A few months back I had the pleasure of meeting the Mafikeng born Dr Mmaki Jantjies at a Kato Technology event in Cape Town. She was one of the three women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that were panel guests, giving valuable advice on how to make it as a determined woman in science, particularly in the tech field. We chatted after the event and the rest is history.
Mmaki’s parents instilled in her and her siblings that it is important to choose subjects that will “put bread on the table”. Fortunately for her, the school she went to had Information Technology as one of the compulsory subjects. This allowed Mmaki to start programming at a tender age in standard 5 (grade 7). This became an advantage when she reached the first year of study at university with a variety of modules to choose from. Technology modules were in abundance and she was “not about the struggle” in that she wanted to choose modules that would propel her towards getting decent work opportunities after her degree (s). Jantjies decided to double major in technology and accounting, an invaluable choice that brought her happiness and no regrets. During her studies, Mmaki was influenced by a particular black female academic throughout her studies. She asked herself questions about this very influential individual who had such a positive impact in her life. She questioned why this was the only black female academic and with those questions in mind, she started having conversations with the black woman academic. Between each other they extensively shared their passions for teaching, educating and the joys that are brought about by research. Mmaki’s parents have always been her greatest support system and greatly encouraged education. Her husband (The Rockstar!) who is also a researcher and has pronounced passion for education was very supportive towards her goals of becoming a full time academic. Today, Dr Mmaki Jantjies holds a Ph.D. in Computer Sciences and with the influence of a black woman academic, support from family in the form of her parents and husband she is a successful academic changing lives through her achievements.
When she was in her Honours year, Dr Jantjies realised that there were very few black software developers. Therefore this meant that the existing software was not entirely user-friendly for an African, as non-English speaking individuals were not catered for, especially of South African origin. As a first language Tswana speaker, Mmaki felt that other Tswana speakers were left out when it came to participating online and on software and in essence, with education as a whole. Of course, this meant that the developments and advancements in technology would not benefit the black majority as it is not designed with us in mind. So as she started to read and build her research, Mmaki came across publications by B1 rated Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng whose research is largely in line with hers. She merged Mamokgethi’s mathematics education and science with her technology to influence her software developments, particularly code-switching which involves the mind processing information better when received in the mother tongue/ home language. Jantjies therefore from these fundamentals developed technology that allows children to switch between languages when learning and considering that mobile apps are widely accessible, she additionally developed mathematics and science apps that can be used for high school learning, working with teachers.
As many would testify in their own lives, Mmaki also had her times of difficulties in the field, especially being in the tech world, a male-dominated field. However, she has a point of view where she looks at what she brings in to the field as compared to a male colleague, for example, as our contributions across genders and personalities are diverse. Mmaki took me through the life of a black female academic, pointing out that our journeys are not like any other. She reiterates the reality that our government does encourage women academics, however, it is overwhelmingly challenging for many black people to see the dream through due to demands and requirements from home. A number of people cannot pursue their studies until the end due to demands from home to give back, what we call “black tax”. A large majority of us have to budget from our scholarships and in those budgets family is included, the snowball effects of our country’s past. Most people end up not reaching these goals because of the frictions between maintaining family/ extended families (in some cases) with the funding and getting employment. Fortunately, Jantjies is one of the few who persevered and ran past the finish line through all the hardships.
Dr Mmaki Jantjies does not want me to say she’s successful, but she really cannot run away from her self-created success and on behalf of the world I asked for her advice on how to make it to the heights she is in careerwise. She advises that one needs to be sure about one’s self and self-worth. Always remember to look beyond the fancy offers and focus on the quality of growth they will bring, she advised. Unfailingly bear in mind what you want to be remembered for when you have passed (legacy), she added. My great grandchildren will read what I wrote many years from now and they will light up with pride and work towards emulating my efforts, she said.