When I was about sixteen years of old, I was asked if I would embark on a plane with each and every part of it made and designed by African women – including the pilot and co-pilot. I burst out laughing,
“No!“, I exclaimed. “Why would I do such a crazy thing?” I asked.
I often used to ask my friends the very same question, and they would stare at me with such bewilderment. My most memorable response was from my Afrikaans friend Simon who sat opposite me in the maths class. He would often “compliment” me on how my accent was very acceptable and better, compared to the other black girls in our class who you could say had Zulu or Sotho infused English accents. According to Simon, I was more “intelligent” in comparison compared to my fellow black students, simply because I sounded more “white” than black.
“Simon?”, I asked one day during class.
“Would you ever embark on a plane made only by African women?” Simon opened his eyes wide and burst out into laughter.
“NO! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”, he roared out in laughter.
Before Simon’s reaction, it had never occurred to me that I did not believe in the capabilities of female African scientists and technologists. There was also some unspoken rule that things made by Africans were of inferior quality; importing from Europe or China was better than those locally produced. Whenever I went to the market, I would witness buyers haggle and negotiate down price on products that were locally made.
“$15 is too expensive for that wire car that you made yourself, reduce the price to $5 and I will take it now”.
Had it been a plastic car imported from Europe, the discourse between the vendor and the buyer would have been different.
“$45 only for this toy car, mmm this is a bargain. I know things from UK are expensive but they last and they are good quality too.”
Think about it, how many times have you haggled with the local seamstress but never think twice when paying a high price for that European designer bag? I believe we, as Africans have devalued our own local industries and made importation of western products more lucrative than local production. When we preferentially offer to pay less for locally manufactured products, we are essentially professing that we do not believe in the workmanship of our local talent. Yes, I am aware that some of the products that Africans produce are not up to international standard but as consumers, we have the purchasing power to demand better standards of workmanship and our purchase into that product invests our faith into our local manufacturers – enabling them to improve on their quality of work.
By preferentially trusting western brands over our own, we have inadvertently killed our own local industries, shut factories and opportunities for the youth to train as tradesmen and tradeswomen. If we can not appreciate the art and skill that goes into making a shoe and constantly choose to buy Nike or Louboutin’s, over local African brands, how would we appreciate and trust the science and skill that would have gone into an African developed Covid-19 vaccine?
I was fortunate enough to have a mother who was a microbiologist and a father who was a pathologist, but they never prepared me for the harsh realities I had to face as a fledgling African female engineer. They never taught me that, the world would see my race before recognising my face. I would always be black, then a woman and finally an engineer. Having said that, they taught me well not to be intimidated by science but forgot to tell me, that if I pursued a technical career I would be perceived more masculine, which would limit my options on the marriage market. I must have been in my early 20’s when I discovered that the most suitable profession for scientifically inclined women being a medical doctor. The rationale behind it was simple: women made better doctors as they are natural caregivers and inherently empathetic.
So everyone expected me to be a medical doctor, but I went ahead and disappointed them and instead became a biomedical engineer. I excelled at university and graduated top of my class. I had a neck to think out of the box, often out performing my peers. However, I suffered from imposter syndrome and never felt like I quite fit in the fold. I remember one year as I sat in a boardroom with ten white male colleagues, and I the only only black and female person. Despite being engaging in the meeting, I remember being afraid of being “found out”. It probably was because before the meeting had begun, my supervisor had emphasised that I had graduated from a top university with a distinction. Instead of feeling proud, I felt small. It seemed I needed the reputation of a bastion of education to momentarily cover my Africaness so that my educated opinion would be more palatable.
Do I now believe in African female scientists? Truthfully, no! As women from Africa in science, we face more barriers and challenges than any other demographic. Our 3rd world countries are too poor to provide financial resources for us to go study at the top tier universities around the world. Our skin colour and ethnic names prevent us from getting jobs that we are trained for. Our gender ensures that we are marginalised in the work place and have fewer opportunities to climb the corporate or academic ladder. There are just not enough of us to break all the glass ceilings and tear down the divisive walls.
“Please study science and technical subjects ” I always tell every African girl that I meet.
We need you, so that I can have a little faith that the next generation of African women in science will have less hurdles standing in their path to success.