• August 01, 2012

On 22 August the children from St. Ansgar’s were treated to a special talk conducted by Dr Mirriam Tawana during their visit to Maropeng. Every year Maropeng partners with the Cradle of Humankind Management Authority to give learners from schools in the area the opportunity to visit the Sterkfontein Caves. The partnership came about three years ago after the Cradle of Humankind Management Authority identified a number of local schools that did not have the financial means to visit Maropeng.

Dr. Tawana is a member of the new breed of academics who believe that there needs to be a radical change in paradigm towards making rural black children, especially girls, aspire to and realise the opportunity available to them. 

“I think it’s terrible that I only first learned about palaeoanthropology when I was already in university. We don’t want today’s kids, especially girls, to suffer from the same lack of exposure to science. Science is fascinating, and it’s based on the evidence of things that we can see and understand in our minds. It is not opposed to religion, which is about the things that we believe and feel in our hearts!” comments Tawana.

Accompanied by Nonhlanhla Vilikazi, who is currently working on her doctorate in the field, and Zandile Ndaba, who is a fossil specialist, they all inspired and entertained the children with stories about their lives and interests.

Tawana believes that there are too few female post-graduates in the field, and her colleagues agree. “We need to encourage palaeoanthropology and instill an interest in science at a young age,” says Vilikazi. “We need to develop a constant outreach to kids.” 

“How can children become interested in something they have never seen?” adds Ndaba.

Both Tawana and Vilikazi attribute their diversion into palaeoanthropology to the inspiring Dr. Lucinda Backwell.  Tawana had originally been studying zoology and Vilikazi medicine.

All three women said they had also been inspired by Prof. Phillip Tobias, who died earlier this year, and Prof. Lee Berger, whom Tawana says believes in everybody.  “Lee has been like a father,” adds Ndaba. “He wants us all to succeed!”

Tawana and Ndaba may have been fated to go into palaeoanthropology as they were born at significant fossil sites. Mirriam was born at Taung, where the first example of Australopithecus africanus was found and sent to Professor Raymond Dart in 1924. Zandile was born and grew up at the fossil site Motsetse in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

These pioneering women have faced constant challenges with courage and determination. 
“When I used to return from the fossil site, my father would tell me to wash because I had been working with dead people. It took me a long time to get him to understand what it was that I was doing,” says Ndaba.

Vilikazi believes there is little difference in the traditional African belief and the modern scientific belief in ancestors. “I qualified as a sangoma in 2006 and for me palaeoanthropology is just another angle of understanding ancestors. Both sangomas and palaeoanthropolgists can look at bones and then give you some very relevant insights!” she says.

Despite the short time available to them, they clearly had a powerful impact on the St. Ansgar’s kids. “By the show of hands it was clear that few of them had initially intended a career in science.  But hopefully our stories and passion for the field convinced them that a career in science can be interesting and fun,” concludes Tawana.

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