Malaria is deeply personal for this Kenyan scientist

By Bill Gates

Damaris grew up in Birongo, Kenya, a rural village in the country’s western highlands. She showed remarkable talent in math and science from an early age, but she experienced discrimination at school and in her community because of her gender. Even some extended family members couldn’t understand why the family would “waste” (as they put it) precious resources on Damaris’s school fees, given that most girls in her village got married early or dropped out before completing secondary school.

Despite the social pressures, her father, who was a schoolteacher, was adamant that Damaris continue her studies. After Damaris graduated from secondary school, her father sold cows and a plot of land to pay for her tuition at the University of Mysore, in India. But he could afford to send her only $50 every three months for rent and living expenses. So five days a week, Damaris walked more than 15 miles to the university and back, and she barely ate enough to survive. “If I couldn’t eat a meal at a friend’s house, I would often go two days without eating,” she says. “But I refused to break, and I never missed a class.” She entered university weighing about 150 pounds, and when she finished her studies in India, she was down to only 90 pounds. Many neighbors assumed she had contracted HIV/AIDS. “They ridiculed my father. They said, ‘You spent all that money, and now she comes home to die.’”

On top of deprivation, Damaris suffered a huge loss while she was studying in India. She was 23 and working on a master’s degree in biotechnology when her younger brother Abel, also a gifted science student, died of an especially dangerous form of malaria. Damaris couldn’t afford a ticket home for the funeral services.

This article was originally posted on GatesNotes on August 15, 2022.