So, you survived 2019, your first year of PhD! Well done, “future you” is proud! Looking back on your 2019 posts I can’t help but want to give you a hug, there were so many challenges you blogged about that many students related to, stories of mental health, challenges as a first-generation woman of colour in palaeosciences, being a woman in general in research spaces, the fatigue we experience, and the dreaded funding uncertainty. I am grateful that you used this platform to speak your truth, to discuss topics that you held so close to your heart, you spoke about what resonated with you and I know it resonated with so many others. I am grateful that you took a chance on this blogging competition and that you did not let your impostor syndrome stand in the way, I am grateful that you spent the year posting among women who would become lifelong friends. I am looking back at 2019 and I see so much solidarity and support for one another, there was compassion and encouragement and like your post on unity in women– you all banded together like ants (you should always be proud to be called an ant). I know that you will always appreciate your SAYAS opportunity. I hope that you found some balance and that you took better care of yourself, you need to remember that life doesn’t always need to go full steam ahead, sometimes it’s good to shut the engines off and enjoy the view in your stillness.
It is now 2050, 31 years after your last post! I am writing to you to let you know that things here are pretty good and that nothing you did was in vain. There are still challenges (as there will always be) but the groundwork that the generations before you, your generation and those who followed you have laid has helped us create the science you always dreamed of. First, I must tell you what’s been happening in your field! There are so many more hominin discoveries, right here in Africa made by some of your peers and colleagues, you would be so proud to see just how many young African women of colour are in the field (and seriously dominating it). They are in senior positions, heading upfield schools, institutions, collaborative projects and the field of palaeosciences has truly found its African roots and, more importantly, a respect for its people. We live in a different time, technicians are no longer unsung heroes, they are authors on publications, experts who are trained and upskilled to empower themselves, they now manage many sites and projects. More conferences are being hosted on the continent (even the really big ones that you complained about having to spend a few months rent on travel only to network for a week), I think people are coming around to the idea that the continent they once thought was covered in darkness is actually so full of light, potential and incredible scientists. You helped organize one of the first big conferences here in Johannesburg, just outside of the Cradle, you showed all of these anthropologists that South Africa is not just a stop on a data collection trip, it is a destination worthy of global attention. Since then, many students and researchers have visited to look at our collections and they continue to grow. You’d be so pleased with the innovation and novel science that the continent and her researchers are producing, we have world-class facilities that can host international teams, it is no longer a one-sided relationship with us having to go overseas. Now we see researchers scramble to come here, to be able to touch the fossils and conduct their science in world-class laboratories and facilities. Palaeosciences is no longer a field where jobs are a concern, researchers are employed at institutions (both local and international) and we have witnessed a revival of the museums you love so much, and more researchers are based there now!
You’ll be happy to know that #scicomm has been a focal point across all research fields, so many students and researchers are putting their work out there and the public is engaging. Because of this, we are doing better science, science with input from those we hope it benefits and those whose lives will be touched indirectly or directly by our research. There has been a surge in communications, now there are researchers on the news, using social media and debating in public spaces to ensure that all people have access to knowledge. The ivory tower is crumbling, there are still some who try to maintain it but there is power in the masses who are trying to build bridges instead of walls. Science is becoming more accessible, and we no longer celebrate ‘firsts’ anymore, instead, we see incredible people occupy spaces that we thought would never open to people who looked like us.
I must warn you; the change was slow and I know how impatient you can be. Trust me, it comes together, please do not lose hope, you need to keep fighting. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay in academia, sometimes the change comes from outside. There are many ways to make an impact and you must do what’s best for you, mentally, emotionally and physically before you think of professionally. Our government has invested so much in building up PhD’s and improving our education system so that we start to close the inequality gap. I know that Fees Must Fall changed you, it changed the way you look at the world and indeed the way you look at yourself, it made you acknowledge your privileges but also the challenges you face as a woman of colour in the spaces you loved so much. I know it made you more alert, more empathetic and even more driven to change and challenge the status quo. We will always keep fighting for student rights because although you now sit in boardrooms and stand at the front of lecture venues, you were once a student who couldn’t pay her fees, that feeling will humble you for the rest of your life. You may not realise it but the entire #FeesMustFall generation are now setting the narrative of our country, the change was slow, the change was painful, but the change is here.
As I said there are still challenges because, in this life thing, they are inevitable, but hey, you inspired generations of fighters who are still shaking tables and breaking glass ceilings. Now your job is to learn from them, you are never too old to be a student of life, I won’t allow you to turn into one of those old gatekeepers who ignores the voices of a new generation, even if they are still whispers. You now have the power to make a real change, that comes from elevating others, remember that always!
Be proud of yourself, I know I am.