From shepherdess to scientific star

The story of Sharpeville-born, Lesotho-raised Tebello Nyokong suggests that sometimes adversity is the best career counsellor.

Nyokong won the Science and Technology category in this year’s prestigious 2004 Shoprite Checkers/SABC2 Women of the Year Award for her research in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Yet her path, from childhood, was strewn with obstacles. As a child, she herded sheep for her maternal grandparents, in addition to her responsibilities as a student, which included maintaining the school grounds and a few classrooms.
Later, like her sisters, she helped out in the family’s construction business, worked in the extensive vegetable garden and cleaned house.

“My family was not rich, but we could afford a meal every day,” she told students at the inaugural Dr Frances Ames lecture at the University of Zululand earlier this year.

The devotion of her mostly female teachers counteracted the al fresco teaching-under-trees that resulted from the shortage of classrooms.

“To me this is a good lesson,” Nyokong admitted. “We can learn even in very difficult situations, with dedicated teachers. Yes, it would be nice to have good classrooms, but if they are not there, learning can go on.”

After her father became too ill to allow either a dentistry scholarship in Nigeria or a medical scholarship in Russia, she decided to become a high school teacher.

“After completing my degree I got a scholarship to go to Canada to study chemistry further as part of the government policy to develop local people as lecturers. By that time I loved chemistry fully, and I began to see that doctors cure patients but chemists develop the medicines. So being a doctor was no longer so important to me. I loved my career path as a chemist.”

While still at varsity, Nyokong married and had two children sandwiched on either side of her first degree. Parenthood is one of the factors that drive women from the sciences, often because the pace of science is relentless but there are few ways of keeping in touch during maternity leave or after two or three years of child-rearing.

Nyokong minced no words. Juggling motherhood and studying for her PhD while working as a cash-strapped teaching assistant was “very difficult. It was in no way easy.”

But the fight for success did not end with her doctorate. Research was a lonely road. “I had no one to talk to among my peers when things went wrong with my research or when I got very excited about my research. I had — and still have — academic loneliness.”

Racism and sexism were additional hurdles when she arrived at Rhodes University.

“Clearly, students had never been taught by a black person when I arrived, and let alone a black woman. There were some difficulties at the beginning which I soon overcame. But one has to be very firm.”

She warned black female scientists to be prepared to tackle these challenges. “You should know it can happen.”

On the other hand, she noted a little-known positive side-effect of her upbringing: “Every little thing you achieve is better than what you started off with; hence, every achievement calls for a celebration.”

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