Evelyn Gitau: Finding comfort in my singlehood


African Population and Health Research Center Director of Programmes Evelyn Gitau during an interview at her home on February 14, 2024. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

Evelyn Gitau wanted to be a mechanic. She liked the idea of getting under cars, pulling everything apart, and bringing them together again. "Absolutely not! You are doing no such thing,” her late father, an economist, once told her. “You do sciences or arts.” 

That is what she went and did: a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biology, a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences, and a PhD in Life Science at 31 years of age. 

“When Covid-19 happened and a lot of people, some my parents’ age, didn’t want to be vaccinated, my mom said, 'We spent our lives educating our child, if she tells us to get vaccinated, we are going to get vaccinated.’ That was a great moment in my education,” she says.

After spending 15 years at Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) doing cutting-edge science, Dr Gitau then moved to research management, joining the African Academy of Sciences, giving way to her current role at the African Population and Health Research Center where she is a director. She joins the Science for Africa Foundation in April as Chief Scientific Officer. 

Why do you think high-achievers like you prefer not to shout about their achievements? Where does this humility come from?

It’s one of those things we often hear during International Women’s Day. And so every year, we remind ourselves that we should be better, but a month later, we are back to the default conduct of keeping our heads down and working. 

Speaking for myself, for instance, we were raised empowered. I attended Kenya High School for four years. At the start of the school term, Mrs Wanjohi would tell us, ‘Remember, girls, your education is the only inheritance you get in this country. Work hard, and education will open doors.’ 

But then I went back home, and my brothers were allowed to sit and do whatever they wanted, and I would be in the kitchen. I remember my mom coming home and questioning us [girls], ‘What? Are you guys watching TV as your brothers cook for you? That can’t happen in my house.’ We were expected to be ‘ladylike’ and put others before ourselves.

How did you end up where you are? 

I was influenced by older people. My dad’s friend was a professor, a chemist at the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus. I’d go over to see what he was doing in the chemistry labs during my school holidays. 

He only had sons; one would be in the lab whenever I visited. So, my father’s friend found it interesting to have a little girl lingering in his lab. This was in the late 80s to early 90s. I was very fascinated by his work.

His biochemistry class of 20 had only one female student. I found that odd. I kept asking myself how we could not have women biochemists. Remember, at that time, our teachers kept emphasising that education was the only thing we got. The few female students in biochemistry were my first indication that perhaps this space was somewhere I wanted to be. I kept going to his lab for four years. 

When I got my PhD, I invited him to my graduation party. 

My other influence was a movie on Ebola I watched as an 18-year-old. There was a female character working in the lab. The movie got me thinking.  

Is there a particular question that sometimes occupies your thoughts regarding your life and career?

I’m divorced and have been for a very long time now. Sometimes, I question whether making different career choices would have allowed us to stay together if I’d done so. But that’s just a fleeting thought. I’m proud that I’ve been a good role model for my children (I think). I’ve shown them that if you work hard, life is okay. I’m proud to be their mother, and I know I’ve given them a good example of building a career and working hard. 

What makes you insecure now after attaining the much you have and gaining success? 

You know, that’s an interesting question. When I did my first interview for a big job, I was advised to wear glasses to “look older.” I was going through separation, and my supervisor said, ‘Wear your wedding ring; people will respect you more.’ Our society judges single or divorced women even though we’ve normalised women being strong enough to walk away. I still walk into situations and feel very insecure about being a single woman. 


African Population and Health Research Center Director of Programmes Evelyn Gitau during an interview at her home on February 14, 2024. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

Many scientists are still married despite the naysayers who say, ‘Oh, you’re in science, you’ll get divorced.’ That’s not the case. So, that’s the one major insecurity I have; being a single parent and being divorced. 

I’m also obsessed with being financially secure and making the right decisions. This is borne by the fact that my parents were civil servants and, like many others, didn’t plan for their retirement. I worry about not being financially secure to support them (children). My eldest finished university and my last one is 14 years. My nightmare is having to rely on my children when I retire. I have to find a way to work until I’m 80 so I don’t have to rely on them. 

What do you now find more important, happiness or contentment? 

So, at 49, I’m okay in my career. The reality of adulthood is here, and the idea of happiness comes into play occasionally. I often ask what my happiness is about. Being content with being alone is also something I think about frequently because the reality is that once the last child is out of the door, it will be just me. 

Another thing is being happy and not thinking about loneliness, which creeps in every so often. 

Sometimes, I think financial security is nice, yet it’s also overrated. We are constantly thinking of how to make more money, but I’m not sure I would be happy if I had a billion dollars. 

What I’m hearing, and perhaps I’m hearing it wrong, but you’ve said it a few times, is the idea of being content with being alone. But is there a scenario where you end up with somebody? 

I was divorced in my early 30s and started dating again about six years after my divorce. Dating as a mature woman in Nairobi is interesting. After a few trials and many errors and after my last one, I was just like, actually, let me normalise being alone. 

I have always wanted to feel needed. Now my children are about to stop needing me. I’m thinking, 'oh, gosh, I need to find someone.' But imagine being alone is also okay. I’m accepting that reality. It has to be normalised. 

What sort of frame of mind are you in right now, at 49 about to step into your 50s?

I used to randomly do marathons during the pandemic. I picked up new friends from that space. My dear mother, who supposedly encouraged women, didn’t believe that girls should ride bicycles. My brothers could ride, but we couldn’t. So, I learned how to ride a bike. Now I have the power to say, I’m going to take a day off to ride to Namanga, rest for a day, and go to Kilimanjaro. My mom says this is just midlife {crisis}.

On Sunday, I woke up and did an 18-kilometre run. I like the thrill of running and cycling and doing triathlons and meeting new, different people in that space. It’s exciting. I have more control over my time and my choices. 

I’m leaving a job after almost seven years. I had been promoted. Five years ago, I would not have been able to make that choice. I’m taking a new job and starting a new experience at 49. So, I’m looking forward to the next stage of doing big things.

What do you fear? 

I don’t know about you, Biko, but there have been a lot of deaths around us in the last few months. That scares me, people I knew are not there. I also fear that in this difficult economic climate, a time might come when I might not be able to help the people I need to help. 

Remember I mentioned my need to feel needed? I worry that sometimes things are getting harder, and I will not have the extra to help people. I know that I just need to frame myself and shift the mindset, that I can help people without really having money. I feel like the meaning of life is how you impact others’ lives. 

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