Kenya's First Female Meteorological Director

16 September 2020

When Kenya's rain got 'stuck' in Tanzania in April last year, Stella Aura was unknown to many Kenyans. She, however, trended on social media.

This was after Ms Aura, who by then was the acting director Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD), explained to Kenyans why the prolonged rains were 'sitting' in the neighbouring country as Kenya was left dry.

Meteorologists blamed the failed rains on climate change. Cyclone Idai had ripped through Mozambique in March, playing a key role in delaying the northward movement of the rain-bearing inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ).

The ITCZ is a low pressure belt, which shifts its position north and south of the equator according the position of the sun. It is here where rain-bearing trade winds converge.

'Release' rain

Today, the laidback but tough KMD director laughs at how Kenyans sauntered her with funny memes, with majority of the citizenry urging President John Magufuli to 'release' Kenya's rain.

Seventeen months later, Ms Aura, Kenya's first female KMD director who is also Permanent Representative of Kenya with World Meteorological Organisation, laughs at how Kenyans made her 'famous'.

"Yes! The rains were stuck in Tanzania, the cyclones had moved all the moisture, but the way it was put! I trended on social media. I had explanations to make, it was a tough period," Ms Aura says.

Ms Aura stresses on the importance of weather forecasts.

"I still remember how I trended on social media. But let us work together to ensure we have a reliable forecasts that will inform development decisions," Ms Aura urged more than 100 climate scientists, researchers and development partners, who met in Mombasa last year during the 54th meeting of the Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum.

Frequent changes

She said many farmers in Kenya depend on rain-fed agriculture and the department's forecasts helps the industry players to plan the sector.

In an exclusive interview at the Pride Inn Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Ms Aura says she took over the leadership of the department in 2018 at a very challenging but opportune period in her career.

There were many pending bills, audit queries and frequent changes of regime due to cabinet reshuffles. Since she was appointed director, more than two years ago, she has served under six permanent secretaries.

"The major challenge at KMD is that we are losing people through natural attrition and retirement, but we are not replacing them at the same pace," states Ms Aura.

All her life, she has always been the only woman at the high table in the male-dominated field.

50-50 share

"I am used to being the sole woman at the high table, even at the university, we were only two in a class of 16. All along, I have been alone, it has never bothered me but I am glad things have changed. The university currently has a 50-50 share," Ms Aura explains.

While schooling at Mumias Primary, she desired to be an engineer but after joining secondary school, she changed her mind and picked mathematics and physics.

"You know for us, when you got to Form Two, you had to choose the subjects you wanted to pursue for Form Four; you would be given a sheet to take home so that your parents help you decide," she says.

She had the conversation with her parents, her father, a former civil servant, and mother a businesswoman, were supportive of her education. Her late mother is her role model.

"They helped me in selecting mathematics, chemistry and physics. After my first year at the University of Nairobi doing math and physics, I went into meteorology," she says.

Discipline

The meteorology and climate change expert went to Loreto High School for her O-level and then Limuru Girls High School for her A-level.

Ms Aura, who speaks impeccable Swahili, advices girls to work hard. The staunch Catholic believes in caning and talking as a means of disciplining her only child, a 10-year girl.

"Even the Bible instructs us to discipline children, spare the rod and spoil a child. I occasionally cane her if all efforts to talk to her fails. My daughter wants to follow my footsteps but she's still young, she might change her mind," she adds.

Being at the top leadership position in a male-dominated field has been a challenge. She says it is not easy.

"Some men are not happy, women who are not even qualified don't want you there, but you just have to do your work," she says.

Oceanography

The KMD director has a Master's degree in Oceanography from McGill University in Canada and a Bachelor's of Science in Meteorology from the University of Nairobi.

While studying at the University of Nairobi, they were only two women in a class of more than 16 men.

"If your heart is into something, just do it, do not discriminate careers. At some point, people disregarded art subjects but things have changed," Ms Aura says.

While growing up, she had big dreams.

"I envisioned myself being big someday and look at me now... .Anyone should aspire to greatness. People tell me I look young because of my outlook to life, I don't see problems, I see challenges and I tackle them head-on," she says.

Plant trees

During her free time, she loves travelling, playing lawn tennis and swimming.

"So far so good, I have a team that is supportive and I thank God," she says of her team at KMD.

Has the country done enough to deal with climate change? Ms Aura believes Kenyans need a lot of awareness. She notes that the government needs to set up mitigation measures and capacity-build climate scientists to pursue big projects on climate change.

"But in Kenya we had done many wrongs from cutting down trees and dumping polythene bags everywhere. But the ministry is trying, we are now planting trees and they've banned plastics bags, that's a plus. I went to the Mau Forest and almost cried," she adds.

Climate change

She mentions Israel and Netherlands as among the best countries that have put up measures to mitigate climate change.

"Climate change seems to have a lot of money and the scientists don't know how to pursue that path, so you find people who are not experts dealing with climate change. Climate scientists are normally busy writing, researching and reading. The government should encourage the experts to come up with climate projects," Ms Aura said

She says the sector has been infiltrated by geologists and geographers who pursue climate change projects.

Ms Aura, who is a small-scale farmer, aspires to retire and tend to her farm.

"But before I go, I want to modernise the department and look into the gender parity by increasing the number of women at KMD," she explained.

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