Photos courtesy of Cynthia Simekha

Cynthia (Mapenzi) Simekha’s interest in women’s health has taken her around the world and across multiple disciplines. Born and raised in Kenya, Simekha moved often between countries and homes because her father was in the military and her mother was in school. In third grade, her teacher discovered that she could neither read nor write due to this transience, and she was on track by the end of that year. 

Kenya’s education system requires that students pursue careers based on their course placement. For Simekha, this meant that she was on track to become either an engineer or an architect. She chose architecture because she was fascinated with art and with how space is used. At a young age, she asked questions about building accessibility, the availability of basic resources such as clean water, and generally how buildings and space are constructed to either support or erode community health. She thought that a career in architecture might help her to address some of those questions.

The post-election violence in Kenya in late 2007 drove Simekha to the United States. She arrived here in 2008 and attended Bellevue College in Washington to study nursing. While she earned an associate’s degree in nursing, Simekha knew that she would not continue as a nurse because the sight of people in pain brought her to tears. But she was still interested in health. The resolution was to pursue an undergraduate degree in public health at the University of Washington as part of the first cohort of students in their undergraduate program.

During her time at the University of Washington, Simekha solidified her interest in women’s and maternal health with particular attention to how space is organized related to these issues. She also had opportunities to study other public health issues such as how Somali immigrants access healthcare under the Affordable Care Act and how African immigrant communities experience cardiovascular disease. 

While Simekha was getting great experience in health policy during this time, she realized that she had a more fundamental question: “Why is it that we have sick people that cause us to need all of these systems?” Simekha realized that many of the diseases that affect Black people around the world do not just happen. Rather, they are created by lack of access to quality healthcare and resources and other systemic barriers. She was more interested in sickness as a state of being than as a temporary condition. “What does it mean to be sick socially when your environment is sick?” she asks. “What if your environment is sick? Then the result is your body starts becoming sick.”

Armed with a degree in public health and a set of deep questions, Simekha began her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan in Global Social Work. There, she had the opportunity to go to Australia to conduct research. She worked with youth with disabilities from African immigrant and indigenous communities there. These young people had higher incident of sexual abuse and of accessing sexually explicit content than their peers who did not identify as having a disability. This work directed Simekha’s interest in girls’ and women’s health toward sex education. Later, Simekha participated in a study about HIV transmission in Kenya among people who participated in specific cultural coupling practices, which deepened her interest in education. 

These research experiences only fueled a fire within Simekha. Her own experiences a child survivor of childhood sexual abuse who witnessed herself and others being denied contraception and abortion services and birth complications formed the foundation of her curiosity. This accumulation of personal and professional experiences spurned Simekha’s curiosity about what she calls “the questions behind the question.” It was clear to her that a form of sex education focused simply on abstinence or safe sex practices was insufficient. She wondered not only about a phenomenon such as rampant HIV infection and its prevention, but also about the conditions that create the breeding ground for these issues.

Now, Simekha is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Here, she is able to combine her interests in global public health and sex and sexualities education with a curriculum that allows her to focus less on the immediate problem and more on that conditions that create that problem. She is moving into doctoral candidacy and preparing to conduct research in Kenya for her dissertation. Simekha has just been awarded the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Award from the United States Department of Education to support her research. This prestigious award allows doctoral students to conduct research in other countries (except for western European countries) for up to 1 year. She has also been awarded the UW-Madison’s Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship for the last 2 years that has helped her to learn Swahili in preparation for her time in Kenya.

Simekha’s Fulbright-sponsored research will focus on Gengetone music in Kenya. Gengetone is a subgenre of hip hop born in the inner city of Nairobi. Gengetone that brings together hip hop and dancehall influences with local music to produce a new musical form conducted in Sheng, a English-Swahili language mix that older generations do not understand. Like hip hop, Gengetone is not just music; it is art, language, and culture itself. Also reminiscent of hip hop, Gengetone has been officially banned yet continues to thrive. The music carries messages about sexuality, pleasure, body positivity, and disability. Simekha will analyze the Gengetone culture to understand how this art form influences how young people who follow it think about sex and sexuality. She will leave for Kenya in March 2024.

While Simekha is excited about the Fulbright fellowship, she reminds people that her achievements to date would not be possible without other educational opportunity programs that are under threat today in Wisconsin and beyond. Her undergraduate studies were supported by federal programs such as TRIO and the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. At UW-Madison, she works as a project assistant with the McNair Scholars Program. “When looking at my academic journey, I give back to programs that support minoritized students in this country. I give my thanks and regards to those Black men and women in this country like McNair who made it possible for an immigrant like me to do this type of research.”