Michelle: the scientist, the DJ

Michelle Mukonyora a.k.a Ella, has put on quite a few caps in her life so far. Both scientist and music lover, she has had experience in different spheres of life. Her story is particularly fascinating for me, because it was the first time I’d heard of an aspiring bioinformatician.

Michelle the DJ

Her journey into her first role began in 2008, after finishing her honours degree.  She decided to take a break for a few years, and during this period she got into the DJ booth for the first time.  “I’ve always had a passion for music, but I was never musical. The one day I got one of my DJ friends to teach me how to do it for fun and I got hooked.”   Michelle was fortunate enough to get a residency soon after she started.  Although this career path was wholly unintended, DJ Elle M was spinning the turntables for a few years.

Michelle the Student

Michelle got involved with biotechnology from high school.  “At the time it was being described as the ‘new frontier’ of the life sciences,” she says, and she was more than ready to launch herself into this scientific unknown.  The initial plan had been to continue her higher education in Australia, where she could do a joint degree in business and biotechnology.  Unfortunately for Michelle, life had other plans: that was the year that the Zimbabwean dollar crashed.  Australia was off the table.  South Africa was the next best option, and that’s where she got her undergraduate degree from the University of the Western Cape in Applied Biotechnology.  She graduated and after she left DJ Elle M behind, Michelle went back to her first love.

“Science is my life. I always knew I’d be back it was just a question of when.” 

Currently a student researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, Michelle’s main focus is drug and vaccine design in Africa, working on animal vaccines and predicting virus structures.  It’s in this team that Michelle can flex her brain muscles and push the boundaries of biotechnology. “I have been given the opportunity to drive my own research process with a wealth of resources at hand. Being exposed to the best equipment and computing power makes one better able to compete globally.”

“My biggest challenge has been not having an emotional support system as a postgraduate student.”

 Michelle has had to deal with a tough and often isolated environment: science is truly her life now. “Science is all consuming with very little reward when you are a student. Your work doesn’t stop when you leave the lab and I wasn’t prepared for that.”  It’s a break from the structures she was used to from her undergraduate studies.  To add to this list of problems, the field of science can be difficult for a young black African woman.  Michelle has been lucky enough not to have experienced any discrimination, but it’s a fact that she’s keenly aware of.  “When I look up to higher positions that I aspire to I don’t find many women, more specifically black women.  I know the ‘Black woman in science’ hurdle is coming up soon for me.”

Michelle the Biotechnologist

“Compared to the rest of Africa we have the potential to be leaders in the field.”

Despite the challenges in the past and the ones to face in the future, Michelle remains optimistic about her relationship with science.  Although studying in South Africa, she has every intention of coming back to Zimbabwe and tapping into the world of potential.  ” In terms of biotechnologists there are plenty of Zimbabweans across the world doing cutting edge research. The key would be to convince them to come back home to the right infrastructure in place.”  Invested in her work as a biotechnologist, Michelle created a website this year, Nyenyedzi Bio, whose aim is to provide a platform for all things science related in Africa.

What struck me the most about Michelle is her dedication to her craft. Although she has done other things with her life, she keeps coming back to her calling.  Zimbabwe is lucky to have people like Michelle: people always questioning the limits of our reality and pioneering the push into our country’s uncharted territory.

“The most exciting part about biology for me has always been how structure relates to function. I love the idea of predicting the structures of small molecules that we can’t see with the naked eye like proteins and DNA and predicting how they work.”

Keep pushing Michelle.

Michelle

You can follow Michelle on Twitter at @EllaBellaBleu

To find out more about Michelle’s interests and work, visit  http://nyenyedzibio.com/index.html. 

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A comics creator named Bill

We are living in the age of the comic book.  From tv adaptions such as Arrow and Jessica Jones, to box office smash hits such as the Avengers and the Batman movies, comic book properties have never enjoyed such immense popularity.   In Zimbabwe, Marvel and DC have many diehard fans and loyal readers.  Admittedly, I am one of them (Team DC all the way).  Despite my unwavering love for all things comics, I couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t more African based comics – comics that would speak true to the realities and stories on the continent.  That’s why my interest was piqued when I heard about Bill Masuku and his work.

Bill The Illustrator

Bill Comics Work

Some of Bill’s rough sketches

Bill Masuku recently graduated from Rhodes University with a degree in Commerce, but he chose to pursue a career in comics full time.  His relationship with them began thanks to an overactive imagination as a child. “I was but a wee lad (when his fascination with comics started), although reading comics religiously came in Form One.”  He created his first full comic when he was in Grade 5.  His first reader base were his fellow classmates, and Bill’s creation was a hit amongst his friends. “It was about a group of kids with superpowers fighting tyrant teachers. Shamefully it was titled BillSaga.” From the moment he saw how people received his comic, it was the beginning of a life of combining illustrations with compelling storylines.

“It was like self actualisation, like the precipice of my human potential.”

Bill the Storyteller

However, after this preliminary break, Bill took a break from comics.  Not only was schoolwork a major factor, but he still couldn’t wrap his head around the art of the good comic story. “My ideas for a good story were incomplete. Writing takes time and it’s a constant refining process.”  For example, his first was to create a story around a team of superheroes whose origins were in South Africa, with the plan of eventually expanding the team to include heroes from across the world.  Such a team made sense in Bill’s mind but translating it on paper proved harder than expected.  He decided to cut down the team and keep the focus on Africa.  This was the golden idea, and with this in mind, Bill started to flesh out the story, incorporating elements from his imagination and current African events to produce an interesting yet relatable story.  “There was that proposal from Gaddafi to initiate the United States of Africa.  Tearing down trade boarders, unifying the currencies and just being great.  In my current universe, the African Union, or the United States of Africa, is in effect by 2014.” In addition, Bill plans on reviving old forgotten folk tales, an audio series, as well as a separate title he calls ‘The Third Chimurenga’, whose premise is a cross between speculative literature, sci-fi, and historical fiction:

Blending fact and fantasy, the story starts in the Rhodesian Bush War, where scientists conducted experiments to create a human weapon. With the death of the lead scientist and the end of the war, the test subjects were put into suspended animation in a facility located a few kilometres outside of Harare.  An unfortunate stranger stumbles onto the site, unleashing these human weapons into modern Zimbabwe.

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Creating the stories behind the comics is a long process for Bill.  Not only does he do historical research, but he also has to test out the plausibility of the powers he gives to his characters. Bill explains his current concepts: “I’m currently struggling with human flight – somewhere between warping one’s own electromagnetic field against gravity and or adjusting the density of fluids in the body and treating the atmosphere as a liquid.”  Bill adds to the superpower factor by grounding his characters to ordinary, relatable people that Zimbabweans encounter on a regular basis:

“The secondary theme I’m following is what would an ordinary person  do with powers. Not a super buff millionaire or an alien.  A kombi conductor with the power to teleport. The circumstances of his life. And what choice would make him a hero or villain. Because in my universe, there is no evil.”

However, he’s hit a few speed bumps when it comes to fleshing out his stories.  Especially when it comes to writing female characters, Bill wants to present heroes that are complex but don’t fall into the stereotypes and tropes that have come to characterise representations of women in comic books.  “It’s harder to write believable female characters that weren’t raped, recovering from some trauma, or the converse depiction of them as a Mary Sue. A lot of thought has to be considered. It’s even more difficult for a black female character.”

Bill the Strategist

As invested as Bill is in his craft, he is not naive to the realities of the comics industry in Zimbabwe and Africa.   The industry is growing – with independent publishers in South Africa, and Nigerian comics gaining more prominence and publicity.  However, comics as a business is still not taken seriously – at least in Bill’s opinion.  “The obstacle,” he says, “is getting over the idea of ‘maPopeye’ and stagnant creators.”  MaPopeye in this case refers to the old style of animation, where people produced brief 10 minute clips of cartoon, such as Popeye. “It’s good for 10 minutes of laughs, but not really a career path or anything of value.”  For young artists and creators to have some kind of success, they have to continue in this old model without exploring their own artistic avenues, leading to a stagnant market.  Bill remains optimistic of the comics industry, and points to the Comics Conventions held in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Zambia.

“The number of dynamic creators has risen tremendously, but the perceptions mean that we can’t make a living off it and it becomes a sub-craft, coupled most commonly with graphic designers.”

SILVER DIAMOND issue 1 cover

With his recent graduation Bill moved back home, and whilst Zimbabwe’s economic situation isn’t the most ideal setting for a young illustrator like him, he’s learnt to appreciate the little things that are to his advantage.  “There are some pleasant conveniences, like EcoCash.  It’s the card that registered my patreon account.  I have more time free time to research and draw.”  To get some funding for his work, Bill set up a Patreon account, which works in the same way as Kickstarter or GoFundMe.  His mother and his friends have been supportive thus far, but he needs financial support to expand his work and produce more comics.  “I need to buy a scanner, so that as soon as I’m done with a piece I can edit and upload.  Then partner with a printing store so I can sell at conventions like AfriNerd Con and maybe even HIFA.  Later I’ll buy a tablet so I can do digital art.”

“Why walk when you can teleport?” 

Bill’s drawings and story arcs illustrate a growing artistic industry and space in Africa.  With non-African comic companies and creators possessing the lion’s share of the readers and collective imagination, it’s high time that young Zimbabweans like Bill get the opportunity to represent their narrative in comic form.  Who knows, perhaps in a few years, the continent could see its own crop of comic book adaptions.  And one of them just might be one of Bill’s creations.

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If you’d like to support Bill via Patreon, check out his account here for the details.

For more illustrations and comic creations, follow Bill on his Instagram at @billmasukuart

Is there Unity in our languages?

Dating back from 1987, Zimbabwe’s Unity Day celebrates the coming together of the country’s two political parties (Zanu PF and PF Zapu) into a mega political force. Almost 30 years on and 22 December is now a public holiday with all the rituals and fanfare synonymous with Zimbabwean national events -cue obligatory national holiday theme song:

Unity Day is a political occasion.  However, this is not a political post.  Rather, it’s about another aspect that’s not often publicised but is nevertheless crucial to discourse on Zimbabwean current affairs. The Shona/Ndebele language struggle is one that many Zimbabweans face and have to deal with.  Shona is the language of power in the country’s landscape.  It’s possible to go your whole life without learning Ndebele – to be honest, there isn’t a drive or push that encourages people to learn the language.  However, the reality for those not born into the Shona language group is different.  Two young Zimbabwean adults share their personal experiences of negotiating their language identity in a country where one language is treated as superior to others.

What are they saying?

By Makabongwe Ngulube.

“I laugh so hard when I remember the first day of preschool. My parents, in all their goodness, forgot to mention that I did not speak Shona. I went to Ascot Garden nursery school in Harare at the age of 4. I remember during our first playtime one of the kids shouting ‘Iwe huya, huya kuno!’ (Hey you come here!) I just stared blankly. If it were not for how pushy kids get I would have just stood there. One of them ran to me and just dragged me to the sand pit. I was still wondering what they were saying as we threw around sand making castles. I soon learnt that ‘huya’ meant ‘come’ and thus began my journey to learning Shona in addition to the English and Ndebele I knew.

I must say, though I was confused back then, I am very grateful that I am multi-lingual. Throughout primary school I had very helpful next door neighbors who helped me with my homework. In grade seven I had a Zezuru Shona teacher who made sure I passed that ZIMSEC grade 7 final. I wanted to drop Shona for high school and my mom told me, ‘it is part of your heritage and since you are not in Bulawayo to write Ndebele, you need something that shows your heritage and language is one of those things.’

It is a great feeling to have a piece of paper that says I wrote Shona at O Level and I got a C – way better than some of my Shona friends. I have a point of reference. My experience growing up Ndebele and learning Shona has allowed me to transcend between both cultures. Staying in Harare may have estranged me a little from my extended family but I am very well able to hold a good Ndebele conversation. I value my knowledge of the two and more than anything, I understood that learning both was to my advantage especially in a country where being Ndebele could be a curse. I think learning the different languages is the first step in eliminating the discrimination that minority tribes face in Zimbabwe.”

The power struggle between Zimbabwe’s two main languages is just a chapter in the story of language dynamics in our country.  The addition of minority groups to our list of official languages (jumping from four to 16 official languages) was mocked and ridiculed by many. “We are not South Africa,” most people argued. However, ignoring smaller less powerful languages doesn’t mean that they will simply disappear. In fact, it could breed resentment.

The Shona/Ndebele Dichotomy

By Mholiwethu Nyathi

“Just like most African countries, Zimbabwe has multiple languages: Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Sign Language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa. The most widely used are English ,Shona and Ndebele. The interactions between the two main languages, Ndebele and Shona, is quite complicated and this is mostly because of the rocky relations between the two ethnic groups. The majority speaks the Shona language while a minority speaks Ndebele.

Though the constitution recognizes other languages as official languages the  governmental policies and the Zimbabwean attitude towards other languages other than Shona portrays a different attitude towards the minority languages. I am Ndebele by birth and was born in Bulawayo. I have spent all my life living in Bulawayo and as a result was brought up in a Ndebele setting. However I still have the ability to hear and understand the Shona language fully and I can have a decent conversation in Shona. This is typical of most Zimbabwean citizens who are not Shona by birth but can converse in Shona.

In my own experience I have noted that most  Shona people learn other minority languages cause they want to while most people learn Shona out of necessity. The correct attitude of the government towards minority languages is firstly found in House Parliament itself. While one would expect the government to have a translator to help facilitate proper communication between members of parliament this is not case. In the parliament the languages spoken are mostly Shona and English. Some members don’t take into account that some members of the parliament can’t understand Shona, and when they address the parliament with their own language they are shot down. This clearly goes to show the real attitude they have towards other languages: while they expect every parliament member to learn  Shona they themselves are not wiling to take time and learn minority languages. Furthermore, in most governmental offices citizens are expected to converse or address their problems in Shona. These expectations are found even in Matebeleland which is a predominately Ndebele area. This goes to shows a lack of respect towards the Ndebele and other minority languages in Zimbabwe.

The problem is also in the schooling system. In the years before former Minister David Coltart started a  program which  involved the printing of textbooks in the Tonga language, most pupils in the Binga region were either taught in Ndebele or Shona at a lower grade. This was problematic as it promotes the death of the Tonga language at a primary level. Though the state recognizes the presence of other languages Shona remains the dominant language. In my opinion this attitude towards other languages stems from the sense of entitlement which most Shona people have of Zimbabwe. According to them Zimbabwe belongs to Shona people only and thus they have no obligation to learn other minority languages but the minority groups have an obligation to learn Shona.

It has really become a case of adapt to survive for most people because if you can’t converse in Shona you won’t be able to enjoy full governmental services. This kind of attitude has a negative impact on Ndebele and Shona relations because as soon as the Ndebele feel as though their language is not respected, they take it as disrespect to the whole tribe and that could fuel hatred. After so many years of independence one would expect these language problems to have been solved so as to further facilitate national unity but that’s not the case. We still have incidents where minority languages are not being respected and recognized .Firstly we still have a national passport which spells basic ndebele words like  ‘akuvunyelwa’ as  ‘akuvhunyelwa’ and ‘epejini’ instead of  ‘ephjini’. One would expect such mistakes to have been sorted out on the new passports but the government still hasn’t done much about it. We also still have companies like Chicken Slice and Econet using the wrong Ndebele grammar in their advertisements.”

Not everyone will share these opinions and sentiments. Some people don’t see language as an issue. Others might feel that such conversations do more harm than good. However it can’t be denied that the scales in Zimbabwe’s language system aren’t equally balanced.  So as 22 December 2015 marks the 28th anniversary of the Unity Accords, it’s time to question whether this unity has extended to the many language groups that colour our country’s landscape.

About Africa Day…

The 25th of May is here again, and for these precious 24 hours, Africans across the globe come together to celebrate what really makes this continent great.  Some countries – like Zimbabwe and Ghana – are lucky enough to have the 25th as a public holiday.  Most of Africa does not.

Whilst it’s important to have the usual festivities, whipping out the traditional clothes and revelling in some African culture, it’s all too easy to lose sight of what this day is really about.  25 May is essentially the anniversary of the ratification of the OAU charter, which was passed all the way back in 1963.  It was an exciting time for Africa.  The Winds of Change were blowing, and the tide of liberation was coming in.  It was in this atmosphere of positivity that the Organisation of African Unity was formed, it’s main purpose being:

To promote the unity and solidarity of African States; to coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa.”

Lofty goals, and sadly, more than 50 years on, have not been achieved.  In the years since the OAU’s inception, there have been at least 35 officially recorded wars in Africa, and this figure only takes into consideration official wars with militias and armies.  Xenophobia, genocide, juntas, tribalism, corruption, extremism: the list of Africa’s ailments is as long as it is depressing.  What is evident is that, in 2015, the feel-good attitude that led to the creation of an organisation for African Unity, has largely failed to unite a fractured continent plagued with problems.

 

Celebrating the diverse and vibrant cultures that make up Africa is important in asserting and owning our identity as Africans, but once a year, when 25 May comes rolling again, it’s even more important to remember the goals that the original OAU wanted to achieve: African unity and cooperation.  As citizens of a continent that is growing in size and potential, keeping that goal in mind wherever we are in the world is vital to Africa’s survival.  Relying on bureaucracy to instill a sense of unity and pride in the 21st century simply isn’t going to cut it anymore.  African Unity starts with each individual African making a conscious to make the dream of African unity and cooperation a reality.

 

 

At the end of the day, after all the celebration and reflection, we should collectively, as Africans, always remember where we’ve come from, the progress we’ve made, and the road ahead.  Our continent has not had the smoothest journey post-Independence, but the bad days we’ve had must not overpower a bright future.  Because no matter what comes our way, our hearts will always beat for Africa.