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A spirit that is not afraid

A researcher transcended gender roles, now she wants to help others do the same

Growing up in Mabafweni, Kenya, an impoverished agricultural village on the eastern seaboard of Africa, Esther Ngumbi learned the value of hard work at an early age. Her parents, both retired teachers and farmers, made sure of that.

Ngumbi’s mother and father worked hard to provide their children with opportunities that most in the area did not have, and they expected their children to pitch in their fair share in return. Ngumbi, an Auburn doctoral alumnus in entomology who now works as a postdoctoral plant pathology researcher in the College of Agriculture, did just that.

For as long as she can remember, Ngumbi’s days followed a distinct pattern. She would rise early in the mornings, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., and begin her chores before school.

As a girl in a place where traditional gender roles are still firmly entrenched, that meant gathering water (Mabafweni does not have running water, electricity or gas), cooking breakfast and doing other miscellaneous tasks around the house. Oftentimes, Ngumbi and her family put in close to a full day of work by the time she had to report for school.

After her classes, Ngumbi spent time helping her family on their farm, where they tended to an assortment of row crops and fruit trees. She would then return home, cook dinner for her family and prepare to start the cycle over again at dawn.

Each day passed like clockwork, none much different from the last or the next. Even weekends and holidays were spent in the fields. But growing up in such an environment, where hard work and perseverance were instilled as core values, is something Ngumbi wouldn’t change, even if she could.

“I really appreciate that upbringing because it toughened me up,” Ngumbi said. “For me, nothing is just hard because I’ve already been toughened up. While at that time, growing up, I thought, ‘Ah, it’s just too much. Too much.’ But I think now, when I look back, I would take it over and over again because it kind of puts you into being in a good trajectory in life.”

Because they were both teachers throughout her childhood, Ngumbi’s parents always placed a high value on education and provided the necessary support for their children, which put Ngumbi in a rare situation.

Many children in the region do not make it through high school because their parents either do not place a high priority on education or are unable to afford to send their children to school. As a result, many young males drop out at an early age and work on the farms full time, while females often opt for marriage, the easiest way to insure a secure livelihood.

Ngumbi’s parents refused to allow her or her siblings to see those walks of life as options. They encouraged their children to pursue educational opportunities, and their message resonated with Ngumbi.

“I didn’t see it personally, but they could see a lot of potential in me,” Ngumbi said. “That really helped. It put me on the track of, OK, there’s something special in me. There’s something I can take farther, so I just have to push myself. But if it wasn’t for those forces, I don’t think I would ever be where I am.”

After she completed high school in her home village, Ngumbi moved over 300 miles away to pursue her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Nairobi, Kenya. She then moved to Israel, where she performed research as a visiting scholar.

During her time in Israel, Ngumbi decided she wanted to do what no female from her region had ever done — obtain a PhD. A friend advised Ngumbi to move to the United States for her doctoral education, and her research led her to Auburn, where she quickly found her place.

“Of course, my parents always wanted a professor,” Ngumbi said. “I wanted to continue the same line of research, so that really determined me coming to Auburn. … People are so friendly over here that it wasn’t even hard to really get along. The lab was very friendly.”

When she finally attained her ultimate academic goal in 2011, Ngumbi broke down in tears at the graduation ceremony. Not because of her own achievements, but because of all the ones like her who were left behind.

“All of those other students and members of my community, they could be me,” Ngumbi said. “Clearly, I know that everybody has potential. There’s a lot of potential. They only lacked people who guided them, people who believed in them, people who held their hands, people who kept on just inspiring them and motivating them to look further. … It shouldn’t be me, only one person. It should be many of us.”

It’s this belief that has led Ngumbi to pursue her ultimate goal — providing educational opportunities to the next generation of children in her village that were not available to her own.

Ngumbi, with the help of her parents, has already spearheaded the construction of a new academy and library in Mabafweni. Now she has her eyes set on a science lab, which would provide hands-on agricultural training not only to those who plan to further their education, but also to the children who return home to work on the farms after graduation.

“As a school, we can be able to inspire (children) even though they come from families that are not well-off or very literate,” Ngumbi said. “When they come to a compound, we can be kind of that push forward, inspiring force that drives them to keep on going.”

Though she is currently focused on securing the necessary funds to begin construction of the science lab, that doesn’t mean Ngumbi isn’t also giving thought to her long-term goals. She would like to eventually move back to Kenya and oversee a satellite campus for one of the nation’s universities in Mabafweni, though she admits that is still a far-fetched goal at this point.

However, equipped the work ethic and determination that have brought her this far, Ngumbi sees no reason why she can’t achieve it.

“I did not want to run away,” Ngumbi said. “It just brings me joy to be (in Mabafweni). It always kind of reminds me of the journey. … Every time I go, I look at where we began and where we are. It really inspires me. Every time I get home, I get inspiration to come back and get more resources and keep doing what I’m doing.”

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