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Ms Ombaka, what’s it like being a single parent and a researcher?

My story begins four years ago. Three things happened in my life all at once: I was offered a new job at my university in Kenya, I was granted a fellowship by the Humboldt Foundation and I discovered I was pregnant. What to do? I talked to the Foundation and decided to accept the job and have my baby first and then take up the fellowship with the baby at a later stage.

  • from 
  • Text: Mareike Ilsemann
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The Kenyan DR LUCY OMBAKA is a chemist at Technical University of Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2016, she was granted a Georg Forster Research Fellowship, which she took up at the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leibniz University Hannover in 2018.

The illustration shows Doktor Lucy Ombaka
Lucy Ombaka

In 2017, I gave birth to twins. Sadly, the little girl died after a month in intensive care. But I wanted to stick with my plan. “Are you mad? You’ve just lost a baby and you want to go to Germany?” was the reaction of those around me. But I knew that the fellowship was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. In Kenya, although I was teaching at a university, I had no opportunity to do any research of my own.

What I had let myself in for dawned on me when I got stranded at Frankfurt Airport late at night. Me, all on my own, with a fifteenmonth- old infant strapped to my back. The flight was six hours late, the last train to Hannover had long since left. I didn’t know where to spend the night. My baby son was crying from exhaustion.

I would so much like to be able to thank the kind man once again who spoke to me, listened to me, helped me find a hotel and put me in a taxi.

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Less than 48 hours later, I embarked on my fellowship in Hannover. The university nursery promised to call me immediately if my son started crying. I spent the whole day staring at my mobile. It got later and later. No one called. I finally picked up a visibly contented child who had enjoyed the day watching the funny white faces.

Getting a place at kindergarten was rather more of a challenge, but we managed in the end. When you are a single parent you don’t have much time for work. I have taught myself to work very efficiently when my son is being cared for by others. Of course, my male colleagues have a much easier time of it. They concentrate on their research while their wives look after their children. It would have been easier for me in Kenya, too, because my family would have helped us.

But it was definitely the right decision to go to Germany. My son speaks fluent German and is the happiest little boy imaginable. And I have learnt so, so much. That will be to my benefit, I’m absolutely sure.

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