Lesson: Your Voice matters, no matter how young you are.
As I navigated my space on the Kafue River, I realized just how complex my fatherland Zambia really was. I mean I watched snakes slither past me, communities get disconnected and the river turn greener with the invasive plant that was spreading FAST. I was upset, confused and equally convinced that something could be done. It was a mixture of feelings that drove me to read up more about the weed and reach out to researchers around the world. Particularly the ones in Australia, who had extensive experience on this weed, in particular.
So with this research, I had a good grasp of what the possible best interventions would be for the weed.
I have to however, share an experience I went through as I have never forgotten this. So just before the water hyacinth was declared a disaster for my country, I was literally summoned to the environment minister’s office. Why? Well because I had proposed that the president fly over the site to understand the extent of the problem and the challenges it was posing to hydro-electricity our only source of energy for the country.
As I got to the ministers’ office, it turned out there had been a delegation from Sweden – some engineers – whom I was made to understand were experts in both power generation and water hyacinth. I was a little shocked because I thought in my mind, being Europeans I doubt they had had the experience of having worked with a tropical weed there. So, in the waiting room we chatted informally.
The gentlemen were totally dismissive of my ideas. I resolved instantly to keep those thoughts to myself. After all I was only in my early 20s, perhaps inexperienced I guessed.
Then the meeting commenced. Firstly Mr. Minister gave me one look, stared at the skinny young me and decided I was not worth his attention. I knew it instantly. So I sat there and listened. My ears rang with the memory of my South African grandmother’s voice (Winnie Mazizi), “Listen - Against all odds I became what I became, a nurse and now matron of the University Teaching Hospital of Zambia. I became whom I became, even as Apartheid ravaged my country. Young ladies, you can be ANYTHING you want to be and no one should ever tell you otherwise.” I must have been at least 7 years old and she repeated these words OVER and OVER to me and my twin sister.
I sat up listened attentively to what was being discussed with the Swedes. What I heard next just freaked me out. In a nutshell, the minister shaking his head profusely in agreement with the gentlemen, thought the idea of removing the weed mechanically at the height of the hot season was a brilliant idea. At which point I interjected and went: “With all due respect your honorable, this weed spreads mostly through vegetative means. In simple terms, a cut piece falling into the river is the birthing of more and more plant babies and this weed spreads fast that way.”
At this point he gives me that look of “did I ask you to speak” and I, totally ignoring him, continued. “Sir, I respect these engineers and their ideas however as the biologist working on the ground I disagree totally. I would like to propose that all mechanical removal especially around the Hydro-electricity dam happen during the height of the cold season. The growth of the weed is slowest and the spread lessened. “ He is still staring – hard!! Looking irritated at this juncture, at which point he turns to the white gentlemen: “Is this true?” Them: “We are not sure sir but we can review the research.” Me, extending my hand with paper work: “Sir, please have a look at these diagrams and papers I have put together based on research and perhaps this could help you come to a decision about President Chiluba flying over the area to assess the situation.”
Silence. An uncomfortable silence. Mr. Minister studies the papers. Coughs.
Then goes, “Ok it seems this young lady has useful information as regards this menace and my president needs a solution sooner than later. Gentlemen please lead the work and work closely with her on this matter.” At which point I interject not even remembering what possessed me, “Sir I am afraid, I AM the lead on this work and the biologist in one of your offices, the Environmental Council of Zambia. My understanding is that these gentlemen have come to support ZESCO (the electricity company) on matters of the weed and I have been helping them already on this. I am happy to take them through all the notes and research I have done.”
Mr. Minister, “OK then. Fine. Dismissed.” And we walked out. Me, totally sweaty and exhausted from all this.
A bit like a deer in flashlights I was totally shell shocked and didn’t quite understand what had ensued. I had grown up with a father who just gave as wings to FLY – literally. For the first time, I had felt so undermined, demeaned in front of these foreign men who knew so little about the river system, let alone its ecology. It would have been different if they had spent a while studying the river system, alas. Several questions flooded my brain as I walked out: Was it because I was young that he didn’t believe me? Was it because I was a woman (scientist) or he just didn’t expect a female scientist at all? Did his people not brief him? Did my name also deceive him into thinking I was a man? Was it because he preferred to listen to the white men instead of me, the black woman?
Few days later as we flew over the gorge with the Swedes and ZESCO technical team, they treated me totally different and respectfully. Upon which one of them turned to me and said: “You are smart young lady, well done”. Me: “Thank you. BUT please never undermine me in front of the authorities or think that I don’t understand the science. I may be young but I do read. Sweden does NOT have water hyacinth.” Poor man, he blushed and apologized.
I went to University of Zambia and I was trained by the BEST!