'I promote the health of vulnerable populations'

Prof Caroline Otieno lectures at the University of Nairobi. She intends to be a peace ambassador and promote gender equality at all levels. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • I enjoy working in teams as it gives me the opportunity to learn from others through shared experiences.
  • I have seen many students pass their exams and go on to do well in life because I always aim at having an all-rounded student at whatever level.

Prof Caroline Otieno works with African Women’s Studies Centre, University of Nairobi. She is also a part time lecturer at several universities. She tells her story:

The World Health Organisation recently awarded you for your efforts in prevention of non- communicable diseases in informal settlements. Tell us more?

The United Nations Interagency Taskforce on Non-Communicable Diseases (UNIATF) sent out a call for nominations in February 2019.

I applied based on my past work experiences and achievements, which I thought were relevant and fitting for the UNIATF award.

The programme was about curbing school absenteeism of children from informal settlements in Nairobi through supplying clean water and one meal a day to mitigate the risk of diarrhoea and malnutrition, a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases.

During my teaching practice, I had come across students who had access to just one meal a day, and this had a clearly visible impact on their health. It thus affected their ability to concentrate and learn.

I was given the award in New York last year in September.

What does your work entail?

I conduct a lot of research, more so on health matters.

In 2015 and 2016 when I was researching on climate change, gender vulnerability and adaptation mechanisms, a study of the Ilchamus community living around Lake 94 in Baringo County, my key finding was malnutrition and diarrhoea among school-aged children, especially during flooding.

This is due to lack of proper disposal of human waste. When it floods, the waste is swept into Lake 94, which is a source of drinking and cooking water.

I sat with key informants and we agreed that each school should harvest rainwater and introduce a meal a day.

This has improved school attendance, learning and health of the children. I also advised parents to do irrigation on wet areas around the lake and use water hyacinth, which has invaded the lake, to make handicrafts for sale. This has improved their income and food security.

I plan to continue this work, improving the health outcomes of vulnerable communities in Kenya as well as do my part in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals target 3.4 of reducing, by one-third, premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment as well as collaborative action.

Take us through your ideal day

I wake up at 6am, pray, prepare and organise my household.

I take my breakfast at 7am and thereafter head to the office at the University of Nairobi, where I undertake my duties.

In the evening, I head to Egerton University town campus to teach part-time students. I arrive home at about 9pm, where I prepare dinner for the family.

How long have you been at the University of Nairobi?

I joined the institution in April 2015. As a lecturer, I have a minimum of three units per semester, conduct research and engage in community work.

How do you handle the workload, stress and family?

Through proper strategic planning, delegation and being in the company of positive people all the time. I love listening to music when I am alone and spend my weekends with family members.

What are your weaknesses and strengths?

I love what I do, which is my main source of strength. I enjoy working in teams as it gives me the opportunity to learn from others through shared experiences.

I have good interpersonal skills. My weakness is getting impatient and frustrated when people I work with fail to deliver or take responsibility for assigned tasks.

Describe some of your accomplishments

In my long career, I have seen many students pass their exams and go on to do well in life because I always aim at having an all-rounded student at whatever level.

I have mentored many people, especially my fellow teachers, by going back to the university for further studies.

I am happy to have completed my college studies as a mother up to the PhD level.

Who is your role model?

My mother, who taught me that a boy or a girl can perform any task.

She made me take up my space quite early in life such that when the University of Nairobi started offering Masters of Arts in Gender and Development Studies, I was among the first students to take up the course.

However, the Teachers Service Commission denied me study leave because to them the course was irrelevant to my first degree in Education.

What do you do during your free time?

I have hardly had any, given that I have spent the last five years studying. But when I do get some free time, I spend it at home with my family and also engage in community activities.

What has been your biggest challenge as an advocate for the less fortunate?

Witnessing some parties misuse resources or fail to serve those under their care with dignity.

For example, it pains me when some schools are not feeding learners as required yet there are provisions in their stores.

Challenges you face, and regrets?

Inability to ensure the feeding programme is introduced in all schools, especially in areas that are not endowed with enough resources.

So far I have no regrets in life because I believe there is a solution to every problem.

What drives you?

The desire to make children happy and taken care of them because they are the future. The desire to succeed and leave a legacy on earth is what drives me in life.

What’s your favourite meal?

Ugali, traditional vegetables, fish and ‘nyoyo’ (maize and beans).

What do you spend most of your money on?

I spend most of my money on family provision and the rest on acts of charity.

What are your future plans?

Promoting gender equality at all levels and being a peace ambassador.