“I would like to be an inspiration and motivation to all the girls from nomadic communities to pursue their dreams.”

MSc Environmental Water Management alumna, Pauline Lokidor, grew up in one of the driest regions of Kenya and as a child was sponsored by Milton Keynes-based charity, World Vision. Through her strength and determination, she was able to overcome the numerous barriers and obstacles she faced to pursue an education. Since completing her studies at Cranfield in 2020, Pauline is now conducting PhD research in flood risk management at Coventry University. In the future, she hopes to develop world-leading solutions to Africa’s most pressing issues and to work with the government and NGOs in her home county of Turkana to increase water availability and sustainable solutions to water scarcity.

In this interview, we spoke to Pauline about her experiences growing up in a nomadic community, how she found the drive and determination to get an education against all odds, and her experiences during her time at Cranfield University.

What was it like growing up in a nomadic community, facing water scarcity and splitting your time between school and your herding/family duties?

I grew up in Morulem village, in Turkana County, Kenya. The village is well-known for its spectacular acacia tree cover and shade, but wait until you step onto its spikes! As a kid, I never enjoyed being sent at night to buy or collect something. In my imagination, the tree trunks resembled people hiding in the dark.

I hail from a humble nomadic family of six siblings: three girls and three boys. I am the only one who has risen to this height, education-wise. Our own family home is centrally placed with acacia trees to the right and left, a view of the hill to the south-east, and a nice view of the sunrise every morning.

Turkana County, located in the north-western part of Kenya, is one of the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya. It’s characterised by an extremely dry climate (also known as a high aridity index), devastating and severe droughts. And the nomadic communities there are marginalised, with a poor standard of living (99% of the population live on under one dollar a day), high illiteracy levels, and limited opportunities.

In addition, the county is undeveloped compared with other parts of the country, suffering from water scarcity and dire insecurity issues that have cost so many lives. I have lost close family, friends and in-laws through this. Schools are understaffed and less equipped – especially in remote areas. Children have to walk more than 2 km to and from school on foot. It’s exhausting and discourages many from starting and completing primary level.

“While the situation is gradually shifting as communities are more familiar with gender equality, real change will take some time.”

Nomadism is the dominant culture in Turkana County. Men are empowered with all the decision-making while women are voiceless and obliged to be submissive. Girls are denied rights to education as it’s not considered important. While the situation is gradually shifting as communities are more familiar with gender equality, real change will take some time. Girls in a family are measures and sources of wealth. In their early teens, they are subjected to harsh and cruel cultural practices in the name of training to be better housewives. 

As I write this, I am a well-trained Turkana woman. I know how to make traditional huts, slaughter a goat or lamb and cook the traditional fried meat Ngamormoru and Enyas. Besides, I know how to milk a goat, cow and camel, and I’m excellent in making the beaded traditional regalia. See… I am very competent in my culture. 

I used to multi-task, splitting my time between school, fetching water from the one hand pump - located four to five kilometres from the village, at least two to three times a day, fetching 10-20 litres per trip - and taking livestock to the grazing field. Today, half the village has a piped water system, but as a kid it was very tricky and disappointing to fetch the water from the hand pump. I remember waiting for long hours as those with strong muscles and energy paced past us, while we had to wait sometimes until late. Monday to Thursday I was in school, and Friday to Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) I would take our goats to the grazing fields more than 10 kilometres from the village, feeling very insecure to be honest. You may wonder how a child manages this. I simply trekked at the goat’s speed to and fro.

“This experience strengthened me and I developed a bold attitude to face challenges heads on.”

What gave you the strength and determination to persevere with getting an education, despite the many barriers you faced?

I learned the struggle surrounding my early childhood by looking at my mother and auntie’s experience and decided “this is not going to happen to me too.” I struggled to create time and pursue my primary level and other levels despite the existing norm. Raised as the oldest girl in a nomadic family, house chores and herding during my early childhood were my responsibilities but I learnt to multitask at that early age to create a balance: splitting my time between school, fetching water, and taking livestock to the grazing field. Being a female, I was frequently harassed by male herders. This experience strengthened me and I developed a bold attitude to face challenges heads on.

Secondly, is the sponsorship from World Vision - this was like a miracle. It boosted my dreams of finishing primary level as they provided the essential stationary needed, which my parents could not afford.

What led you to pursue water-related courses in higher education?

My upbringing and the environment I grew in with scarce water resources inspired the choice of these courses. Also, I thought of my own experience of fetching water four to five kilometres away - representing thousands of women and children who are the most affected by the crisis, and perhaps even saving the future life of a girl or woman from this daunting struggle. I wanted and (still do) to change the narrative in Turkana in my small way. 

“I’m very proud I did my master’s degree at Cranfield University. The hands-on experience… primed me for the current PhD research I’m doing.”

What was your favourite thing about studying at Cranfield?

I'm very proud I did my master's degree at Cranfield University. The hands-on experience received especially in hydrological modelling, during the group project and most importantly during my thesis primed me for the current PhD research I'm doing. I boosted my Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping experience, gained remote sensing skills, and made meaningful social networks (both students and staff) not limited to only my course.

Additionally, one module in flood risk management sparked my interest in exploring more about it and it opened the path for the current PhD. I came from Kenya with zero knowledge about sustainable drainage systems (SuDs) and during my first class and exposure trip, I quickly thought of adopting them in my country where the conventional drainage system is still dominant and doesn't exist in the informal settlement like my village.

Could you tell us a little bit about the research you’re currently undertaking as part of your PhD?

I am currently doing PhD research in flood risk management in informal settlements using Nature-Based Solutions (NbS), a case study of Gihembe refugee camp, Rwanda. With the current changes in climate and the existing drainage system not entirely effective or non-existent in the informal settlements, the flooding risk impacts are projected to increase. Devising sustainable solutions to mitigate the impact is not an option anymore. Therefore, this project aims to explore the potential of NbS in controlling flooding and erosion in refugee camps, a different set-up from its country of origin.  

“I wish to join leading experts and scientists working on ground-breaking solutions to Africa’s most pressing issues at the highest international levels of excellence.”

What do you hope to be doing in five years’ time?

I am excited at the prospect of working within the greater field of water resources management, whether in academia or industry, and actively contributing to research in this field. The complexity, scale, and urgency of the water security problems in Africa demand innovations globally and I wish to join leading experts and scientists working on ground-breaking solutions to Africa’s most pressing issues at the highest international levels of excellence.

I strongly believe that completing this PhD degree will allow me to advance these career aspirations, reaffirm my commitment to science that disproportionately produces real economic benefit, and prime me for scientific leadership.

As I speak, I could be the first female ever from my village/ county, at my age, who has come this far in terms of education and pursuing a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) discipline. I believe that there is a bright future ahead, not only for me but also for my community and country. I have bigger dreams of tapping the potential in Turkana, collaborating with the Turkana County Government and existing NGO’s who are already doing tremendous work in the region in terms of increasing water availability and building sustainable solutions to the water problem.

Lastly, I would like to be an inspiration and motivation to all the girls from nomadic communities to pursue their dreams

If you could go back in time and speak to your childhood self, what would you tell her?

Reflecting back, I never lost a single goat despite being in 100s of them, the courage of walking animals down alone in a mixture of grown up men in their 30s, the jungle, thick bushes, the 10 km distance only one way and the terrifying river? My goodness! I am very proud of that brave and decisive girl right now. My class teacher used to flog me for missing classes on Fridays until I struck a good deal with her. I proposed fetching water for her or sometimes I stole a cup of camel’s milk for her to replace flogging. It worked perfectly. That is how brilliant my younger self was.

What advice would you give to someone who would like to pursue an education, but faces barriers?

The struggle is real. Obstacles are temporary, but how to overcome them all depends on you. Your strength is within you.

Never give up no matter the challenges you go through, as there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.