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11 June 2018
Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi Science Changes Communities

“With enough will-power any child can succeed, no matter their living conditions and background. These factors never define you, or are limiting factors when it comes to a child's potential. My advice is to build hope and to have a plan.”

So says Dr Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi, a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and research leader in the field of drug metabolism nanobiosensors for antiretrovirals and Tuberculosis treatment drugs... and also the founder and leader of the non-profit organisation, AmaQawe ngeMfundo, which aims to change the negative stereotypes about townships, visiting schools with makeshift equipment and exciting experiments to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We visit schools with our makeshift mobile laboratory and give learners access to interactive demonstrations and experiments to help make learning more practical,” she explains. “Then there are times we take them on outings - to the Cape Town Science Centre, for instance. One of the learners inspired by that trip would like to become a forensic biologist.”

Dr Ngece-Ajayi - and her five fellow academics in AmaQawe ngeMfundo - understand that applying to a university to further your education is not a given for people living in township communities like Khayelitsha in Cape Town, where she comes from.

“I’m happy to be leading this group of academics,” Dr  Ngece-Ajayi explains enthusiastically. “Lecturing at UWC showed me that students from the townships and rural-based schools struggle financially, and sometimes quit their studies due to a lack of proper foundation in science and a lack of exposure in the field - and I’d like to change that.”

Together, they want firstly to change the negative stereotypes about townships, instilling confidence among pupils living there to study maths and science, as well as the skills and love for the subjects that can change their worlds.

“We all have a heart for the communities we come from and we want to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] among pupils in townships and rural schools, and to encourage these pupils to pursue careers in these areas.”

Through their efforts they’ve empowered more than 60 pupils from different schools in Khayelitsha through the motivational seminars, workshops and talks they offer. These events are also tailored to provide these pupils with information pertaining to bursary and scholarship applications, apart from assisting them with placement at institutions of higher learning.

“So far we’re proud of what we’ve achieved,” Dr Ngece-Ajayi says, “but there’s more to come. In future, I’m excited about seeing these youngsters interested in solving the current water crisis, as well as finding solutions to the health issues in South Africa.

AmaQawe ngeMfundo also strives to open laboratories in marginalized communities, so that they can experience the joys of experiments, tinkering and discovery firsthand. Dr Ngece-Ajayi appeals to both the private and public sector to support this cause through any form of donations and sponsorships.

“We are limited to Khayelitsha at this point because of inadequate resources and funding, but we would like to see this project expanding nationally. I’d want the kids to see that it is possible to be part of this country’s teams leading projects of these magnitudes.”

Being The Difference You Want To See: Helping Others Up

Dr Ngece-Ajayi is clearly - and intensely - passionate about education. It’s a passion that’s been with her pretty much her whole life.

“I like the whole idea of breaking the cycle of poverty by means of education. It’s what motivated me. My mother, who worked as a domestic worker, pushed education and hard work, simply because she never had the opportunity.”

They had no support from her father, but her mom managed to pay for her schooling and that of her other three siblings - an artisan brother now aged 30, a sister who’s a volunteer English teacher in the Eastern Cape, and another sister currently in matric.

“I would contribute financially by braiding hair over weekends as well as helping my mom work as a domestic worker - also over weekends - until I eventually obtained a government bursary during my honours year,” Dr Ngece-Ajayi says. “That’s when I was able to stop working and concentrate on my studies.”

Dr Ngece-Ajayi, a mother of three (aged nine, five and three) says she hopes to inspire learners to achieve greater things.

“To me the most disheartening thing is to see bright kids from my area pass matric and sit at home aimlessly. It makes a difference, going out to communities which don’t have wifi access, and teaching them how to go about doing an online application. When you’re right there in the community, it makes it easier for learners to run back home quickly to get the necessary documents, instead of travelling back and forth. I’m basically doing what I would’ve liked done for me when I used to be in the same situation,” she says.

“It is rewarding to see the positive effect the seminars have on them and how they influence pupils to eventually choose science as a future career. I’d like to see more scientists, engineers and doctor,” she says. “These are exactly the kinds of skills that this country - and this continent, and the rest of the world - really needs.”