Steve Katembu and his daughter Mutheu, 10, working side by side.


My name is Steve Muthusi Katembu. I am a Kenyan PhD student at Humboldt University in Berlin in the Institute of Psychology. My studies are made possible through a scholarship jointly offered by DAAD and the Government of Kenya under the Kenyan-German Postgraduate Programme. I am also a Graduate Assistant in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nairobi.

In the early morning hours of February 6th, as I landed in Nairobi after 14 hours travelling from Berlin, I was excited: I was going to meet my family for the first time this year, and secondly, my PhD research work was going as planned. I had come home to Kenya to carry out the first of two experiments, and its data would form part of my PhD research. I hit the ground running, contacting possible participants as I awaited my research permits from the relevant authorities. Meanwhile, I was catching up with family, and listening to where my daughters and son had gone for school trips, and the new things they had discovered.

In the days before my research permit was issued, I got busy setting up my experiments, to ensure I would be ready.

As a psychologist, I am interested in two cognitive concepts in particular: Cognitive inhibition which refers to the mind's ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the task at hand, and the working memory, the part of short-term memory which is concerned with immediate processing of outside information – this is important for decision-making and behavior. My research seeks to answer the question whether a person with high cognitive functioning is less likely to tend to commit crimes or engage in antisocial behaviour. I investigate how violent juvenile delinquents differ from non-delinquent adolescents in the mentioned aspects, and especially whether such differences are more pronounced during stress. I chose adolescents as they are particularly sensitive to emotional cues and vulnerable to stress. Hence my target group are students in regular high schools and in juvenile rehabilitation centres.

That is where Covid-19 threw me a curve ball. On the 13th March upon confirmation of the first three infections in Kenya, the government shut down all learning institutions, my participants’ main recruitment points. My study was thrown off plan until a time without the current movement restrictions and social distancing rules.

Now we all had to work from home. With children who know well enough about the virus not to go playing with other children, I had to, more often than normal, be a playmate. They would also catch up with their books, an online exercise, or a cartoon.

Playtime! Steve Katembu and daughter Mwongeli, 8.

I too needed a plan. My very supportive supervisor and I decided to bring forward a part of my study schedule, analysing earlier collected data that relates to my dissertation, and working on a manuscript for publication as part of my PhD work. But that does not come without challenges: The kids’ playing space should be my working space. I have to work online with no option of WiFi at coffee shops. My network at home functions best late in the night, and ‘goes to sleep’ when I wake up. Given all those factors, you know why dinner has to be served early, so that the children retire to bed and I can use my internet connection during its full working hours.

I just can’t wait to have some level of certainty. Yet the idea of ‘back to normal’ sounds retrogressive, like a wish to go back to what has been, rather than working on a different way of doing things. Whereas no one intentionally chose to go through the current situation, anyone can choose to intentionally grow through it. With that realisation, I committed to bettering my piano skills, taking an online short course on the Psychology of Meditation and Mindfulness: Research and Practise, and recently, I joined a Work Out Loud (WOL) group running for twelve weeks, during which we meet once a week on Zoom to build relevant work relationships and help each other reach our goals and/or discover new topics. Despite the prevailing circumstances, I feel that I am still on the way to accomplishing my scholarly ambitions.

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