Mary Helda Akongo is the Fundi Girls Lead of the Fundi Bots, working on accelerating science learning in Africa. She’s the founder of Roaring Doves, a community of online and offline violence survivors who come together to speak out, inspire, and support one another. Mary Helda is the survivor of gender-based violence herself. She has won the World Bank #Blog4Dev writing competition for sharing her gender-based violence experience and her work with Roaring Doves. Mary Helda believes that technology and design can positively influence women’s social, political, and economic development in Africa.
[Below is the transcript of the interview that is slightly edited for clarity.]
Sotheary: I’ll start with your roles. You are the Fundi Girls Lead of the Fundi Bots. So tell me the story of that organization that you are working with.
Mary Helda: So Fundi Bots started 10 years ago to accelerate science education in Africa. The way science is taught in most classrooms in Uganda and in different African countries is very theoretical. You’re taught different scientific concepts. You’ve never really interacted with a practical element representing what you are learning in class. It becomes very difficult for someone to understand or comprehend what is being taught or even enjoy. Our founder, Solomon King Benge, came up with this concept to allow students to study sciences, enjoy sciences, and pass science classes. There are so many misconceptions about science. When you go to different schools, you hear math is difficult; biology is stressful. Because you grew up hearing all these things, you tend to look at STEM negatively.
At Fundi Bots, we have to consider some tools that we use. One is robotics. When a child first interacts with the robot, they are immediately mind-blowing. They are excited. They want to find out how do you get a robot. What is the process look like? And oh my god, it’s actually impossible for someone like me to create a robot. It increases their interest in learning. They start to look at learning as what they want to do, not something they are forced or required to do. They go out of their way to search for knowledge and to learn. Because robots in their classroom performance have increased, they had a lot of impact on them as individuals and their classroom performance when they interact with other things.
The second tool enhances the science curriculum, a set of tools that we have developed. So for every scientific concept that is taught in class that needs a practical tool. So we have developed a practical tool for students to use. This curriculum is built upon the existing science curriculum provided by the government.
Sotheary: What motivates you to join the organization?
Mary Helda: My experiences. When I was younger, I was interested in art. I disliked anything in science. I wasn’t interested in math. In fact, I failed math horribly. I wasn’t interested in chemistry, biology, or other science subjects. I did love technology, and you’d find me in that tech club in the computer lab trying to learn how to use a computer. Because of these, I put all my attention on passing the art-related subjects. And science [subjects] was suffered. When I went to the university, I was extremely shocked when I was admitted to the Information Technology (IT) class. I applied to different courses. I remember my first course must have been law, then business administration, and a few others. And IT was my last course. And, IT was my last choice but to my surprise, that is what I got. I remember being really sad because this was not what I wanted to do.
The idea of someone doing IT or someone in an internet café, fixing computers, or helping people with the internet is just not what I wanted to do for myself. But as I studied and got to interact with the content, I started to develop a love for IT. The thing that really helped me develop a love for IT was a female computer programming teacher. She was awesome. She’s amazing. I love the way she taught. After being in her class, it made me feel that it was possible to actually have a career in IT. Because of that, in my last year at the university, I decided that I was going to volunteer with an organization that was supporting women in science, technology, engineering, and math. So I left the university and started volunteering with Zimba women. After that, it was really natural for me to continue on the same path, even education or supporting them in STEM. So this is where I ended up. That’s a very long question.
Sotheary: Okay, that is great. So when you work with young children on science and technology and STEM subjects, what interests you the most?
Mary Helda: I think, for me, it’s seeing young people fall in love with sciences. I did not get the opportunity to do that at a very young age. When I see students in classes or at our offices interacting with robotics and different elements, doing chemistry experiments, it’s extremely beautiful and amazing to watch them and see this joy in their faces. It kind of feels like being in the middle of a magician performing. It’s just amazing to watch. When I’m taking it upon myself to discover that love, I ask myself, did I really hate sciences? Did I hate math? Or was it something that I learned to do? Now I’m doing math classes. I started kindergarten math, and I realized that I actually loved it. So I feel like I have the same experience as any other student that learns or is taught at Fundi Bots. And for me, that’s just amazing putting myself in their shoes and experiencing the joy.
Sotheary: I want to ask you some questions about yourself. I came across an article about you, and you describe yourself as a socially awkward person. What does that mean?
Mary Helda: That’s a really great question. I think it’s more of an internal struggle. I think it’s because I’ve had certain experiences in my life where I hid external factors. People tell me that being part of a group of people, being part of a community, or being social is supposed to be a certain way. I don’t know if that makes sense. There are certain rules to being a good, socially active person.
I’ve been told to do this or do not do that. And because of that, I’ve become very cautious of myself when I’m in public. I watch everything that I say; I watch everything that I do. I don’t want to come off as someone that does not fit in. I do not want to come off the wrong way. I mean, if it’s social etiquette, I understand like be kind to people; don’t do a certain thing; say ‘thank you; that is okay. People put certain things on you, and I internalize them. Because of that, I stopped going out and stopped interacting with people. It made me feel like every time I went out, it made me feel like it’s not where I belonged. I belong indoors. Because I was also bullied as a child, I carried its effects on me. It affected my self-confidence, but now I realize that it’s about me and not about other people; as long as I’m not hurting other people, then it’s okay for me to leave my house and interact with other people. It’s also OK to make mistakes. I think I have certain expectations of myself that even now when I’m interacting with someone, I have a script before going to them in my head. And it’s like, this is how it’s supposed to be; this is what I will say. Life is not like that when you’re talking to someone. Sometimes you say something wrong, and it may not be intentional, but mistakes happen, and as long as we learn from them, we apologize. Then it’s okay. So I realize that it’s okay for me to be socially awkward. As long as I’m learning and I’m trying my best to be a good person. That’s really okay. I hope I’ve answered your question.
Sotheary: Yeah, that is great. The thing is that I asked this question because I sometimes, you know, when I went through your article, and then I saw that, socially awkward person, and I was like me too. I am an introvert person. So I do not talk much in big groups, or sometimes I feel uncomfortable going out with other people. As you mentioned earlier, that is okay. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, you are more comfortable with yourself and with a few people, you feel related to or interact with.
Mary Helda: I am very comfortable being by myself and being with people that I know people that I’m comfortable with. I think that sometimes affects the way I relate. Still, I’m also beginning to realize that I’m also a bit of an extrovert, so I’m largely an introvert. Still, I also do have my extra tendencies. And I’m willing to accept that part of myself that is also fine.
Sotheary: You feel that you can be an extrovert when you are with the people you trust.
Mary Helda: Yes.
Sotheary: How do you manage to get through that because, as an introvert, in many environments, it is really challenging to interact with people around you such as your peers, your colleagues, your friends, your co-workers, and everyone around you? How can you get through that?
Mary Helda: I think someone gave me advice a few weeks ago, and she said, if you’re going to interact with other people, for example, in a networking event and everyone is probably bringing out business cards, going after every person and just being a chatterbox, that’s okay, that’s who they are. But find your own unique style of interaction. Who are you? How best do you connect with people and work with them? Look internally, who am I as a person? How do I enjoy interacting with people, connecting with people, and finding what makes you happy when interacting with other people and doing it. That’s what I do when I see someone I connect with, when I find someone to like, ‘oh my god, this person is really cool. I will reach out to them and ask if they’d like to have a coffee. Or if they’d like to go.’ Sometimes I read through their bio and see what type of things are they interested in that I’m interested in and invite them to do something like that.
I am learning now that it is okay if I don’t connect with someone. It’s a good way not to force things to happen. I sometimes think a lot of us, if you’re going to any events, and you see that certain people that you are going to be like ‘I want to meet this person; I want to meet this person and you get disappointed if you don’t connect with that person. So it’s okay if you don’t connect with someone; let it go and focus on the energy you were feeling back and getting back.
Sotheary: Now I would like to ask you about your personal experience. You are a survivor of gender–based violence, and I have worked with the survivor of gender-based violence before. They are different based on the condition, situations, culture, and the people around them. But in a place like Cambodia, we are in a patriarchal society. We have certain rules for women to behave in society. So women who experienced gender-based violence are traumatized by the experience. They got stigma from the community and so on. How about your experience? How your experience affects your life and your career, in general?
Mary Helda: When I went through that experience, I just started working with Zimba Women. It was my first job, the volunteer job. I remember walking to the office on Monday with a wound on my face. I was in a new position, trying to be my best. Still, I dealt with certain things affecting my work and became even more socially awkward. When I went through that experience.
Going for networking events, professional networking events are required of me. Instead of networking with people in the hallway, I hid in the bathroom because I was scared of interacting with people. I would jump at the office. Someone would pass behind me, and I would just jump and get scared. And a lot of these things really affected the way I interacted with other people and affected my personal life, well-being, and relationships. I pulled myself away from people. It was difficult for me to trust new people I had just met. My emotion wasn’t in a perfect place. It affected my work and my personal life in very many ways. But after a few years, I found coping mechanisms. I started to write. It helped me to sort of release the emotions that I was feeling. It helped me get back to a version of me that I recognize.
Sotheary: Can you share the process that you recover from that experience?
Mary Helda: Well, in the beginning, it was pretty toxic. It was me burying myself in my work. So I just worked nonstop. It’s only a few years into my career, but I realized that I was extremely exhausted. I remember when I started my new job in 2020 with the Fundi Bots. In the beginning, I went to the hospital, and I felt sick. I had all the pain; my bones were aching, but the doctors could not find the sources of illness.
I started seeing a therapist. She said that because I wasn’t healthily dealing with my emotions. The writing did help to some extent, but I needed more because I was healthily dealing with my emotions. I was putting them into my work. It helped me excel at work. But it made me run away from the things I should have been dealing with. Therapy has been helpful. And it has been beneficial for me in dealing with many other things that I have experienced in my life.
People in my life, my friends, my friends have not given up on me. When I was pushing away people, my friends would just show up at the door and say, we are here, and I’m like, okay, but what are you doing here? No one invited you. They just didn’t go away. My bosses were very supportive. Everyone around me was incredibly supportive. And I think that gave me the courage to keep doing what I was doing. That was good for me.
Sotheary: Because you are a survivor of gender-based violence, do you have any messages for other survivors or for the community to support the survivors?
Mary Helda: Be kind to yourself. Healing takes time; healing comes in different ways. Today you are okay; tomorrow, you will not be okay. And that’s okay. Just be kind to yourself. Be gracious to yourself. Find a community, a group of people that support and love you. Allow them to take care of you and heal; give yourself time; it really wasn’t your fault. The fault’s owned by the person that harassed you or abused you in that type of way.
I’d say Be yourself. And don’t stop yourself from shining. Sometimes we go through certain things in life, painful experiences in life. And because of that, we begin to shrink, making us want to hide ourselves to hide who we indeed are. But you don’t have to, you know, take your time. Learn who you are that self-awareness, meditate, do yoga, do whatever it is that you need to do. Be free.
Sotheary: Okay, so I have on the diet. So thank you so much for you know for joining me today.
Mary Helda: Thank you so much for inviting me. It was so awesome speaking with you.