Cleopatra, scientist who’s a burst of fun

Cleopatra Mugyenyi International Centre for Research on Women Africa regional office deputy director. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Cleopatra Mugyenyi International Centre for Research on Women Africa regional office deputy director. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

There was Cleopatra the ruler of Egypt, then there is Cleopatra Kama Mugyenyi, the deputy director, International Centre for Research on Women. No relation, apart from, perhaps, their strength and charisma. Cleopatra was born to Ugandan parents who met in Kenya, so Kenya is home. She studied in Birmingham, UK and got a Master’s degree at the age of 22 and completed her PhD in Australia at 30. Thankfully she’s isn’t meeting JACKSON BIKO over tea to talk about science or research, because Cleopatra lifts weights (and men), pushes her own car and paints. In short, a burst of fun.


There are two of you; and one seems to conflict the other because scientists aren’t known to be exactly the life of a party like you are.

There’s a big misconception about scientists, but we are a lot of fun. You think we’re bookish, some aren’t. In fact, I wasn’t an ‘A’ student in school. A lot of ‘A’ students don’t actually end up in science...

So where do those rascals go?

(Laughs) They are the ones running banks maybe. (Laughter) Anyway, seriously, you have to have some aptitude, but I think science is more about curiosity and dogged determination. Growing up, I was both scientifically and artistically inclined. I enjoyed art, but my parents – as many African parents are – were like, “you can do art, any time, but you need a career.’’ (Laughter) So I became a scientist and in my spare time I like to paint, abstract.

Who would you have dinner with, Cleopatra the artist or Cleopatra the scientist?

(Pause) Cleopatra the scientific artist. (Laughter) As a scientist we’re told to question and it drives through everything in life. I would say my favourite evening would be a diverse group of people with different opinions, people who are willing to challenge themselves mentally, think outside the box. That does come from science — curiosity and inquisitiveness.

What are you most curious about right now?

People. Why do we do what we do? Why do we believe what we believe? When you hear someone say something, good or inflammatory, I always ask myself, “why are they doing that?
I’d like to manage research that has more to do with social sciences, behaviour. Why do people do what they do? But also with the health aspect. So I started managing research to do with HIV programming. HIV is a disease that’s caused by emotive behaviour and a lot of choices. So I’m very curious about the choices that people make.

I’m also doing research on gender, about women. Why do women interact with society the way they do? How can we become more empowered? So all about life; learning, curiosity.

What do you think has empowered you the most over time?

(Sighs) Genetics and environment. I have a very empowered mother and a father who is very empowering. I would call him a feminist. He has three daughters, and so all of us were taught to go for what we want and to work hard for it.

Then environment because of being exposed to different ideas, different societal norms, managing to study in all sorts of places outside of Kenya, interacting with people when I was doing my PhD from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

When do you think you started becoming self-aware of who you are?

That’s a very interesting question. I’m going to ask you; Biko, when did you become self-aware?

At 34, 35. It’s a mixture of environment and interactions with people. But I also think it’s time. Sometimes if you’re not ready, you’re just not ready.
Yeah, I think so too. It’s something that happens with age. I’m not very old. I think I’m still young. I often use the phrase ‘when I grow up, I will…’ (Chuckles) with all these grey hair… So when did I become self-aware? Gosh! I don’t know. (Pause) I can’t define it.

What are you regrets, but before that I was told you lift men in gyms, what’s that all about?

(Laughs) Oh yes, but it’s not like I go around lifting men in gyms! I lifted this one guy who was a lawyer. I asked him “how much do you weigh? I can pick you up.” He said, “yeah, right.” So I picked him up and put him in a fireman’s hold over my shoulders and I did 10 squats with guys in the whole gym counting.

He was about 70 or 80kgs. After I put him down I said, “how do you feel?” He was like, “I have to admit, I feel slightly emasculated.” (Raucous laughter)

I feel emasculated just listening to this.

(Raucous laughter) Regrets? (Pause) I regret not taking as many chances, or not being as adventurous when I was younger. I could have been a little more free and relaxed, travelled more when I had the chance.

But I made up for it when I decided to take six to nine months off and relax a year ago after the stresses of work. I wondered, what am I working hard and saving for?

Taking off felt very empowering. It takes you back to who you are, so I started painting again.

What’s your science —and I’m using the word science very loosely here — what’s your science behind money and wealth?

I think many people want to be rich, they want money but actually, what they don’t know they want are choices. Money gives you choices. They want the choice to be able to say, I can live here, or there.

I can take my children to this school or that school. I can decide to do this or that, or eat here or eat there. I mean, if you’re going to have a lot of money, and live in the same place, and do the same things than not opening yourself to new experiences, then what’s the point? But money also isn’t the end of things.

What is the biggest misconception you have of yourself?

I don’t actually think I’m very smart. I keep being told I’m smart.

So not married and no children. Do you ever want to get married?

I don’t have anything against marriage. (Laughs hard) In fact, I’m a product of a very happy marriage that’s still going strong. No, I don’t rule out marriage, but the right person has to come along. And then the right person has to ask to marry me.

You sound or seem like a kind of person who can ask. Would you ask?

(Laughs) This is going to be in the interview? Oh boy, the gender norms of the day. (Pause) I think it would depend on the person and our interaction. (Pause) That is the most outfield question I’ve ever been asked.