I want my doctorate in mathematics to inspire the youth – Nabawanda

Since last week Olivia Nabawanda, 31, has attracted media attention for being the youngest student to earn a PhD in mathematics in Uganda. But her biggest motivation to share her story is to inspire youth, especially girls, from humble backgrounds, who cannot go to elite schools that they too can make it.

Born and raised in Kanjuki, Kayunga District, Nabawanda, the first born among eight, siblings went to rural schools. With Aggregate 10, hers was the only First Grade in her Primary Leaving Examinations at St Bruno Kanjuki R/C Primary School—which was one of the poorly funded Universal Primary Education scheme.

In her final A-Level examinations at Kanjuki SS in 2009, she scored 18 points—with B in Physics, D in Chemistry, D in Biology and A in Mathematics. She admits she did not excel at practical exams due to her phobia of frogs. And she knew that her average scores in Chemistry and Biology—the core subjects in medicine-related courses—had denied her the chance to study pharmacy, on government sponsorship, yet her father, a tailor, lacked the funds to pay her tuition.

Nabawanda says her points qualified for courses such as software engineering and mechanical engineering, on government sponsorship, but she was placed in education, her last choice. Her teachers were disappointed. They had always discouraged her that she was too shy to be a teacher.

Besides, she adds, they never wanted the bright girl to waste her potential in a poorly paid profession and convinced her father to sacrifice and look for tuition for Nabawanda to pursue nursing at Makerere University.

“In fact, I got the vacancy in nursing,” she says. But her father could not afford the fees. She went to Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).

Missing pharmacy, her favorite course at Makerere, her favorite university and ending up doing education, moreover in Mbarara was double distress to Nabawanda. But after counseling from the dean of students, Nabawanda finally settled in.

When Nabawanda returned after the first semester, her father carried her on his lap, like a baby. “He was so happy that I had finally settled to study and I had performed well,” she recalls with nostalgia.

But Nabawanda had returned to campus just a week into the second semester when a friend told her that her father David Kateregga was sick and badly wanted to see her. She could not believe it because the previous night she had had a long chat with him on the phone.

But the friend just couldn’t tell her straight away that her father died of cardiac arrest. “Staring at a bleak future, everyone wondered how we were going to survive,” she recalls.

Nabawanda recalls, “I thanked God that we had chosen to go for government sponsorship, otherwise, how would I have managed on private sponsorship after dad had gone?”

But that was one piece of the puzzle solved. Her mother, Janepher Namakula, had seven more children to take care of. How was she going to transit from a typical housewife to being the sole provider of this orphaned peasant family?

Nearing 40, she trained herself in tailoring; her husband’s job. Tailoring is not well-paying, especially in rural settings, but it was the easiest way she could pick up the pieces. With time, she mastered the art and began recouping her husband’s market, attracting big deals such as making uniforms for schools and churches. The rest is history.

In her second year, Nabawanda needed beddings, utensils, to use during her school practice but she could not bother her mother who, was already overwhelmed by her seven other children.

Nabawanda started teaching mathematics part-time. Every Friday evening, she traveled 61km from Mbarara to Ishaka, to teach on Friday night, Saturday, until Sunday afternoon, when she returned to Mbarara for the Monday lectures.

But how did the shy girl teach students nearly her age? The discussions with her course mates had given her some confidence. “And, my students knew were in Senior Six, they what they wanted and liked me. In fact, one of them scored an A in maths.”

Nabawanda earned Shs200,000 per month and Shs12,000 as weekly transport allowance. “That gig saved me a lot,” she says. “I couldn’t count on anyone.”

After acquiring the stuff she needed, she quit the job. Besides the money, however, the job prepared her for the experience of being a real teacher.

During her school practice, it rained heavily the day her supervisor visited. Panicking, Nabawanda told her students to converge near the chalkboard, wrote the notes, and explained later.

“That earned me marks; my supervisor thought I was going to compete with the noise of the rain rattling the roof and blowing into the windows,” she recounts.

Her examiners also commanded her for a commanding voice and keeping her class engaged. Nabawanda was no longer the shy girl who could not teach. February 2014, she graduated with a second class upper degree in education.

Meanwhile, one of her lecturers interested her in applying for a scholarship for her Masters in Mathematics. But Nabawanda had other plans. She wanted to start teaching in as many urban schools as possible, save money and pay her tuition to study pharmacy.

But when the lecturer insisted, Nabawanda applied “just to please him” and in August, she flew to Cape Coast, Ghana for her Masters in Maths at AIMS—the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Interacting with students across the continent was an illuminating experience that eventually ended Nabawanda’s obsession with pharmacy and she embraced education as a profession, after all, she learned, there are countless opportunities in the field of numbers.

Besides lecturing, she can earn from research, reviewing studies, and can also be hired by any organization. After an intense 12 months she earned her Master’s in August 2015. “But I was tired of books; I needed a break.”

Nabawanda resumed lecturing at Mbarara University. But in late 2016, came a scholarship opportunity to pursue a doctorate under the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) at Makerere University. She hesitated but handed in her application on the deadline.

Nabawanda calls her PhD experience since 2017 as an epic journey. “No wonder, I did not sleep the night before graduation,” she says.

Nabawanda’s PhD focused on a class of permutations and she investigated their behavior. “My area of ​​research is counting just like you see formulas,” she says.

In a previous interview with a Daily Monitor reporter, Nabawanda debunked myths that mathematics is a complex subject. “The only trick is practice. On my reading timetable, it was mandatory for me to solve four equations every day. There is no shorcut, you must practice and keep in touch with your lecturers,”’ she tips on how to pass mathematics.

Having an article published in reputable journals is one of the requirements to attain a doctorate. Nabawanda, who majored in pure mathematics—a branch that develops mathematical theories, had three articles published.

One is titled Run Distribution Over Flattened Partitions in the Journal of Integer Sequences (2020) in Canada, and Peaks are Preserved Under Run-Sorting in the Journal of Enumerative Combinatorics and Applications (2021) in Israel.

“I cannot express the feeling,” she says, because this breakthrough came after many of her articles were rejected. “In fact, it’s easy to give up. But I had a supportive team around me,” she says.

That team includes her lecturers and supervisors: Prof John Mango, Dr Alex Samuel Bamunoba from Makerere University, Paul Vaderlind from Stockholm University, Fanja Rakotondrajao from the University of Antananarivo and fellow students.

“They always consoled me that rejection are normal; because they went too through them,” she recalls.

Now Nabawanda boasts that her articles are being cited by other researchers and she receives offers to review articles for journals. “Now I also reject others’ articles,” she says jokingly, “its normal, you know, and the comments that follow a rejected article help you improve.”

But the earliest hero in Nabawanda’s story is Nelson Kanyike, the former headmaster of Kanjuki SS. He recalls Nabawanda and her siblings as brilliant and well-behaved children and when their father died in 2011, Kanyike allowed them to study for freethroughout.

Even when he was transferred to Nyenga SS, he took them with him. Now three of them have graduated and are working; the youngest is soon joining university. “I saw their father striving to give them a good education and that was my humble way to help him achieve that dream even though he was gone,” Kanyike told us on the phone.

Without such support, Nabawanda doubts she would have studied this far. “Mr Kanyike is such a hero; because with the burden to pay for my siblings’ education, I would not have the freedom to explore these opportunities,” she says.

Nabawanda’s experience in Ghana and interactions with foreign students and lecturers changed her view on our education system.

She says the system at AIMS and other such universities is learner-centred, where lecturers guide the students and let them develop concepts, unlike in Uganda, where there is “much spoon-feeding.”

She also doubts the relevance of a student learning too much history and geography of other continents. “We need to change our curriculum and make it more beneficial to the learner, not just to pass exams,” she says.

Nabawanda says at Mbarara University, teachers are also encouraged to adopt creative teaching methods and use teaching aids. “Students might be biased against fractions but if you use an orange to demonstrate, they can easily relate and comprehend,” she adds.

Nabawanda was among the four women in a class of eight, who earned a doctorate in mathematics. But she says this 4:4 ratio does not represent the number of girls who have the potential to excel in maths but fail to try or drop out at different levels due to lack of career guidance and support.

Nabawanda is a member of Uganda Women in Mathematics and the Eastern Africa Network for Women in Basic Sciences.

The organisations, founded by Betty Kivumbi Nanyonga, a senior mathematics lecturer at Makerere, interact with girls in sciences and advocate for equal access and success in the mathematics learning environment.

Nanyonga, whom Nabawanda calls a mentor says: “We have been moving with her to different places and she is dedicated. In fact, her PhD demystifies the belief that UPE products hardly excel,” Nanyonga adds.

Nabawanda asserts: “If you aim at greatness, your background does not matter. I did not go to the best schools, but see what I have accomplished. You too can make it.”

Soon, Nabawanda will resume lecturing at Mbarara, but her dreams are much bigger. “I know she will become a professor,” Nanyonga prophesies. “I can even become a vice chancellor of MUST or Makerere, why not?” she says, her trademark laugh suggesting audacity, not impossibility.

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