What you need to know:
- I got married while doing my Master’s, and my family life began in South Africa.
- After 12 years in Cape Town, I felt compelled to return home with the knowledge I had gained.
Dr Leyla Abdullahi, 42, is a senior research and policy analyst at the African Institute for Development Policy (Afidep). She also leads the Evidence-Informed Decision Making Theme within the institute. Born in Samburu and raised in Isiolo, the firstborn in a family of 13 escaped Somali culture, where most girls are married off at a young age, and now holds a PhD in epidemiology.
“I was born in an era when my Somali culture denied most girls the opportunity to attend school and the majority were married off at a young age. My father made numerous sacrifices for us, including turning a deaf ear to cultural practices to enrol us in school. As a businessman with limited academic knowledge, he had a motto: ‘I’m educating you girls so that no one can dictate your life.’
The firstborn always has a lot of expectations when it comes to setting standards for the younger siblings. Being one, I concentrated on my studies and was consistently the top student in my class throughout my primary school years.
It was a complete sacrifice that had no bearing on my books. For example, because my life was always between home and school, there was no time for distractions. There was not much playing with my age mates in the neighbourhood. Our peer interactions came to an end at school.
I would describe my educational journey as a marathon race that began at Isiolo Barracks Primary, a military day school. That was one of the best schools in terms of academic performance. However, it was far from where we were staying. So, we used to take military tracks to school and then be driven back in the evening.
I then attended St Mary’s Girls Secondary School in Isiolo, where I gained knowledge that led to me studying medical microbiology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). That was a watershed moment in my educational journey because it exposed me to a world outside my own and allowed my network to grow.
I equally faced challenges. When my mother died while in university, for example, we were only home for a few days before our father asked us to return to school. That is when I learnt the value of teamwork. We alternated with my two sisters to care for our younger siblings during our long holidays.
Between my degree and PhD studies, I also landed job opportunities and along the way, I gave up some to further my education. For example, after a year of service, I resigned from a project officer position with the World Health Organisation in Gigiri. During that time, I noticed that the majority of my colleagues on board were all travelling, whereas I was always in the office.
That was an excellent learning experience for me, and while I enjoyed my first job, I kept wondering how to advance to a managerial position. That is when I discovered that I am not a routine person, and that I enjoy working in a challenging environment where I must think critically and creatively.
I then convinced myself that the only way forward was to further my education. I was lucky with my application to the University of Cape Town, where I completed a two-year Master’s course in epidemiology. I did very well in my coursework and within the first semester, I received a fully funded scholarship from the university that covered all of my needs, including visits home.
I am a systematic, orderly, and decision-making lady eager to put every spare moment to productive use. I can best explain this by describing how I managed my life while a student. For example, I got married while doing my Master’s, and my family life began in South Africa.
Even after I had my first child, before I finished my Master’s degree, my determination did not waver. That was possible because my husband is very supportive, and we helped each other raise our baby. We did not have a nanny. It was difficult to find one in South Africa. My second child was born while I was doing my PhD. I returned to work immediately after a three-month maternity leave.
It was easy for me to enrol in my PhD programme immediately following my Master’s degree because my lecturer at Cape Town University encouraged me to do so, just as my husband did. My Master’s and PhD studies were concurrent and demanding. I, therefore, made it a rule to wake up at 4 am daily when my brain is fresh, without worrying about the babies. I would study for two hours before beginning house chores, waking up my children and preparing them, taking them to daycare, and then going to work and attending my PhD lessons.
After 12 years in Cape Town, I felt compelled to return home with the knowledge I had gained. That is when I began applying for jobs in Kenya and got a research manager job with Save the Children International in Nairobi in July 2017. Since then, I have been here with my entire family.
So, even though I have a PhD today, I must admit that it is not just for myself; it is to show the rest of the world where the path is as if the sky is the limit, and you should run for it and go for it. Being the firstborn, I look back and tell the rest: listen, education is the only thing you can get from your father, and taking culture and religion into account, females will get slightly less than men, so generate your wealth through your brains.
At the same time, women need to understand that money is not everything. For example, I have a demanding job that I have learnt to balance so that I can spend time with my family and know how each of them is doing.
What has helped me is delegating and capacitating the team that assists me at home. Putting order in your house as a woman is very important; today, my husband doesn’t notice the difference whether I cook or someone else does, because I taught that person what kind of food we eat and like.
I do not have a social life really. So, when I am free, I take care of my family, nap, and rest with my children at home because I travel a lot due to the nature of my job. It has taken me to countries like Norway, UK, Nigeria, Malawi, South Africa, Congo, and France.”