Which doctor to be? What I could’ve been, and what I am now

By Yonela Z. Njisane

The question is “Should I have become a doctor or a Dr?” Growing up, I always knew I would be a doctor someday. Yup! I strongly believed I would be a great Veterinary doctor/surgeon. The thing is, where I come from, you see a lot of sick animals with no facilities to help and that pains my heart. I lost a couple of dogs growing up and I know how disheartening that is. I just wanted to make them all feel better and healthier.

I had it all planned out until I realised how long it takes to obtain that qualification; around 7 years if I am correct. To my surprise, I have now spent more years in school pursuing an academic doctorate instead- this is now my ninth year in tertiary. Even though the time factor initially worried me a lot, it’s probably just a lack of knowledge about how to get into the veterinary degree that stopped me from pursuing it. At first, I had plans to go back to vet science after my BSc Agric. (2011); then it shifted to returning after my MSc Agric. (2013). In my mind, I guess I never gave up on it, even though I didn’t go through with it.

The Boys basking in the morning sun
The Boys basking in the morning sun

However, just recently I found confirmation that I am better off with the path I chose. A vet told me he had no other options but to put my puppy (Storm) to sleep. That, for me, would have been the greatest challenge in the job. I can never stand seeing an animal suffer in anyway, let alone dead, especially by my hand. I sometimes wonder how I am going to cope come the end of my PhD trial — which means slaughter, by the way — considering how I adore the Boys. At least I am not the one who is going to pull the trigger, that’s how I console myself. That part is not my job.

As fun as working with animals can be, challenges will always be there regardless of the path you are in, I guess. One of the Boys almost died the other day. Almost! Thank God we got to the scene in time, even though we were all sure that it was too late to redeem him. I was so close to breaking into tears until I heard him gasping for his breath, fighting for his life.

The Boys
The Boys “race squashing” in the stockade… every month… why can’t they be calm?

If only they knew that instead of all the stomping and squashing in the race every monthly managerial routine, they could just relax, allowing a smooth and a quick process. But hey, they’re just cattle. For me, it would have been a more emotional time than just a loss for the trial. But I learned that you just have to always look out where animals are involved, you have to always be there.

For instance, while some of you were on holiday during the Easter weekend, we were chilling at the farm, in the pastures, with a couple of moos, neighs and baas. It was the paddock behaviour observation week. Holiday or not, it had to be done. The weather was just plain cruel, it was freezing so much that the best way to keep warm was to do some aerobics (turned out someone was taking a video the whole time. Damn these phones).

Another survival trick in the field. A
Another survival trick in the field. A “Hakuna Matata” hat that my friend Coco brought me from Kenya. Turns out these non-floppy hats are useful in all weather conditions!

I must also say that, cattle behaviour does not change just because its holidays either. You can expect changes from external stimuli like an overly excited barking dog passing by looking for a challenge (thank God it hasn’t happen during observation times). Did you know that while our cattle in the villages respect dogs, even excusing themselves when barked at, my Boys just charge right back? In an innocent and inquisitive way, running towards the barking dog — so cute to watch! I’m so mad at myself for not capturing the scene in a video.

I was even more impressed by the braveness in my Boys when a “crazy” ox with huge horns was somehow “claiming his territory” on first discovery of the males that had been newly moved to their (ox) camp site. The ox had an attitude for days, making noises and even kicking the ground, blowing dust. That was just it though, some act. My Boys saw right through him, ignoring the whole show and carrying on with their business.

The only thing that got them on their toes (just a little bit) was the super-sized horses from the university traction centre.

The moos meet the neighs. Yes, that's the scientific term.
The moos meet the neighs. Yes, that’s the scientific term.

Had I known the huuuuuge horses were just big babies who demanded constant grooming, I might have kept my distance too. But hey, I am not complaining at all, everyone needs scratching every now and then.

So in all, I choose to look beyond what the end will or might be and just make the most of every single moment I get with my Boys (and any other animal I come across), ensuring that they are happy and healthy. I will cross the other bridges when I get to them.

Me and the giant baby,  Neigh.
Me and the giant baby, Neigh.

How it all began…

By Yonela Z. Njisane

30 April 2015
Who would have thought (besides God) that I would be here now? Certainly not I  – my  supervisor can attest to that! Or not… I guess he always knew I had it in me. Growing up in one of the small towns of South Africa, I never knew anything about academics or scientific research until a much later stage in my life. It’s possible that I only became fully aware that there was such a career path in the middle of my master’s degree. Imagine that!

Yonela-1While I was busy trying to get through my undergraduate degree, with plans to immediately get a job and elevate my family, someone was watching, noticing my potential and trying to recruit me for further studies. I never made it easy for Prof Voster Muchenje to convince me – it took a number of phone calls and him sweet-talking me about how it would be a waste of intelligence and capacity if I were to choose otherwise. Of course I was flattered! Getting a bursary (Red Meat Research and Development Trust) was enough sign that I should return for my Masters. This bursary meant that my parents did not have to take care of me any further. When I qualified for another bursary to pursue my PhD I really should have known that this is my path, that I belong here.

Yonela-2However, I was haunted for weeks afterwards, and my fear of failure had a powerful grip on me. “Who am I to get this far?” My imposter syndrome was powerful enough that I even declined the PhD offer! Then one day it clicked; there was nothing waiting for me anywhere else. If I let fear get the best of me, I was going to miss out on an exciting opportunity, and would have wasted my efforts until now. I went back in February 2013 and, thankfully, could still take up the position.

So, here I am now, in the third year of my PhD degree in Agriculture-Animal Science studying cattle behaviour in relation to animal welfare and beef quality (a global hot topic). Even though this decision opened a lot of opportunities for me, it has not been all sugary sweet. Being at a resource-limited university, in a small rural town, one faces a lot of challenges regarding research. However, the need to progress and making something of my life has taught me not to concentrate on the limitations I face, but rather to look at them as stepping stones to seeking solutions, instead of complaining.

Hmmm, I did say “No whining” right? Yup! So let’s talk about this interesting project of mine that is so dear to my heart (I am an Animal person, and don’t worry about me being involved in their slaughter – It’s nothing personal). I am still in the early stages of the actual experimental trial. With the assistance of three of my colleagues, I have been spending 15 hours a day out in the paddocks with a group of 40 steers (castrated bulls)… There is nothing that beats escaping the office: no emails, no visitors, no meetings, sometimes no phone network (I know what you’re thinking “Damn! No social networks too”- haha! It’s hard for youngsters), and zero office work (Shhh! don’t tell my mentor I said that).

Yonela-3Of course, there is also sunburn (temperatures close to 40°C), huge floppy hats, and statistical analyses… It’s worth it, though, I promise. Watch this space; maybe I can also lure you into the world of PhDs, cattle, and making it big in the challenging world of academia.