Takunda Chitaka’s infectious smile and her bubbly personality belie her tenacity and never-die attitude. The 29 Zimbabwe born and the soon-to-be a PhD Chemical Engineering graduate from the University of Cape Town (UCT), has had to wrestle with a recurring physical pain to fulfil her dream.
Chitaka broke her hip at the age of 11, although this happened some eighteen years; the pain still haunts her today even though she underwent a few surgeries to correct it. But despite this, Chitaka soldiered on and today she is among a growing pool of young UCT scientists and she received the Blue Charter fellowship from The Association of Commonwealth Universities last year.
She is also the first recipient of the Excellence in Academia PETCO Award for research she had been working on since 2016. Her PhD supervisor, Professor Harro von Blottnitz, nominated her for the PETCO award.
Established by PETCO, a South African organisation specialising in the recycling of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, the award recognises the importance of peer-reviewed research to strengthen the efforts to intervene in recycling, minimising waste, and sustainability.
Chitaka’s PhD thesis is titled “Inclusion of leakage into lifecycle management of products involving plastic as a material choice”. She argues that litter should be included in the lifecycle management of plastic products.
Her research kept her very busy as she spent the past few years traversing the beaches around Cape Town. This involves conducting surveys to estimate the amount of litter that flows into the marine environment as well as exploring how this knowledge can influence development of strategies and interventions.
Chitaka also travels extensively including addressing international forums and conferences about her research. She also took up a fellowship in New Zealand for six months. She said her father influenced her choice of her current area of study because he is also an engineer by profession.
“I ended up in Cape Town because of my dad. He gave me two options between medicine or engineering. He loved Cape Town. When I got accepted into UCT, I conveniently hid it from him until I knew I had to go. I got there, but I hated engineering. I graduated … but I can’t design a plant to save my life,” she laughed.
But her encounter with Professor JP Franzidis, from the faculty of engineering and the built environment changed her thinking, said Chitaka. “It was research day when they tell you what everyone else is doing. I remember JP Franzidis was doing a presentation – and he had two minutes. I never considered myself as a spontaneous person because I like to plan my life, but when I heard him speak, I said: ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that [master’s]’,” added Chitaka. In the course of her Masters’ studies, Chitaka discovered her passion for teaching and she ended up lecturing. “I realised … you need a PhD to teach. So I said to myself, ‘Let’s do that then’,” she said.
She is also full of praises for her supervisor, Professor Von Blottnitz. “My supervisor is the most supportive and most compassionate person I’ve ever met. He was like, ‘I know where you want to be, and I’ll help you get there.’ And then he said: ‘But you know I’ve got a research idea …’ I jumped onto the project, and it was great,” said Chitaka.
Chitaka’s research work can be physically demanding as it involves picking up litter from beaches and often this triggers her old pain. It also includes painstakingly analysing the litter recovered from the shores. Her doctor recommended a hip replacement, which she couldn’t afford. She was faced with a possibility of not being able to walk properly again but she shrugged off the thought and instead decided to crowd fund to cover the expenses for her surgery.
Von Blottnitz spearheaded the fundraising initiative and people responded positively and raised enough money to pay for her surgery. Chitaka never looked back and a month after her successful operation she presented her PhD proposal. “I insisted, and I went for it and it didn’t go well. There was scepticism about a chemical engineer dabbling into plastic pollution and marine studies,” Chitaka said.
Unfortunately, her proposal did not succeed and it was sent back to her to revise. She attended an international conference in 2017, where she presented in a competition for PhD projects, and finished second. The experience gave her courage and confidence and she made another attempt at re-presenting her PhD proposal – and it was accepted.
Soon thereafter, Chitaka’s life got very hectic as she had to juggle her lecturing duties with her beach surveys. All of a sudden her life got very busy – from lecturing to being involved with the faculty’s student council to doing beach surveys.
But the pain never went away after her first hip surgery; she needed a second one. “Am I supposed to stop living my life because my body hates me? No, it must get on board,” said Chitaka defiantly. Fortunately her surgeon did not charge her for the second surgery. “I didn’t tell a lot of people that I went for the second surgery because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I got the second surgery – and it didn’t work. I still have chronic pain until this day,” said Chitaka.
But this never broke her spirit as she was selected for a fellowship in New Zealand in 2019. She went to her doctor who prescribed a six months’ worth of pain medication in her suitcase as she headed to the land of the Kiwis. She vowed that she will not “stop living my life because my body hates me”.
Chitaka attributes her perseverance and tenacity to her father, who started as an engineer, then a businessman, a politician and ultimately a chicken farmer after his retirement.
“Life is hard, but then you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” said Chitaka. “You persevere; you have to be positive for yourself. Your inner voice has to be positive. You have to say, ‘Life sucks right now, but I’m going to keep going.’ Look at where you’re going. Don’t dwell on where you’ve come from,” she concluded.