Embracing our cultural diversities

Did you know that South Africa has 12 Public Holidays in a year? That would be one holiday a month if they were fairly distributed in the year. South Africa would be ranked in 12th place alongside Finland and Russia if we were also added to the statistics of countries with the most public holidays. I cannot believe Cambodia has 28 public holidays in a year, must be nice living there especially since they are even ranked the 59th safest country in the world. Anyways enough about Cambodia and their nice life problems. I am talking about public holidays because just last month we celebrated National Women’s Day and now this month we are celebrating Heritage Day.

We celebrate Heritage Day in South Africa every year on the 24th of September, as a reminder of the nation’s cultural diversity and gives us a chance to express our unity as a nation. Forgive my ignorance but I just recently found out why we celebrate Heritage Day and how it came about (my brain can only process so much information at a time, knowing why we have pubic holidays was never on my list of things to know). Now that I do know, I will share with you.

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The first Heritage Day was only instituted in 1995, this was after the first free election that spelt the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new, non-racially based democracy. However, what is more interesting about the roots of Heritage Day is that it precedes 1995. Before the 24th of September became a South African public holiday, it was just a Zulu holiday that was celebrated in KwaZulu-Natal only. This holiday was the remembrance to Shaka Zulu. When the bill was being passed in 1995 however, the Zulus were not happy that “Shaka Day” was not included. After long and tiring negotiations (I’m guessing), a compromise was reached where they would keep the date but broadened the meaning to include the celebration of not just the Zulus but all heritages of the South African people. And thus became the public holiday Heritage Day.

Do you know what else brings people together, other than democracy?

Research.

What makes research so beautiful is that it brings people from all over the world together for a common goal. This reminded me of Sesetu’s March blog post about “The beauty of diversity….perspective from an interdisciplinary study”. A great example of this would be the international collaborators that we have. For my Master’s research project, we collaborated with a research institute at the University of Madrid. I had the opportunity to visit their facilities to conduct experiments but the rest of the work was done via email. International collaborations are a norm when it comes to research. Having attended a few international conferences, I was astonished the first time that we could have people from all over the world in one room share research in the same field. I did not realize until then how research can bring people together from all over the world who all share the same common interest.

The cultural diversity that I see in just our department is remarkable. We have a good representation of the world in just one building amongst the lecturers, post-doctoral and postgraduate students. With the majority of my colleagues being of African descent; we have students from Egypt, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (if you are from the Physics department and are reading this, I am sorry if I didn’t mention your country). I have learnt so much from every single one of them, from their cultures to their traditions and just about them in general.

In June 2017, I was part of the South Africa- Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (SA-JINR) student practice. The student practice involved taking a group of students from different Universities to a two weeks program at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. The aim of the program is to expose postgraduate students to the facilities, gain experiences and hopefully form collaborations with researchers from the institute.  As part of the program, we celebrated International Day where all the participants had the opportunity to share their cultures starting from what we eat to how we dress and traditional dances. This was a great opportunity to learn about the different cultures in South Africa and from around the world.

So when we celebrate Heritage Day, we don’t just celebrate the South African cultural diversity but the cultural diversity of the world as a whole because these are the people we spend most of our time with on a daily basis. Science has brought me together with a diverse group of people I would have taken a lifetime to get to know and I embrace each and every single one of them.

How I found my sisters in Science.

Growing up in a family with three older brothers, a whole bunch of male cousins and no sisters; I have always had problems with communicating with females. It came as no shock to me when I found myself in a male-dominated field such as Physics. Over the years I have accumulated close female friends that can only be counted with one hand. This blog post is not about all my failed friendships with females but rather about my experience with a special group of ladies I survived a year with (which is a big deal for me).

In April I came across a link on Twitter of an article titled “Want black women students to stay in STEM? Help them find role models who look like them” published in Science Daily. This article made me reflect on all my attempts to always find a group of people I can relate to. I mean I get along very well with males but at the end of the day, I would always question why I am never part of that group of girls having fun at the library lawns or at the club wearing matching outfits. The few female friends I have are all not part of the STEM field and while they are there for me during my ups and downs in this postgraduate journey, I feel like something is still missing. We have very few women in Physics in South Africa, let alone the world so trying to find a role model who looks like me is a big reach. So the next best thing is to find other postgraduate students who are in the STEM field like me.

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Long story short, last year in February I came across a Twitter post from Black Women in Science (BWIS) appealing to black females in the STEM field to apply to become members. Like all other things in my life, I took the chance and applied to be a member. To my surprise, I got accepted as one of the few Johannesburg fellows that were accepted to be part of the programme. So let me tell you about who and what BWIS is, well BWIS is a registered NPC which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. The purpose of BWIS is to develop professional research and science conduct, leadership and mentorship skills for women within all scientific disciplines, in tertiary intuitions and professional environments nationally and internationally. They promote a postgraduate culture amongst African students and improve their academic experience by providing support, training, a professional network and exposure to opportunities.

As mentioned above, they focus on all scientific disciplines and the first time I finally got to meet all the other BWIS fellows, I wondered to myself how many of them could possibly help me if I am the only person doing Physics. Little did I know what an amazing experience this would turn in to. The programme consisted of three workshops that focused on Scientific Writing Skills, Business Skills and Development and the third workshop gave us time to work and present our Sustainability Projects where we could either work in groups on individuals. I was fortunate enough to find myself in a group with seven incredible ladies where we worked on a project focusing on recycling.

The cherry on top of this whole experience would have to be the Gala dinner we had in April this year. All the ladies got to dress up and everyone look absolutely stunning. I had never been in a room full of beautiful ladies in my entire life. Prizes were given, food was eaten and conversations were shared. Our group even won the “Best Pitch Award”, which was completely unexpected if you ask me. The year I spent as part of the BWIS fellow has been insightful and memorable. I got the opportunity to meet amazing people in STEM and we have all gotten to share our journeys as postgraduates and working professionals.  I am now a BWIS alumnus and part of their mentorship programme. I am very grateful to the BWIS team for taking the risk and choosing me to be one of their fellows because I have found my sisters in science.

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The purpose of this post was to basically share the importance of finding people who you can relate with. Not necessarily on a social platform but on a more “professional” platform. Whether it be “Women in Science”, “Women in Engineering” or even organizations/forums that are within your field. As long as you find a place where you belong and can be uplifted in your career. I read somewhere about the “Power of the Pack: Women who support women are more successful.” After you have found your happy place, go out there and be someone else’s happy place by mentoring our young girls to join the STEM field because everyone keeps asking: Why aren’t there more women in science?