It was not easy growing up in an environment where men are more valued than women. And the religious and cultural factors in my region mean that fewer women than men go to university. I had several marriage proposals while I was at secondary school. I did not get married, despite the pressures.
My mother was chronically ill when I was young, which motivated me to go to medical school at the University of Yaoundé I. In 2007, my last year, I won a US Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Georgia State University in Atlanta. That experience provided many opportunities to meet people from around the world, establish relationships and strengthen my bilingualism.
It also convinced me of the value of public health and the importance of investing in prevention. When I returned to Cameroon in 2010, my skills were in demand. Two directors at the Ministry of Public Health wanted to hire me: it was clear that the country needed the kind of human resource that I represented. I worked on a project to strengthen the public-health workforce. Next, I worked as a programme manager for an international non--governmental organization called Sightsavers. Then, the ministry recruited me back to become its head of child and newborn health.
Hard work and keeping good relationships with people in my networks have been key to my success. Just recently, I reached out to one of my US mentors for advice that I incorporated into a grant proposal on vaccination in Cameroon.
When I was younger, I had a role model, Yaou Aïssatou, who was then the minister of women’s empowerment for Cameroon. She was from my region and she was also Muslim. During the school holidays, I would learn sewing and hairdressing because this was expected of women. I did it out of respect for my parents, but internally, I thought: “This is not for me.” I would see Aïssatou, who is now the director of national investment, commanding so much respect, and I would think, “Why should I do hairdressing when I can be like her?”
Young women have to know their destination: what is their goal and what do they want people to say about them? When you are clear about where you want to go, then you can put the mechanisms in place to reach your goal.
I have a vision board in my bedroom that I renew every six months. It has my life goals — the house and car I want to have — and my physical goals to keep fit. But it also has my academic goals on it, such as “Write 25 publications by the end of February 2022” and my priorities for what I want to publish. I see that when I wake up, and I know I have to work on a particular article.
Finding a good work–life balance is hard and, honestly, I’m not sure I’m doing it right. I have made sacrifices. I have cut off everything that is leisure and I work seven days per week. My first child, who is 14, stayed with my mother when I went to the United States, and my second child, who is 3, stays with my mother in my home town of Guider, a 1,200-kilometre drive from Yaoundé.
My keyword is delegation. If I don’t have to do something myself, I will delegate it to staff, or to medical graduates, students or research assistants. I also delegate housework, such as chores and cooking.
As a woman in this environment, it’s not easy to evolve. I’m part of the Higher Institute for Growth in Health Research for Women, also known as the HIGHER Women Consortium, a network of senior women researchers in Cameroon. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we held retreats in which we talked about the challenges of marriage, family life and academic research. They were an opportunity for me to learn from other women’s mistakes, and so avoid making the same ones myself.
Because these women want to see other women rise, it has been a tremendous motivation. Now, I mentor three younger researchers. When I have a research proposal or paper to write, I call them so that they can learn, and we publish together. One of the people I’m mentoring is Solange Ngo Bama, a primary-care physician at the Ministry of Public Health who is working for a master’s degree in epidemiology. Together, we have three publications about mass vaccination in peer review. My wealth comes from the people around me.