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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

Dr Mercy Oduyoye receives an honorary doctorate for changing how women are viewed in theology
2015-07-08

Dr Mercy Oduyoye.
Photo: Johan Roux

Dr Mercy Amba Oduyoye received an honorary degree from the UFS Faculty of Theology in acknowledgement of the trailblazing work she has done in the field of African women’s theology. Known as the Mother of African Women’s Theology, Dr Oduyoye is the first black woman in Africa to have received a degree in theology. Ever since then, she has been changing views on gender in theology across the globe. Still at the office at the age of 82, Dr Oduyoye’s life work has centred on two areas: her work with churches, and her work with female theologians.

Women in religion and culture
Following the 2015 Winter Graduation Ceremony on the Bloemfontein Campus, during which Dr Oduyoye received her honorary degree from the University of the Free State (UFS), she presented a lecture on women in religion and culture at the Faculty of Theology. Dr Oduyoye gave a brief overview of her involvement in organisations since the early 1970s to eliminate patriarchal structures in theology, in order to produce a relationship of partnership between women and men. An area that lies especially close to Dr Oduyoye’s heart is that of storytelling, and the use of language. Therefore, a driving force behind her work has been the question: “How do we communicate what we believe as Christians?”

Writing in a way people can understand

This question led Dr Oduyoye on her journey to vernacularise theological language, and it became her mode of writing. “Very seldom will you find the classical or official theological language in my writing, because I’m writing as if I’m speaking to a youth group, a women’s group – or even my grandmother.” In this way, communication became her focal point to present Christianity in such a way that people can understand it, thus rendering it relevant to the situation in Africa.

Changes toward inclusive language
Dr Oduyoye has gone on to author four books and over eighty articles on theology from a feminist perspective. And after toiling for many years, Dr Oduyoye can now see the changes emerging – especially in the US – as Bibles, lectionaries, and hymns are increasingly adopting an inclusive language, giving women a presence and voice within the church.

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