean health. Having diverse employees in ocean science will result in creation of innovative technologies needed to save our oceans. This will help in finding ways to rationally use natural resources to guarantee the continuity of these resources and humanity. 

Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to gender? If yes, how did you handle them?

Yes, there were some instances of frustrations that I have faced such as discrimination at work place and underpayment in some companies. There is one serious instance when had to volunteer for a long period of time without signing a contract just because the director of the programme did not want to approve my contract. I had to work extra hard to prove my qualification for the position only to get a six months contract later. This was similar to a number of work places where women had to go through sexual harassment or intimidation at work place or volunteer first for at least two months before they get a job.

What advice would you give any women considering science as a career path?

Women being ambassadors of sustainability, more are needed to take part in science courses especially marine science. The application of science or scientific knowledge is valued by society and it is crucial in satisfying countless basic human needs and help to improve their living standards. Lately, scientific knowledge has been found to be fundamental in understanding the ocean’s response to pressures and management changes in order to save or reverse the declining ocean health. This will help in finding ways to rationally use natural resources to guarantee the continuity of these resources and humanity.

What are your professional achievements?

  • Participated in marine conservation work saving several turtle hatchlings in Lamu Seascape.
  • Assisted in undergraduate courses and laboratory practical at Egerton University.
  • Completed an international master’s degree programme in Limnology and Wetland Management offered in Egerton University, BOKU university and UNESCO-IHE Delft in 2017.
  • Attained the highest average weight of fry in post-nursery stage one (PNS1) at Victory Fish Farm
  • Published a paper on “Effect of water quality in parasite assemblages infecting Nile tilapia in selected fish farms in Nakuru County, Kenya”
  • Currently, publishing papers on various subject matters within the field of my research “Gender equality in ocean science for sustainable development in Kenya” at the Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute of the World Maritime University Malmo, Sweden.

What are the most effective ways for you to maintain balance in your professional and personal life?

I always have weekly target plans that build onto the broader objective of my work. Most of the time when free, I listen to music, go swimming, watch documentaries, go on a nature walk, travel and also spend time with my family and friends.

How can we overcome the issues driving women out of careers in marine science and technology?

First and foremost, I have to acknowledge the efforts that the United Nations’ agencies, Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada as well as other international, regional, and national agencies or organizations that have been involved in empowering women by offering more scholarships and tenure positions. These agencies have a model to be emulated and up scaled. There is a need to sustain and upscale these efforts to support and bring more women on board to take up space and contribute greatly in ocean science, policy development, decision-making and governance roles. In addition, those women who have been empowered should be further given research funds to create their own research groups and networks to enhance more visibility and voices of women in science. In addition, research funds specially competed among women only would go a long way in uplifting and motivating women in science. Besides, I would also recommend reinforcement of anti-discrimination policies to promote cohesion between women and men, ensure equal treatment at workplaces and advocate for the implementation of gender equality policy in various ocean science institutions, in order to achieve decent employment opportunities for all.


Tags

Fisheries Management, Marine Ecosystems, PhD Candidate, Renis Auma Ojwala, Water Quality


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