Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma is the first Black Biostatistician receiving her degrees from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Had she obsessed about her background, Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma would have long given her dream of pursuing education. This is because she grew up in a household which was characterised by poverty and want. Inevitably, this had a serious negative impact on her schooling as her parents could not afford to buy her textbooks let alone other basic necessities.
The highest academic point
But through sheer determination and hard work, the young Nonhlanhla persevered; borrowed books from her fellow learners which saw her successfully completing her Grade 12. Today that poor little girl has grown and reached the highest pinnacle of her academic achievement becoming the first black woman to obtain a PhD in Biostatistics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
She also has under her belt Master of Science (MSc) in Statistics, a Bachelor of Science (BSc) Honours in Statistics and a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Statistics all from UKZN. She still holds the record of being the first person from her village to go to University, a feat that has spared her family from the trap of grinding poverty and hopelessness. Perhaps more importantly, it is also bound to pave way for other young girls from her village.
Tribute to uncle
Currently Dr Yende-Zuma is the head of Biostatistics and data management at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, also popularly known as CAPRISA – a prestigious research body known for its significant contribution and response to the HIV and Covid-19 pandemics. Her responsibilities include, among others, analysing clinical data and designing research studies. Dr Yende-Zuma says she owes her success in the main to her uncle who motivated her to take maths and science subjects when she was still a little girl growing up.
Maths and science
This was an unpopular choice at the time as there was a widely held view in the community that the subjects were “difficult”. Not only that but they were also believed that they were suited for boys because they were perceived to be more intelligent than girls. In addition, there were no role models as most maths teachers were male and the science class of 50 learners had a few girl learners. But despite all these, Dr Yende-Zuma soldiered on.
But despite her enviable position, Dr Yende-Zuma feels obliged to plough back by way of inspiring and mentoring other young people in her field. She says since Biostatistics (and statistics in general) is a scarce skill in South Africa, she plans to mentor as many young Biostatisticians as possible, particularly young women. “I would like to encourage young women to dream big and work hard. There are no limitations to what you can achieve if you believe in yourself and work hard,” Dr Yende-Zuma reportedly said.
Her achievement is worthy of celebration by other women considering the fact that even though women have higher educational qualities in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, they do not enrol in science, technology, engineering and mathematics STEM subjects at tertiary level. The number of women holding leadership positions in science and research institutions across the country does not inspire confidence.
There is a general sense that not enough is being done to provide sufficient support to women currently pursuing STEM field. In addition, the young ones do not have access to relevant information about how to get to university or about career choices that are available for them. Dr Yende-Zuma’s situation reflects that of many girls across rural parts of the country, who despite their commitment and hard work cannot make it to tertiary.
However, Dr Yende-Zuma’s success would remain a source of pride and inspiration to more young black girls from impoverished backgrounds and under-resourced schools to dream big. Her inner strength and courage to defy the incredible odds stacked against her and the desire to pursue her academic dream should see more young girl learners pursue STEM subjects despite their predicament.