Profiles

Tree expert with love for the arts

nyangoy

Nyagoy Nyong’o. NMG PHOTO

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Summary

  • Nyagoy Nyong’o was the first Kenyan female geneticist after attaining her PhD in Forest Genetics and Tree Improvement in 1991 from Iowa State University.
  • She’s worked in 16 African countries, six European countries, two Asian countries, the US and in Cuba.
  • She’s the outgoing (after seven years) executive director of Fairtrade Africa, a membership organisation for Fairtrade certified producers in 30 Africa countries and the Middle East.

When was the last time you met a forest geneticist? They aren’t many around. Nyagoy Nyong’o was the first Kenyan female geneticist after attaining her PhD in Forest Genetics and Tree Improvement in 1991 from Iowa State University.

She’s worked in 16 African countries, six European countries, two Asian countries, the US and in Cuba. She’s the outgoing (after seven years) executive director of Fairtrade Africa, a membership organisation for Fairtrade certified producers in 30 Africa countries and the Middle East.

For 15 years, she worked with civil ociety, private and public sectors. Her shell might be a scientist’s but her heart is an artist's.

“I want to take a break,” she told JACKSON BIKO about her next plans when she leaves Fairtrade “to reflect and recollect on what’s next.”

What do you find to be the biggest gamble you've taken in your life? One that paid off, or didn’t.

[Chuckles] Good question. Life in itself is a risk. [Laughs. Pause] I'm not sure...Maybe this might sound silly or a little personal but here goes. I grew up in a very Christian background. My father was a church minister, my mom was a born again Christian so we really grew up in a kind of church environment but not too indoctrinating or too religious or whatever, but yeah. I was the type of teenager who taught Sunday school. Later in life when I decided to get married I didn't think about religion. So falling in love, getting engaged, telling my parents, and that's when it hit me. My husband is Jewish. [Chuckles] So, do you call that a risk or a gamble?

Marrying a Jew?

A Swiss Jew. I think it turned out to be a very good risk. [Chuckles]. But you know, somehow I didn't process its implications; how is it going to be taken by my people, by my parents? What does it mean in bringing up my children? What would it mean in terms of religion? But luckily for me, the Jewish religion is inherited through the mother. So automatically my children turned as Christians.

Normally, when some people attain some level of academic accomplishment — like the one you've had — they tend to question religion and spirituality more. Do you find that to be your experience?

I'm not an atheist but what I would say is that I read a lot about spirituality. I'm very open to learning about other religions. I believe that God is here. In us.

Do you go to church?

[Chuckles] Well, not religiously. Once in a while. There's still something I enjoy about church especially when it comes to the singing that I enjoy.

I have never met anyone who has studied what you have studied. Tell me something exciting about forest genetics?

You know, there is an assumption that a tree is a tree, right? People think, what more can you tell me about a tree?

A lot, it turns out. My PhD research was on genotype environment interaction of a local tree. So in short, it was to ask; how is the environment going to affect how these trees express themselves? Take children from the same family. If one is brought up in Rata village, my village, and the other one is brought up in Kibera, and another one is brought up in Kitusuru they are not going to come out the same, are they? Even though they share the same genes. It's the environment that moulds them. It’s the same thing with trees. I remember some of the sites I visited in Machakos, Turbo, Maseno, Muguga trying to see how they all perform differently. After I finished my PhD I went to work in Ghana. I worked for the forest research institute of Ghana.

How many species of trees do you have in your head that you can identify visually?

Oh, many. Very many. Mainly because you study different types of species, of course, in your first degree. There's a project my professor gave us after we came back from the 1982 coup, to name the trees in the Arboretum, labelling them.

That gave me a lot of experience in identifying trees. So, I know trees, lots of trees and I use this knowledge to impress my girlfriend when we walk in Karura forest, something I enjoy doing. The walking, that is.

[Chuckles]. They like to ask, Nyagoy what tree is that? I have a group of girls, we call ourselves, The Bras, we have known each other since Form One.

If you were a tree, what tree would you be?

I'd be the Nandi Flame. The flowers are nice orange shiny. You can't miss it. I like the spirit of that tree.

You obtained your PhD in Forest Genetics in 1991. How was that feeling knowing that you were the first woman to do it?

I was aware of the accomplishment, yes, especially because the forestry circle was small especially because Esther who had been ahead of me didn't finish her PhD until after I had finished mine.

But it wasn’t a big deal because one thing that I was really clear of from the time I was in Form 6 was that I was going to go on until I get a PhD. I was going to go to the end. To the last stop.

[Chuckles]. Especially because I had older brothers who had gone to the very end, very well educated, so it was expected of me and I was a good student.

Was there a particularly important revelation at the last stop that you encountered?

That it looks like a big deal out there, to other people who want to attain it. In fact, it was a bigger deal to other people than it was for me. Getting there was just a relief that I had finished what I had set out to do.

I don’t recall being very excited, I don’t know. In fact, even as I got the title Dr, I found out that more people insist on using that title on me than I fear.

However, what I have found to be useful is that the more you study, going up to PhD level, it gives you a very analytical mind and solving problems is much easier.

You mentioned that you and your girlfriends call yourselves, The Bras. Any particular story behind that name?

[Laughs] Not particularly. It’s just that, bra, like brassiere. We coined that name because for a woman the closest thing to your heart that's always with you and next to your skin is the bra. Yeah.

So I like spending time with my Bras. I like walking in Karura, I like being out in nature. What brings us together is a shared past. I think what I've noticed in life also is the friends you keep longest and closest are the friends who knew you when you were you. When you all had nothing, just simple girls.

Talking of girls I do a lot of mentoring for young girls. I’m the president of Twiga Foundation that supports these girls who are bright but economically disadvantaged. There is immense value in seeing these girls through school because out there are many parents who don’t put much value in girls’ education. We need to show these girls that they are really not different from the boys. 

If you were to go back in life, what would you do differently?

I would never end up as a scientist. I would have done the arts subjects; literature or history, because that's what I enjoyed. Luckily for me I was good across the board, maybe that's why it was easy to get pushed into sciences or go into sciences.

Our teachers told us that there was no future without sciences. My dad was like yeah you got to do medicine, engineering, or at the worst become a teacher.

But a teacher of science. [Chuckles]. I never told them I was doing forestry for a while, I told them I was doing agriculture, which was great, my dad said, I could advise him on his farming. I only came clean after my first year.

So when you go for a social function, a dinner and everybody is introducing themselves and what they do, how do you introduce yourself?

I am Nyagoy.

That's it?

That's it.

What do you say you do?

I work for Fairtrade.