Mama Charlotte Maxeke: My Superhero

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.

Female scientists are taking up space and cementing themselves

What does a scientist nowadays look like?

When the word ‘scientist’ is mentioned, what image is painted in your mind? Is there a particular gender that comes to mind? Colour? If you referenced famous sci-fi blockbusters I’m certain you would conclude that scientists are white men with crazy hair.

Unfortunately, this imagery traverses to reality too (excluding the crazy hair?). If you browse through the physics Nobel Laureates and the NRF A-rated researchers you would be convinced that science has a preference when it comes to gender or race. A glimpse of hope was resurrected when I watched the film ‘Hidden figures’. We exist and our contributions are valid!

The Event Horizon Telescope captured the very first image of a black hole in April 2019. This was a huge milestone in the field of Astronomy and Physics and it was exciting to see that a female researcher was also at the forefront of this achievement. Katie Bouman was the lead computer scientist of the team that created the algorithm that made the breakthrough image possible.

Dr Hadiyah-Nicole Green was also in the news for pioneering the use of laser-activated nanoparticles for cancer treatment. This breakthrough method of treatment has been found to improve the pharmacokinetics and reduce the systemic toxicities of chemotherapies through the selective targeting and delivery of these anticancer drugs to tumour tissues.

Indeed, no longer shall we remain hidden figures. In the famous words of Zozibini Tunzi, current Miss Universe, ‘We are taking up space and cementing ourselves’. But how do we ensure that this movement is not only restricted to first world countries or big cities?

 As of December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly resolved that the 11th of February would be recognized as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Initiatives like these are excellent tools for showcasing brilliant achievements of female scientists. In South Africa, we also have initiatives such as: Take a girl child to work, South African Women in Science and, L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in science to name a few. These initiatives have done wonders in exposing young girls to science careers and acknowledging excellent female researchers, but is it enough?

Dr Busiswa Ndaba and me

According to the United Nations reports still only 30% of researches worldwide are women. In South Africa, an impressive 40% of women are in STEMI fields. The NRF boasts itself for funding more than 50% of females researchers and postgrad and postdoctoral level. These are amazing statistics in comparison to other countries. However, the NRF also reports that approximately 6% of these female researchers are in senior technical or managerial positions. I believe that currently, this is the major challenge to transformation in the science field in South Africa. What makes female researchers leave academia? What hinders female research from being NRF-rated scientists? It is only when we are able to tackle these questions that we will achieve equal gender representation in all spheres.

From my personal academic journey and interactions with students through education outreach activities, these are some of the factors that stood out for me:

The most important factor is that one cannot become what their mind cannot conceive. Quality education for all is essential, we cannot be encouraging learners to be chemists when lab equipment is nothing but theory to them.  In as much as South Africa has all these great initiatives they mostly target schools in urban areas, we need them to spread even to the most isolated schools in rural areas. It was promising to hear the minister of finance, in the 2020 budget speech, mention an allocated budget for introducing robotics at elementary school.

With Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland

From a young age, we (especially girls) are taught to fear science (I still tremble at the memory of my High School physics teacher). Most high school students I interact with hate Maths and Physics, mainly because of how they are taught in school. Our society often tells girls that science ‘is not for them’. We need to change the stigma around science. Science is a fun, inclusive and creative subject, it is as cool as art, and hence it should be portrayed as such.

As a country, we need to be intentional when it comes to transformation. Women need to be in key decision making positions, drive policies that will lead to change. It is only women that know what is best for women. However, it is also essential that male colleagues are part of the dialogue. If we want to make academic spaces safe spaces for women, men need to be aware of the required behavioural changes and to be conscious of how diversity is not a threat but a conducive environment for success.