A Glorious win for Southern Cross University

Published 8 January 2018
Dr Kathomi (Glory) Gatwiri Dr Kathomi (Glory) Gatwiri

Award-winning researcher Dr Kathomi (Glory) Gatwiri will add to the calibre and quality of the teaching staff at Southern Cross University Gold Coast, taking up a social work lecturing role in the School of Arts and Social Sciences and bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Her research on vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Kenya and her outstanding effort in community engagement and mentorship for young Africans in Australia contributed to Dr Gatwiri being named the ‘Young Kenyan of the Year’ by the Kenyan Association of South Australia. Dr Gatwiri was offered numerous lecturing positions across the country after completing her PhD earlier this year.

“I chose to come to Southern Cross University because it feels like a close-knit community where colleagues are supportive and friendly and there is a real sense of cultural safety,” she said.

“Southern Cross is also embracing good technology practice to teach students who might otherwise be excluded from university spaces and I am excited about being part of that process and development.”

Born to a teenage mother in Kenya, Dr Gatwiri mostly grew up with her grandparents in Kinoro village in Meru. She first attended Kinoro primary school where she remembers students often sitting on the floor because there were not enough desks to share in the overcrowded classrooms.

Until she was 11, Dr Gatwiri spoke her mother tongue Meru and only learnt proper Swahili and English when she moved to the capital Nairobi to join her parents who were trying to make ends meet in the city.

“I joined Nembu Primary school and committed to learning how to speak and write English and Swahili properly because I was tired of being teased about my heavy Meru accent and incomprehensible sentences by other kids,” she said.

By the time she finished school, Dr Gatwiri was top of English and Swahili classes and at 17, enrolled at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences with a specialisation in Social Work which she completed in four years with First Class Honours.

She then volunteered with a mental health organisation ‘Basic Needs-Kenya’ and at 22 a generous Australian sponsor offered Dr Gatwiri a one-year Masters’ scholarship for her great academic and leadership potential to study in Australia, where she began her research.

“As I rolled my trolley with my only belongings out of Melbourne airport I had no idea how much this journey was about to change my life. My sponsor and I became very close, but when she also offered to pay for my PhD tuition fees as well, I could not believe it, I owe everything to her,” said Dr Gatwiri, who was accepted into six Australian doctoral programs.

Dr Gatwiri’s interdisciplinary PhD research titled ‘African womanhood, Health, Sexuality & Incontinent Bodies: A Case of Kenyan women living with Vaginal Fistulas’ focuses on the condition which is particularly prevalent in developing countries where access to emergency obstetric services is unavailable, leaving women incontinent.

“I went back to my home in Kenya a few times to collect data, in an attempt understand how women with fistulas navigate through their daily lives with bodies that leak. I was interested in seeing how women showed agency, how they coped and how interpreted what had happened to their bodies. In the Western world a simple procedure fixes it immediately,” she said.

Dr Gatwiri also uses her expertise on “African womanhood” to campaign against Female Genital Mutilation, early marriages and other forms of gendered violence that can give rise to conditions such as fistulas. She also raises awareness and fosters conversations through her engaging social media platforms.

At just 27, Dr Gatwiri was possibly the youngest Kenyan woman to finish her PhD. She said while the title was flattering, it was also a big responsibility.

“I love receiving messages from women from my village saying I have inspired them and that they were considering going back to school. My own mother has returned to school after more than two decades and she is now pursuing a Master of gender and leadership. I get to teach my mother and help her with her essays now, how cool is that?”

Dr Gatwiri is in the process of building a sustainable scholarship fund to support more poor Kenyan children to attend school and to have access to books.

She said the ideal outcome of her research would be for women in Kenya – and everywhere - to be able to give birth safely in a medically-supported environment, in a space that is free of humiliation, fear or shame.

“I am not a mother but from the stories that my research participants told me, giving birth is a very empowering and political process for most women and therefore we should work on building a society where no woman has to lose a life while trying to give one,” she said.

Now 28, Dr Gatwiri has spent years mentoring young Africans who come to Australia to study, offering them extra teaching support and tutoring for academic success, and is looking for new ways to connect with and support newly-arrived migrants on the Gold Coast.

Head of the School of Arts and Social Sciences Professor Barbara Rugendyke said that Southern Cross University was richer for having Dr Gatwiri on its staff team.

“Dr Gatwiri is an excellent, dedicated teacher. Her strong research background, and practical experiences in voluntary and community service work inform her teaching.

“She believes in the transformative power of education to contribute to a more just world. Former students refer to her as ‘glorious Glory’,” said Professor Rugendyke.

Media contact: Jessica Nelson 0417288794 or jessica.nelson@scu.edu.au