“When Everything Else Doesn’t Seem to Be Working Out, Passion Will Keep You Moving Forward”, Dr. Nina Wambiji on Doing Work That Brings You Joy

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Article by: Damaris Agweyu

Publication date:

Financial security is important, but I rate passion highly because when everything else doesn't seem to be working out, it is passion that will keep you moving forward.


Dr Nina Wambiji is driven by a need to fulfil her calling and live out her passion. The Assistant Director, Fisheries, at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), Mombasa Centre, is a distinguished marine scientist revered both in the world of academia and the local communities she serves. 

Despite operating in a male-dominated field, Nina was, for the second term running, elected, unopposed, to serve as the country coordinator of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA).

The Women for Environment Africa 2022 fellow shares insights from her journey with Damaris Agweyu.

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Dr Nina Wambiji (provided)

Nina, did you choose environmental work, or did environmental work choose you?

Both. I was destined for environmental work. For me, it was either going to be environmental science or environmental law.

Who or what played a key role in determining this destiny?

I grew up around nature and have always appreciated it. My grandfather was a great farmer, renowned in his community. My mother was a midwife, passionate about gardening. My father was a soil scientist. When I was young, he used to take me along on his students' field trips. 

In university, I studied biology, zoology and chemistry for my undergraduate degree. For my master's, I specialised in lakes (Limnology). 

When I returned to Kenya after my studies in India, I couldn't find work in my speciality area. I told myself that whatever I knew about lakes could be applied to the sea. That is how I ended up learning about marine life and eventually going to Japan for my PhD program in marine science.

What challenges did you face going into this field?

Besides the fact that I couldn't get employment and had to volunteer for four years, the field was dominated by male researchers who closely guarded their territories. At the time, there were very few women in marine science. It took time and work to permeate the system. People wondered why, as a woman, I was constantly in the field. Did I not have a husband and children to tend to? And how was I comfortable being around men all the time? That was and still is the nature of the work. The ocean is not in an office; we need to go out to the field to do research.

You volunteered for four years?

Yes. There were two central institutions in Kenya I could work at—a government institution or the Universities. When I returned from India, Kenya had put a freeze on employment. I ended up doing volunteer work for four years straight. During that time, I shadowed people doing their PhDs and learned everything I could about marine life.

From my four years of volunteer work, I learned about a rabbitfish, the Siganidae family. It had been 15 years since anyone had studied it. The last researcher who had worked on this species had moved jobs and nobody else had picked up the research. This was my opportunity and I ran with it.

Was it uncomfortable for you being one of the few women working in this sector?

Not at all. I remember one time when I was new to the field and had to share a Swahili house with my male colleagues. There were 9 or 10 guys in the group. I was the only woman. I had my own bedroom, but we all shared the bathroom and toilet. It was strange to find myself in such a gendered environment, but I made it work. 

Marine work is challenging. Particularly for women. There will be many days spent away from home. In remote locations. But this doesn't affect me. I have no qualms about getting my hands dirty. 

Let's revisit the fact that you worked for four years without pay. Is that the definition of passion?

Yes, this, in my opinion, is what it means to have passion for something. Finding employment was difficult but giving up was not an option. This is my passion and no one can ever take it away from me. 

Even if I lost my job today, I would continue going to the beach and picking up the plastic bottles every morning. I would still engage with the fishermen and ask them the same questions I am asking now. And that's the beauty of being a marine scientist, no day is the same. One minute, the sea will be rough and the next minute it’s calm. This raises many questions and keeps things interesting for me. There is always something new to be learned.

How important is passion vis a vis financial security when it comes to making a career choice?

In my case, it's really important. Living in the community compels you to find solutions that make lives better. We are not doing this for money.

I would tell anybody asking this question to stick with their passion. If cooking is what you enjoy doing but can't own a restaurant, then volunteer to cook at a party; someone will notice your skills. And eventually, someone will pay you for them.

Financial security is important, but I rate passion highly because when everything else doesn't seem to be working out, it is passion that will keep you moving forward. 

If I am tired of the ocean, will I write a good proposal to get the money I need for the work I do? No. It is passion that shines through in the proposal. It is passion that drives me to do the job well. Many people look at the financial rewards. And yes, money will buy you a big house or a nice car, but you still have to do what you said you would. If you are a real scientist, it has to bother you if you have all the money and no impact to show for it.

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Dr Nina Wambiji (provided)

How would your colleagues describe your leadership style?

They would say I am tough—a no-nonsense leader. And this is true. It's how I was raised. My mother is from the coastal part of Kenya, where people say it as it is. And because she was a midwife, she demanded total transparency and honesty from her patients. From her, I learned to be straightforward. I say what I need to say and demand a lot, but I also do a lot. I am gradually learning the art of delegation, thanks to the We Africa journey. It has given me some fresh perspectives on leadership.

Such as?

I have a newfound appreciation for personal well-being and leading with empathy. Things don’t always have to be right or wrong. When someone is not delivering on an assignment, it could be that they are facing challenges unforeseen to me. I am learning that context matters. 

I have also learned how to ground myself before starting my days. When I first joined WE Africa, the grounding rituals threw me off. I had never seen anything like it. But I opened myself to it, and it has greatly benefitted me and my loved ones. I pass on to them what I have learnt from my WE journey.

What is your superpower?

I have two. The first is my resilience. The second is my strong networks.

Tell me more about the second.

There are people in my circles that I have not met for up to 30 years, but when we meet, it's like we were together yesterday. The reason is that I take time to nurture and maintain relationships. These relationships have led me to form powerful networks over time that have been instrumental in my journey and led to many successful ventures. They have opened the doors for me and I am grateful for that.

I have learned that you meet different people who help you in different ways. As you progress, you meet new people and make new friends. And just because the people you knew before can no longer help you, you shouldn't discard them. Some people wonder how I am friendly with all cadres of staff at my institution. Well, I have known them since my internship days and we formed bonds which have remained to date.

You’ve never burned a bridge?

There are times I have had to walk away from some relationships when I feel that we have reached the end, which is rare, I leave peacefully without anger. Relationships may end whether work or life-related, being human you may not know when these relationships will resurface. As the saying goes: Be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet them on your way down. And I would add, Ochania aah okonanga which loosely translates to don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

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This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2022 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.

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