THE AFRICAN FEMALE REALITY: COMMONALITIES AND DIVERGENCES

by Esther Kamaara

To give justice to the African female reality would mean intricately picking out attributes and attitudes of the 690 million females who experience girlhood and womanhood in Africa. Their reality (mine included) is complex. It is influenced by a plethora of things such as the circumstances of their conception, the environment they were born into, the siblings they grew up with, the roles they played as female children in their homes, the schools they attended or did not attend, the men they interacted with and the ones they did not interact with etc. This complex reality weaved by the lived experiences of African women is what informs the ‘African female gaze’ – an aspect deemed an asset to any sustainable development conversation on the continent. This gaze stands at the core of the Female Academic Leadership Network for Conscious Engineering and Science towards Sustainable Urbanisation in Africa (FALCONESS).

Consequently, the conversation on the African female reality was the first conversation to be had by the 90% female team at the FACONESS workshop and it set the tone for the week. The conversation kicked off by reflecting on a famous song that promotes the African woman’s qualities called African Queen by a Nigerian Artist named 2Face Idibia.

Just like the sun, lights up the earth, you light up my life

The only one, I’ve ever seen with a smile so bright

And just yesterday, you came around my way

And changed my whole scenery with your astonishing beauty…

You are my African Queen, the girl of my dreams

And you remind me of a thing

And that is the African beauty….

This led us to listing the qualities of African Queens from the perspective of those in the room.

These included: hardworking, the backbone and rock in their families, being respectful to a fault – where it fails to serve them, unconditionally loving, deeply dedicated, resourceful, accommodating, prayerful, adaptable, great teachers, open minded, incredibly resilient, TOO MUCH (it is difficult to effectively describe in words what this means, however my feeble attempt would be – they embody many assertive attributes), straight forward, visionary, strong and trustworthy.

Nonetheless, despite the great attributes that African women embody they are persistently faced with barriers in pursuit of excellence – especially in the STEM male dominated field. The FALCONESS team discussed these barriers which some of the team members have and continue to experience to date. The discussed barriers included: abusive relationships, financial constraints, imposter syndrome, bad marriages, the pressure to get married, work/life balance, prejudice, cultural challenges, sexual harassment in the workplace, self- obstruction caused by growing up in a patriarchal society, being perceived as a troublemaker or being loud upon standing up for oneself and lacking mental and emotional support.

Fortunately, the team has built resilience over the years, had tips to share on how to successfully manoeuvre some of these unfortunate realities.


Figure 1: Strategies on how to manoeuvre unfortunate realities.

The understanding of these realities both constructive and destructive as well as the tips to overcome barriers is fundamental for the success of any sustainable development practice in Africa. While the team comprised of African women from seven African countries who represented all Sub-Saharan regions, we as the FALCONESS team are alert to the stark divergences in the realities of women across the continent and by no means claim to consider them all. Nonetheless, the Leadership Network adheres to practice consciousness in this regard.

LIVING IN AFRICA AND OUTLOOK INTO THE FUTURE

by Yetunde Oyebolaji Abiodun
Lagos, Nigeria

Africa, is a developing continent. It has numerous countries considered to be “third world” due to their poor economic conditions. In my opinion, the poor economic conditions are a result of limited economic diversification, entrenched corruption and disjointed African union. A lack of unity between the African countries compounds on the existing challenges. A united Africa could potentially tackle and better resolve issues of security, health, education and infrastructure. Resulting in efficient sustainable development and international influence.

Currently, Africa is trying to play catch-up with the rest of the world. Given the arial size of Africa, its international influence is little to none. One would not be amiss to think that some countries in Africa were happy to develop at snails-pace until globalization could not be ignored. Globalization has left Africa with no choice but to incorporate into the world market so as not to be left behind.

In the past, different narratives have been given about Africa as a hub of hunger and poverty, terrorism and all sorts. Yes, growing up has been challenging especially in a country like Nigeria. Lack of electricity and access to potable water in the area I lived as a child for about seven years, affected me but also made me develop survival instinct.

I strongly believe that you cannot count Africa out, with all its challenges it has managed to have significant developments. It is a prospect rather than a menace, with a lot of room for improvement.

For me, provided that the individuals, corporations, governments and countries still work towards a better Africa, the future is promising. There will be better healthcare, more technological innovations, improved education systems and increased opportunities. Putting in place well-thought out systems to increase opportunities would eventually result in a reduction of poverty. Opportunities lead to empowerment, focus on the unemployment rate would lessen. All people would be able to improve their standard of living.

African gender brainteaser or why African women always seem to be smarter than their male counterparts

I’ve been blessed to see quite a number of countries and places on the African continent. Being in contact with so many different cultures and being able to learn from it is a blessing in itself. And getting a deeper insight in the incredibly diverse richness of African cultures, histories, and social interactions, which can impossibly be obtained from the unilateral information that can be distilled from European media, is extremely eye opening. Still today, most Europeans do perceive Africa as a country in which people and cultures are more or less the same. People are really not to blame for this perception, as it is really based on the very limited information about Africa that can be received from the popular media. In 2014, I analysed the media in Germany for what they reported about Africa, and the only news I found were all about Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and Oscar Pistorius, thus, exactly what people in Europe like to hear about in Africa: war, terror, and crime. What was missing at that time were hunger and drought, which are the parameters that typically supplement the picture we like to draw of the “African country” in Europe.

However, the reality is certainly quite different: much more positive, and definitively much more diverse. If you have ever travelled from Dar es Salaam to Accra, you know that Africa is definitively not a country, and cultures, people, ways of living are much more different than between most of the European countries. A few things, however, and despite the incredible diversity that can be observed in Africa, to me always seemed to re-appear no matter whether I was in Central, Eastern, Western or Southern Africa. One was the always extremely positive impression I had of the women I met in academia, researchn and decision making positons.

I was lucky that in most of my projects with African partners I met a few of the most inspiring (often quite young) people of both gender. I met brilliant female and male students, researchers, lecturers and decision makers. However, everytime I flew back and reflected upon my trip, I wondered why I was left with the retrospective feeling that “somehow the women seemed to be smarter than their male counterparts“, despite the fact that the brilliant people I met were equal in number of men and women. In fact, I was puzzled about this perceicved contradiction for a long time, until I tried to look at it from a purely analytical perspective that excludes the idea that there are specific male or female performances.

Indeed, the number of brilliant male and female personalities I met was equal for both gender, but in total I met significantly more men than women. The professional networks in most African societies are heavily male dominated. This means there is a great permeability for men, regardless of their talent. Access to certain positions is rather granted based on family relations, existing networks or personal relations to the employer than based on skill. For women, the access is restricted, and only those whose talent stands out so much that it overcompensates the perceived gender disadvantage can have a chance at all. This means, in a certain position, if you meet a man, he can be really excellent but he could also just be the lazy son of an influencial person. A women in the same position is automatically brilliant with a much higher probability, because if she weren’t she would not be in this position.

In other words, I met very talented men but also a high number of less talented men, but I mostly met only very talented women. And this is not because the less talented women do not exist. They do; in the same percentage as for men, but unlike the men, they are not given a chance to participate. The mathematics behind are explained here. It is also shown, why the inclusion of more women automatically (and purely statistically) causes enhanced performance of men.

It is a simple question of who will be included and who will be excluded in networks. The logic behind is not limited to gender aspects, it is just most visible for women and men. Basically, the exclusion of any group of people in a society causes the same effect, may it be for reasons of religion, age, sexuality, gender or colour of skin. The result of exclusion is that more of the less talented individuals are included in societal activities, while the more talented are not given a voice.

In the light of the climate change, pressing global challenges related to resource depletion, rapid population growth, urbanisation, and societal unrest, no society in the world can afford anymore to exclude their most skilled and innovative talents. These talents are equally distributed among men and women, and people need to understand that the exclusion of talents automatically weakens societies. This, should not be any human’s or society’s future perspective, regardless of the gender, and that is why also every man should fight for the inclusion of women.

Disrupting the status quo: Science edition

By Nonkululeko Radebe

To whom does science belong?


It has proven to be quite a challenge to write a comprehensive essay about dismantling or disrupting the status quo in science. I suppose to tackle the issue one has to possess some knowledge about the existing state of affairs in science. Firstly, what does a scientist look like? What is the most represented version of a scientist? Why does this matter? Once we have answered these questions then perhaps, we can explore how and why different people with diverse backgrounds relate differently to science. One of the ways in which we can do so is look at the education systems and curricula in different communities and investigate whether or not they allow science to be accessible to all and contextualized. We need to get rid of the eurocentric dominance and eurocentric hegemony of
science.

It is no secret that African values, perspectives, contributions and experiences are not prioritized in science. Indigenous African science, although not mainstream, is still science. Veteran science journalists Sarah Wild and Linda Nordling share that “there is a wealth of traditional knowledge systems in Africa, but the current global science system came to Africa in the hands of the colonialists. Modern research centres in Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe have their roots in medical or agricultural science outposts funded and manned from their colonial masters” (1). This introduces the issue of research funding. Much of the funding for masters and Ph.D. studies comes from external donors whose real interest do not align with those of the people on the local people. Some of the top ranked universities in Africa have research groups researching telescopes, robots, and accelerated mass spectrometers etc. and have no immediate relevance to African people. In South Africa, we have the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office within the Department of Science and Technology, the main driver of science within government. One of the objectives if the Indigenous Knowledge Bill is to “develop and enhance the potential of indigenous communities to protect their indigenous knowledge” (2). Billions of rands have been spent on researching indigenous knowledge, such as medicinal plants but the National Research Foundation (NRF) can certainly do more to ensure that funding is provided to projects that have lasting impact on the lives of people in the country. Having said
that, we also need to recognize that science has been developed by knowledge from all around the world. Science does not have a so called “origin”. We are collective agents of the history and the future of science.

Hindsight

Furthermore, we need to address the issue of physical representation in science and research. Math and science have always been, and is still, considered “masculine subjects” because they involve logic and numbers, which apparently “emotional females” cannot handle. Of cause, we cannot solely blame this stereotype on the education system but on society as a whole. How can we expect young girls to aspire to be game changers, engineers, scientists to be innovators when they are brought up playing with gender-based toys? Young boys are stimulated with train sets and Lego to build with as well as chemistry sets to discover with whist young girls are given make-up sets and dolls. We need to encourage and inspire young girls and what better way than sharing with them scientific breakthroughs and achievements by women. Achievements by of women in science both in the history book and in the present day have been overlooked and representation of women is disproportional to say the least. Although someone like Marie-Curie (Nobel laureate for discovering the radioactive elements polonium and radium) (3) often dominates the conversation when it comes to brilliant female scientists but it is important to point out that there were exceptional women contributors to science before and after her, yet most of them were snubbed due to sexism. One of these women was Rosalind Franklind, who was a biophysicist that studies DNA and contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA (4). For this research, two of her male colleagues went on to win the Nobel Prize. In addition, in a recent screenplay called “Hidden Figures” we learn that African-American female mathematicians, during the height of segregation and oppression, beat the odds and formed part of the team that calculated the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return (5). This is important for young girls, young girls from all ethnicities to see and hear. It is most especially necessary to begin and decenter white, heterosexual, and middle or upper class men from being the face of science. The system will not reform itself only through historiography. If we really want pragmatic change, we need to have serious conversations with those in institutional governance, those who make and implement policies. What would make this deal even sweeter would be if the boardrooms in which these decisions are made actually had women in them because “you can’t make decisions, if you are not in the room where the decisions are being made”-Unknown. The smartest move is to invest in women and continue to make deliberate and systematic changes to boost the number of females in lower and higher education through scholarships, science expos in rural areas that may not have access and increasing scientific resources that will improve the quality of education.

How to “science” 101

Whilst we invest in young girls and women, we should also consider ways in which we give tangible meaning to science. A great start would be to demystify science by allowing children in at primary school level to solve real problems with solutions they think of together. This same idea was beautifully illustrated in a TED talk titled “How to teach kids to love science”. In this TED talk the speaker, Cesar Harada, explains how he teaches invention and citizen science at the Hong Kong Harbour School. He moved his classroom into an industrial mega-space where imaginative kids work with wood, metal, chemistry, biology, optics and, occasionally, power tools to create solutions to the threats facing the world’s oceans. The classroom has been transformed into a workshop where the kids, which range in age from 6-15, do rapid prototyping. One of the projects they did was to build a sensor that would estimate the about of plastic found in the ocean. The kids then found a community with other kids that needed this technology to identify the amount of oil in their water (from an oil spill). They shipped they robot sensor, in this small but significant way showed empathy, and were able to help another community (6). Furthermore, by doing this, he and the students has destroyed the notion that science is practiced only in a laboratory. Science is being “done” every day and everywhere. The irony is that science is seen as somewhat as a conservative sphere all though science bring different disciplines together.

Embracing interdisciplinary learning

I often come across stories about young men and women, in rural areas, who are purifying water through traditional and household purification methods and generate electricity for their families using solar energy. That is innovation and that is science. Fact is, necessity has always been the driving force behind innovation and homemade purification system and electricity generators are testimony to that. This also reiterates that scientific change should be recognized only at a contextualized level of description of the practices of scientists at rather specific times and places. Currently, there is not enough energy being extracted from known sources of fossil fuels to sustain an estimated 7.5 billion people (7). This means that humans will be forced to turn to a new energy sources before the end of the century. However, necessity has proven to be the catalyst needed for innovation and currently we are in need of clean drinking water, housing and sustainable farming for food. We need plans for sustainable farming, and cheaper ways to turn seawater into drinking water. Contrary to popular belief, I think that migrating towards clean energy should not take us decades. Clean energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal kinetic power already exist and that application of these methods should be expanded and implanted worldwide. Already in some countries, the move away from cars that run on gas towards electrical cars has been made. The next step would be to a smart electrical grid, and invest in carbon-capture. This highlights how science can be used and in fact has been used as pivotal part in building the economy, technological advances and societal progress. Furthermore, it will prove to be more effective if more interdisciplinary relationships are built between science, engineering, commerce and social science. As much as new technology is necessary, large-scale changes can be made through policy changes more than gadgets and more often than not, people who are in commerce and social science are the policy makers and allocate government funding.

In Conclusion

It is obvious that factors of community, society, gender and technology play a key role in facilitating or mitigating scientific change. We have to explore the challenges that we are faced in our respective communities whether that be our immediate, remote or global communities. Thereafter we need to place more effort into investing in women to study science through deliberate systematic changes. Further, we have to apply local solutions for local problems with the influence of indigenous knowledge and an interdisciplinary approach. The changing global environment is not only a natural sciences issue but very much a social sciences issue too. This means solutions that combine socio-political, cultural and economic (8) are needed. The most effective relationships in these fields can be fostered through sharpening the efforts to improve access and quality of education. Science, in my humble opinion, is most effect when we pull away from intellectualizing it but instead applying it to improve the lives of earth’s inhabitants.

References

  1. Sarah Wild, Linda Nordling. Daily Mavrick. Op-Ed: Science is not unAfrican – but there is a prejudice towards African science. [Online] October 21, 2016. [Cited: January 27, 2017.] https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-10-21-op-ed science-is-not-unafrican-but-there-is-a-prejudice-towards-african-science/#.
  2. Science and Technology, Minister. Protection, promotion, development and management of indigenous knowledge systems bill. Cape town : Creda Communications, 2016.
  3. Nobelprize.org. Marie-Curie: Facts. [Online] Nobel Media AB 2014. [Cited:
    January 15, 2017.] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1903/mariecurie-facts.html.
  4. Bagley, Mary . Rosalind Franklin: Biography & Discovery of DNA Structure. [Online] 2013. [Cited: January 21, 2016.]http://www.livescience.com/39804-rosalind-franklin.html.
  5. Melfi, Theodore. Hidden Figures. Levantine Films, 2015.
  6. Harada, Cesar, [comps.]. How to Teach kids to love science. s.l. : TED talks, 2015.
  7. Worldometers. Current World Population. [Online] [Cited: January 15, 2017.] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.
  8. Vogel, Coleen. World Social Science Report: Changing Global environments. Paris :United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2013.

Prof. Risikat Dauda chair for gender and urban environment session at 29th IAFFE Annual Conference

Prof. Risikat Dauda, member of the FALCONESS team, will chair a session on Gender and Urban Environments, and her team will present a paper on environmental exposures and maternal mortality in Africa during the 29th Annual Conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) held in Quito.

The presentation will be held on June 23 (8:00 a.m. Quito time / 2:00 p.m. Nigerian time)

Further information canbe found here: IAFFE – 2021 Annual Conference