08 Mar, 2024

International Women’s Day Spotlight: Professor Irene Amenyah Sarr

International Women’s Day Spotlight: Professor Irene Amenyah Sarr

For this year’s International Women’s Day, ESSA is spotlighting three female African researchers working in Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Foundational Learning (FL).  

With the theme for this year being ‘Inspire Inclusion,’ our goal is to spotlight these wonderful women and their impactful work, inspiring and encouraging other female African researchers, especially those who are beginning their careers in education research.   

This marks the third and final part of our three-part blog series.   

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? 

I am Efua Irene Amenyah Sarr, a lecturer at the University of Gaston-Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal, specialising in higher education. My journey began as an associate teacher, and following the completion of my PhD in 2011, I resumed this role before securing a position at the University of Gaston-Berger. My expertise lies in psychology and adult-based education. 

In the past five years, I have expanded my research focus to include motivation, recognising its profound impact on learning. I aim to explore this aspect from early childhood through adulthood, within the university context. 

Although I was born and raised in Togo, my parents are of Ghanaian descent. Reflecting on my upbringing, I recall responding to inquiries about my future plans with uncertainty about my future residence. After completing my A-levels, I pursued my studies in Senegal, alternating between Senegal and Lome before ultimately deciding to settle in Senegal, where I also found love and established my family. 

How would you describe your childhood? 

I had a remarkably joyous childhood, thanks to my wonderful parents. While I hesitate to label them as exceptional, they were undeniably good individuals. 

My father was employed at the cement company in Togo, while my mother was primarily a homemaker but also sold bread in the market. 

Our home had an oval table surrounded by eight chairs, accommodating our family of six along with my parents, totaling eight. This arrangement fostered an environment conducive to our growth and development. 

My mother always emphasised the importance of honesty, while my father instilled in us a strong work ethic. One of the driving forces behind our academic pursuits was the routine of my father joining us at the table each morning to assist and support us as we reviewed our lessons and prepared for the day ahead. 

Despite their firmness, our family was incredibly close-knit, filled with warmth and affection. We were fortunate to have such loving parents, and what I cherish most are the memories of our celebrations. Whether it was birthdays or other milestones, we marked each achievement with joy. I have come to realise that these celebrations are essential human needs that propel us forward in life. 

Though my parents departed too soon, they left behind a legacy of love and values that we continue to cherish and uphold. 

How did your relationship with education research start? 

During my upbringing, one of my mother's brothers sent his daughter to be educated with us in Lome. Since she was not fluent in Ewe, she appeared somewhat timid. Without hesitation, my mother enrolled her in the local public primary school. 

At the time, I was pursuing my university education in Senegal and returned to Lome for a vacation. During this visit, my mother urged me to visit my cousin's school, where she was in her second year of primary education. Upon entering the classroom, I was taken aback by the overcrowded conditions. There were numerous students crammed into the room with just one teacher. The seating arrangements were inadequate, with some children forced to sit on the floor due to the shortage of benches. It was evident that the teacher struggled to navigate the space, as benches designed for two students were accommodating three or four. 

This sight deeply affected me, as my own schooling experience had been vastly different. Though I kept my thoughts to myself, I couldn't shake the belief that success under such circumstances seemed improbable. Upon returning to Senegal, my work as a social worker led me to delve into the issue of school dropout rates. Through my research, I sought to uncover the root causes and repercussions of children leaving school prematurely. It was through this endeavor that my passion for education and research was ignited. 

What are your aspirations right now? 

I aspire to represent Senegal at the CAMES level, aiming to provide robust support to educators. Additionally, my goal is to create ample opportunities for young individuals to showcase and exchange their research activities. Each year, I guide students through their Master's research projects and provide support for their dissertations. Furthermore, I am currently supervising six doctoral students in their thesis work. Engaging in numerous conferences is also a regular part of my activities. 

In essence, my current ambition revolves around the advancement of educational sciences in Senegal. I envision a future where we have a wealth of doctoral candidates and young scholars who can contribute to the discourse on learning, teaching, and education within the African context. Our educational perspective is outward-looking, and I am committed to nurturing this perspective to benefit both Senegal and the broader African educational landscape. 

Is there any woman in education research in Africa whom you greatly admire and would like to meet? 

I came across a captivating documentary featuring a chemistry or biochemistry teacher in South Africa. Her interview and interactions with students were truly enjoyable—she responded to questions with kindness and directness, embodying a gentle demeanor. 

What left a lasting impression on me, and as you can probably tell from my own appearance, was her lack of hair.  

Yet, she carried herself with such contentment, unaffected by societal expectations. This resonated deeply with me, especially in a world where there's often pressure for women at universities to conform to certain standards of appearance. 

It's remarkable to see someone embrace their true self, defying conventional norms. This particular woman's authenticity moved me, and if I were to encounter someone in person, it would undoubtedly be her. 

I find solace and pride in who I am, but this revelation emerged unexpectedly, and it's remarkable how her story unknowingly impacted my perspective. Though I don't know her name or the university where she teaches, I feel a desire to connect with her on a deeper level, transcending these superficial differences. 

On this International Women's Day, how can we inspire inclusion for female African researchers starting their careers? 

I thoroughly enjoyed International Women's Day, despite my reservations about it. I believe that acknowledging and valuing women's contributions should be an everyday practice. In imparting advice to young girls, I stress the importance of being assertive, standing firm in their pursuits, and persevering through challenges. I often remind them that facing difficulties can be an exhilarating opportunity for growth, and setbacks don't define their capabilities. 

However, it's crucial not to exclusively encourage girls but also extend support to boys. Balancing the promotion of both genders is essential to avoid skewed perspectives. I encountered a situation where, despite more girls initially enrolling in university, the numbers dwindled over time due to various life responsibilities like marriage and starting a family. 

Creating conditions that facilitate academic pursuits alongside personal life events is key. I've observed instances where master's classes lacked female representation, emphasizing the need for deliberate efforts to encourage women to pursue advanced studies while navigating familial responsibilities. 

It's imperative to foster an environment where partnerships, especially in marriage, are collaborative. Men should be allies in supporting women throughout their academic journeys. Rather than confining these discussions to a once-a-year event, we need to make them a daily dialogue, integral to societal progress for both women and men. 

To empower young women researchers, providing tangible support is essential. This includes facilitating access to information about conferences and symposiums, especially for those with limited means. I advocate for the continuation and enhancement of positive discrimination, ensuring equitable access to opportunities, particularly for women. This approach not only fosters inclusivity but also contributes to the overall advancement of society. 



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