It takes a village to find a balance - Dr Fanelwa Ajayi

Dr Fanelwa Ajayi says that in her line of work as a biosensor researcher in South Africa, women often struggle to juggle the demands of a professional research career with those of a family. “It is either you do well at work or at home, with no real balance. But one thing I learnt from my professors is that as a woman, you have a right to work and to choose your work.”

She wants to find a way for future African female scientists and science leaders to work at ease.

“My vision is to create a village on campus where mothers can bring their children and be able to work as comfortably as possible, with their kids just around the corner if, for instance, they want to breastfeed.” 

Ajayi is a fellow of the Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP), which hosts a cohort of Africa’s future research leaders for a week of skills building at the Future Africa campus every year.

ASLP’s own recent survey of 118 African women researchers across the continent confirms Ajayi’s observation that juggling family life and a career is one of their biggest barriers to success. 

One intervention that ASLP has already adopted is to support women to attend the annual workshop at Future Africa with their newborn baby and a caregiver. “This support will be explicitly announced in all future calls, and on our online and social media pages, so that women know it’s available,” said Smeetha Singh and Prof Bernard Slippers in a recent The Conversation Africa article titled African mothers in science need more support. Providing it is actually easy.

The University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute itself is also very family-friendly, including providing day-care options for babies and small children. Ajayi says she would like to take Future Africa’s example to more institutions, starting by working with psychologists to get a better understanding of employee-employer mentalities in academic environments. As the African proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Ajayi is open to working with non-profit organisations specialising in mother-and-child care to help her equip such “villages” in academic spaces.

Dr Fanelwa Ajayi lectures in chemistry at the University of the Western Cape, and cares deeply about educating the next generation. Her dream for the future of Africa is that children in Khayelitsha (Western Cape) would one day be able to learn chemistry in their own language of Xhosa.

Imagine this headline in future: “African academics who are also mothers find balance”. What is your #imagineFutureAfrica headline?

WATCH: Dr Fanelwa Ajayi’s #imagineFutureAfrica headline in isiXhosa

What's the Xhosa word for "chemistry"? Dr Fanelwa Ajayi imagines a future where pupils will be taught chemistry in their native languages. "At that time, the Xhosa word for chemistry would exist, that is my dream," she says in Xhosa." How do you #ImagineFutureAfrica?