Rufaro Samanga is a Microbiology Honours graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. She will soon be embarking on her Masters in Epidemiology and is particularly passionate about science in the public health sphere. She is also a feminist and activist providing social commentary both through her social media posts and critical thought-pieces for OkayAfrica. She is currently working on her debut non-fiction book and lives In Johannesburg.
On falling in love with Science:
Rufaro: I loved entering the Eskom Science Expo Fair, and I started when I was in grade nine. At first I won a bronze medal, and then a silver medal but it wasn’t until I received a gold medal and went on to the National Finals that I knew for sure that I wanted to pursue science after completing school. I think the exposure [to Science] that I received was largely through television; channels like Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic. I think my exposure definitely encouraged my interest and curiosity in science. It greatly increased my participation in class and subsequently the way I performed in my science subjects.
On entering the field of Science for the first time:
Rufaro: I was fortunate, I think, to start off working in the same university setting where I studied. There was a comforting familiarity to the environment. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be taken seriously; I’d be undermined or I would be seen as incompetent not only as a woman but more specifically as a black woman. In the beginning it was a little rocky because a woman who asserts herself and is firm is referred to as a ‘rude bitch’. But I shrugged it off and eventually I begun to win the respect of even the so-called ‘haters’ and was duly rewarded for my work.
On women dropping out of STEM:
Rufaro: I have not seen it first-hand because I haven’t been working in the field long enough but I do see women scientists moving from institution to institution quite a bit because of the lack of recognition compared to male counterparts, mansplaining, and the politics that hail from men largely being in senior positions.
On being constantly aware of gender:
Rufaro: I’m not as much [aware of being a woman scientist] as I am about my race. Thus far, the biggest barrier has been being black first, and then female. Blackness is still associated with automatic incompetence or not being as ‘in-the-know’ as your white counterparts. However, I do think as I move from entry level jobs to more senior posts, where men (black or white) dominate, the biggest obstacle will then be my being a woman.
On Science outside of the lab:
Rufaro: Science is definitely a significant part of who I am. I was fortunate enough to able to take the year off and formally pursue my writing. I thought I was going to be a writer and nothing else. But I found myself still keeping up with the latest studies, craving to be doing research and designing experiments. It’s then that I realised that science is not only what I do but really who I am to a considerable extent.
On gender based awards:
Rufaro: There is nothing different about the science that a man or a woman does such that it requires that either be recognised and rewarded separately. If anything, the fact that such a distinction even exists, is indicative of the sexism still prevailing in the scientific community.
On ways to encourage women and girls to pursue Science:
Rufaro: Representation matters. So if all we ever see when we discuss scientific innovation and advancement is men, it perpetuates the warped view that only men are the true scientists, the only scientists making a difference or the only worthwhile scientists. The media and the images they propagate need to be wholly representative.
It was a pleasure to interview you Rufaro. Thank you for taking the time to share your story.
This series is a collection of interviews from women studying or working in Science. Please note it is open to all transwomen and non-binary persons too. If you would like to share your story please contact me here.