Prepare yourself for this oxymoron: Wanja is an expert in fish. She is the head of Ichthyology Department at the National Museums of Kenya. From as far back as 1998, she has been carrying out extensive research on freshwater fish biodiversity in Kenya.
Last year, she authored a book – Common Freshwater Fishes of Kenya – the first guide of its kind that researchers and students of ichthyology now use in their research work.
For four years now she has been co-ordinating the Kenya Wetland Biodiversity Research Team comprising of biodiversity experts working on east African wetlands and aquatic ecosystem. Fluent in French (did her Masters and PhD in France) Wanja spends a lot of time fishing (literally), studying ecosystem functions and exploring sustainable conservation options.
We had a Skype video-call interview from Laikipia where she was out on assignment.
Where are you from?
So what exactly is a Nyeri girl doing studying fish?
(Laughs) I knew it was coming. During my studies at the University of Nairobi, I happened to go to the museums to research on something and got attracted to what they were doing with fish. I wanted to work there but they only had a vacancy for a secretary.
After I graduated (in Zoology), I went to the National Museum where I got in as intern filing emails – back then all emails were filed – and sorting out specimens in the afternoon. That’s how I got into it.
It’s an oddity, you would admit.
Yes. You know, back in Nyeri fish was classified with snakes. In fact a lot of cultures in the Mt Kenya region lump them in one group. My parents were confused; they were like “where is that going to take you?” But it’s something I’m passionate about.
I did a lot of research work in the Lake Victoria region and I would get a lot of Luos addressing me in Dholuo, assuming I was one. I can understand a bit of it.
What’s your favourite fish?
Tilapia. There are at least 16 species of this fish. I have been studying them for many years. They are very intriguing, very adaptive to different climates. They are interesting to study genetically. They have built economies especially in Asia.
What can you say about tilapia that people don’t know?
Well, apart from the fact that there are 16 species of them? Do you know that the taste of tilapia has changed over time? I got a lot of old men in Nyanza saying that tilapia doesn’t taste like it used to back then. The reason is because in the 60s and 70s, tilapia disappeared because the Nile tilapia, which was not there before, was introduced and it out competed the other two species that people around the lake were used to.
Also the tilapia from commercial ponds doesn’t taste as good as the ones in the lakes and rivers because they have more space to swim in and they eat different foods.
Do you eat fish or you just study them?
Yes, I do. It’s not my favourite but I eat it.
Does that conflict with what you are doing?
I eat fish from sustainable sources. There are fish that I won’t eat, fish that is not sustainable. It’s a very sensitive issue…sushi, for instance.
I love sushi and I know that tuna is a big component of sushi and now most of the world’s tuna sources are really exploitative, they have led to extinction of local populations. This is a big issue because in large conventions of endangered species, tuna comes up all the time but there are many countries like Japan that fight it because it’s a source of livelihood.
Can you taste fish in a restaurant that claims to be a red snapper and tell it’s not a red snapper?
You know I can tell…one only has to look at it even when it’s raw and tell it’s not a red snapper. (Laughs).
What does an ichthyologist – I will have to get used to pronouncing that right – do for fun?
I read a lot. Fiction mostly. I like Wilbur Smith and Jeffrey Archer. I do movies with my daughter who is 10 now. I love nature and swimming and hiking.
Yes, I am.
It would do my story a hell of good if it turned out that you are actually married to a Luo.
(Laughs). Actually I am! He’s from Kabondo, in South Nyanza. We were introduced by a friend. He is a wildlife ecologist and works a lot with mammals and I work with fish. Even when we were dating, we worked together in various projects and have published together.
What do you guys talk about in the house? Is it heavy scientific talk?
(Laughs) Science, yes. We watch news a lot and criticise what’s happening locally. Political views. We talk about what’s changing in the field of science.
You know in Kenya, conservation has become a business. There are too many people posing as conservationists but who really are businessmen. They write proposals and get funds and not do research.
Your profile and the things you have done reads like a scroll. What’s left for you to do now?
The first 10 years of my career have been hard science but since the production of my book, I think my work now should be applicable. I should be able to take it to a village and help them. I’m moving towards community-based work and currently I’m a member of International Partnership of the Satayoma Initiative (hosted by the United Nations University, Nagoya, Japan) engaged with communities but at a local level.
What’s your greatest weakness as a scientist?
(Thinks) I think as a scientist…I don’t know. (Laughs). I’m a strict mentor, a lot of my students are afraid of me. I don’t take excuses. I want performance.
A lot of young scientists are soft in the field, they come to the field in high heels and earrings; they don’t want to work hard. But I don’t think it’s unique to science.
You are 40, what has been your greatest regret?
I don’t know. (Long pause) I have very few regrets actually. They are not like one great regret, maybe just small regrets. Like I think perhaps I was afraid to speak up about the ills of, say the fisheries department. I was younger and didn’t have that confidence.
Do you find your level of education and profession being a barrier when it comes to social interactions?
Well, it’s true that most people consider you a geek once they know what you do. Maybe you would like to have fun with some people, but there is always a barrier. Sometimes I don’t even introduce myself as a doctor because I don’t want to be prejudged and elevated.
People also expect you to have all the answers even to things you don’t know. It’s awkward as a woman when people tell you – like they told me years back – that you won’t get a spouse. People think women in science are not in the market, so to speak. It’s a barrier to friendships.
So are you ODM damu?
(Laughs hard) I can’t really say. (Laughs). I admire both parties, but I have no political affiliations and inclinations. Oh boy! (Laughs)