“A Good Education Has Made All the Difference in My Life”, Dr. Faith Muniale on Making Informed Decisions
Dr. Faith Milkah Wakonyo Muniale is a landscape ecologist with research and development experience in natural resources management and livelihoods. She believes in sustainable development where natural resources are conserved while improving livelihoods, particularly in rural areas. She also strongly believes in homegrown solutions to local challenges in conservation and management of natural resources as well as improvement of livelihoods.
She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.
Faith, what would you say was the most important thing your parents did in raising you?
Investing in my education. I started my schooling in a remote village in Njoro, where I was born and raised; the environment was very limiting in terms of exposure and opportunities. At the age of 11, my parents enrolled me in a boarding school.
Visiting days were my highlights. We had a phone booth in school, and my parents had struck a deal with the headmaster: He would allow me to call them and let them know what I wanted them to bring along.
What was it like, going to boarding school at such a young age?
I loved it! I think it was the best thing that happened to me. Had I stayed in the small village school, my story would be very different. Boarding school gave me a lot of exposure as I interacted with kids from different places. Yes, I was homesick at times, and washing my clothes was not pleasant, but eventually, I adjusted and learned to become independent.
Academically I started topping the class, and in my final year of primary school, I was number 3 in the school. I then chose the high school I wanted to attend. This was 1992, at the height of tribal clashes in Kenya; our village was adversely affected. My parents asked me if I wanted to change schools, but I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. I later realised that they were merely concerned about my safety; my school predominantly had students from the Kalenjin tribe and being one of the minority Kikuyus didn’t seem safe. Eventually, my parents had to relocate from the village, but I stayed in my high school.
Was the world of conservation on your radar by the time you were joining university?
Absolutely not. When you’re a top academic performer, everyone tells you what you should pursue—medicine, engineering, law… I was good at physics and maths; engineering made sense. When I was selecting my university course, my top 3 choices were all engineering courses. I chose wildlife management as my fourth option. I knew that there was no way I would end up there, it was just to fill up the space. When the results came back, that last choice was what I was called to study. I cried for days.
On the one hand, my family was concerned that I wasn’t happy. On the other hand, I came from a village where simply making it to university was a huge deal. The people from my community were elated. They brought me gifts to celebrate my achievement. My dad borrowed a car so that my entire family could escort me on my first day. We arrived in style. But I was miserable; I didn’t want to do wildlife management. What gave me hope was one of my uncles, who worked at the university, told me it would be possible to change my course. He urged me to just register and then work out the details later.
After registration, I looked at my other options; they were even worse than the Wildlife Management course I was crying about. I would be the only girl in a class of 14 students. This further reinforced my belief that Wildlife Management was not for me.
One day, one of my lecturers, Dr. Odanga, sat me down and told me what the course looked like regarding the opportunities and challenges it presented. Then he said, “Whatever course you choose, we will support you”. These words changed the game for me, and I decided to stick with Wildlife Management.
But it was not smooth sailing. At some point in my first year, I threatened to drop out. We had to take a bushmanship course basically camping in the wild for two weeks. It was a first-time experience, everything was difficult. On one expedition in hells gate national park, a herd of buffalos attacked us. I was terrified. I fainted, and my classmates had to carry me. No one was hurt, but after the incident, I packed my bags ready to cut short the course and go home. I was ready to repeat the first year with a different course. I would even go for a Bachelor of Education in Home Science because I believed, or rather my society believed, that was where women belonged.
I wasn’t allowed to leave camp, but I didn’t participate in any activities for the rest of the expedition. I was disconsolate. The course was examinable, but I asked myself, was it worth risking my life? The answer was no. After this excursion, we went for our holidays, and that was a welcome break. It helped me calm down, and my classmates and lecturers constantly checked up on me, to revive my spirit in a sense.
My third-year attachment took me to Tsavo East National Park. I was exposed to the life of a wildlife manager working in the field. Three months into it, I got a conviction deep in my heart, I knew I couldn’t do this. I didn’t mind working in conservation, but I couldn’t live in the wild. Eventually, I registered for a master’s degree in Environmental Science at Egerton University. My research was in Mau forest, where I had grown up. I got to interact with the local communities. This, I enjoyed.
At what point did you finally settle into your career?
It was when I started working with local communities. I got a job with the Centre for Development Services (CDS), where we carried out projects related to natural resource management. I felt this was what I had been looking for all along. I loved what I was doing, and my boss was this amazing man who supported women’s advancement. I got so wrapped up in the job that I abandoned my master’s. But it was essential that I get that degree; it would take ten years before I got it.
Why was it so important that you get your master’s degree?
Two reasons: First, there were high expectations from the people who knew I had enrolled; the pressure was real. Second, my boss was really pushing me to look for opportunities to help me progress. The more I thought of advancing in my career, the more the master’s haunted me. I got an internship opportunity at the University of Reading, and during this period, I started working on PhD ideas. But I needed to complete my master’s first. So when I came back home, I went for it. I was fined for the years I missed, but I was happy when I graduated.
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