Why was I not taught about her in school?

In line with the commemoration of women’s month, I have chosen to celebrate my superhero mama Charlotte Maxeke. I believe that her story should be documented in science textbooks and even on the biggest theatre stages in South Africa. Hers is a story of resilience and triumph against all odds, a story that resonates with many women in science.

Charlotte Makgomo Manye was born in Polokwane and moved to Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape. She attended at the missionary school where her intellectual abilities led her to be a student tutor. When her family moved to Kimberly, she chose to follow her music passion and joined the African Jubilee Choir which toured the world. A failed tour led them to be stranded on the streets of New York, that was when an ex missionary teacher reached out to her and offered her a scholarship at Wilberforce University in Cleveland. This led to her being the first Black woman in SA to graduate with a university degree.

During her academic years, she paved the way for many other South African students to join her at the university. She was also a passionate political activist, upon her return to the country she co-founded Bantu Women’s Leagues which fought against the oppressive apartheid laws.In summary, she was a multifaceted individual who was brilliant in every sphere she set her foot in. Mama Maxeke has often been honoured as the ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, an ANC nursery school in Tanzania, and the Johannesburg General Hospital were named after her.

What stands out for me is her versatile nature and her ability to not allow education to box her. The science field is very demanding and most often than not, consumes one’s life. The rigidness of the academic career sometimes scares people away. My undergraduate mentor had advised that I solely focus on my studies until I secure an academic position (that is after PhD and two postdocs!), even suggesting that I relocate to the universities residents to avoid family ‘distractions’. I’ve never blamed him for having this view because this has been the narrative for decades. I think young female scientists need to be exposed to the stories of Mama Maxeke, to be told that one can carve their own path and still be brilliant in their academic career.

Science is only but a career, it cannot define a person’s life. I always advise younger students in our research group to never forget to spare time for their hobbies. A career alone can never bring absolute fulfilment in a person’s life. Hence, I always advocate for people who choose a path that deviates from the norm; if for you starting a family is your source of fulfilment, then, by all means, go ahead, it will require extra effort, but it is doable. If taking a break and focusing on activities that will reignite your passion, let it be so. If advocating for equality and justice is your forte, then speak your truth even if your voice shakes, start movements and clubs at your university. Most importantly, when you find a passion greater than science or academia, pursue it, quitting academia should not be viewed as failure instead it should be seen as bravery. This is the narrative that we should be telling every young scientist.

Researching this piece gave me so much joy; I kept on thinking, I wish I had come across her name in my science or history books in high school? It would have done wonders for my confidence and belief in self. My discovery of mama Maxeke’s stories has also made me realise that a mentor or role model is not necessarily a person you have physical access to, they don’t even have to be present in your lifetime. Just reading a biography could be enough to guide one to their destiny. Through this history lesson, I have a newfound hope, a re-ignition of passion and resilience to see my dreams to reality. I hope that every woman, especially in the field of science, finds that superhero, a lighthouse to run to whenever fear and doubt overcomes them.

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