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Winnie Nakiyingi | Uganda | Mental Support

Statistician | Researcher | Education - STEM

My name is Winnie Nakiyingi from Uganda, currently working in Ghana. Professionally, I am a Statistician but most of my work is in academia and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) advocacy. I hold a bachelor's degree in Statistics and Economics from Makerere University Kampala, a master's degree in Mathematical Sciences from the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, and a research-based master's degree in Statistics from the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. I have lived and worked in different parts of Africa (Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa) and Canada (Waterloo).

I am the Founder and Content Director at Words That Count, an initiative that documents stories of successful African women in STEM fields to present the various prospects on the STEM spectrum to young girls mapping their careers in STEM. I believe that one’s passion in a given field shouldn’t necessarily lead to the traditional career paths as we know them in Africa. For example, I recently interacted with someone who does Quantum Machine Learning. Now, I knew of Quantum and Machine Learning separately but didn’t know about their intersection!

These are the kinds of opportunities we want to highlight and let the African girl know that there is more to STEM than becoming a Medical Doctor, Pilot, Engineer, or Teacher. We are still interested in the traditional careers but are focusing more on hybrids. We want that young girl to know that she doesn’t have to run away from biology anymore if blood is not fun to look at.

About my journey: I come from a family of 5 children – I am the third born and the last girl. We grew up in a happy and financially comfortable family until things changed for the worst! I come from a Christian family, so you will hear me acknowledge God many times. When my family got hit with a financial crisis, God miraculously sent sponsors (Star Cross Community) to us who paid for my education from primary four until the end of my first degree. Outside school, everything else was a struggle, from meals to clothes.

I have always been a bright girl and a fan of numbers, although I did not know what I would use them for. I thought people study something else and do mathematics as a hobby. Being in the science class, I faced challenges that all STEM African girls face, but for me, it was the fact that I did not know what to look up to! As I grew up, I started getting that fear of wasting my time in a science class yet it was too late. I could not cross over because somehow my brain could not interpret the simplest of Arts subjects. I have always said I respect people who can read an entire History book and reproduce essays about it in an exam!

After my first degree, I got an opportunity to join the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Ghana for a fully-funded master's degree, in affiliation with the University of Cape Coast. I later got more funding from AIMS and the University of KwaZulu Natal for another master's in Statistics. I was then invited back by AIMS Ghana as a teaching assistant before being transferred to AIMS Rwanda in 2016 when the new center was opening.

Combining my experience through school and my days as a teaching assistant at AIMS, I realized that there was a gap between people going through school and embracing the opportunities from that, especially women/girls in STEM. This is what gave birth to Words That Count. It started as informal sessions with my students but their questions made me realize that they didn’t know how precious what they had was. That’s how I started looking for women who had gone through similar experiences and were in better positions because of pursuing their passion. To date, we have featured more than 120 stories from women across the African continent and feel like we are just starting.

What were the biggest initial hurdles and how did you overcome them?

My biggest hurdles were during my childhood; not knowing whether we would have a meal or not, wearing the same clothes for years while my friends had new ones, not knowing what was airing on TV because we didn’t have one, worried about my siblings,…. All these things affected my confidence as a child. I felt like I didn’t know enough to engage in any discussion. I am naturally a talker, but, this child in me still shows up when I don’t have enough information about the topic of discussion. How I overcame this challenge, I don’t know! Only God can tell how he held us through all these trying times to where we are now. My family is everything to me.

My other challenge was getting Words That Count to run. People who know me know that I have always loved writing but convincing people that you are worthy of them trusting you with their stories was hard! The resources involved in running something professional were also not available initially. For a solution, I started with what I had and built a foundation that I would use to invite other people. I started with a free WordPress website and some of my inner circles who had walked their journeys in STEM. Their stories built the foundation of Words That Count.

I didn’t know where this was heading because I was just writing about STEM. When the pandemic hit, I had more time to use the internet and chose to maximize my time on LinkedIn. That’s how I started contacting other women out of my immediate circles and surprisingly got positive feedback most of the time. In April 2021, I launched our first social media page, and less than a year down the road, we have more than 1150 followers. I have seen people contributing to Words That Count's growth in different forms – our official website was a donation from a female UX designer. All monetary requirements were sponsored by another person who appreciates the work. So, yes, it has been hard but there has always been a solution.

What books are you currently reading?

Currently, I am re-reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. Becoming is by far my best book because I enjoy learning how much family can contribute towards someone’s success. I want to be that kind of support for my family because I receive the same from them.

As a piece of advice: start with what you have. That will lay a foundation for where you want to go. I like how the Bible says, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.” If you have a passion for something, start building small, along the way you will make mistakes, learn, unlearn, re-learn, when you still have little at stake. By the time the resources fully come in, you will have established a foundation; something to show people who might be interested in the same work.

What advice would you give to an upcoming youth or talents locally and internationally?

Likewise, always be open-minded and welcome all feedback. You never know who your knight might be. Be wise enough to know what will work for you and what wouldn’t, but be open to other people’s wisdom. Lastly, surround yourself with like-minded people; you need that mental support.

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