Wits student reflects on Mandela Washington fellowship

Wits PhD candidate and Black Women in Science co-founder Ndoni Mcunu. Photo: Provided

A Wits doctoral student has returned home to South Africa after spending six weeks in the United States on the Mandela Washington Fellowship for outstanding leaders.

Ndoni Mcunu, a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, was chosen to attend the fellowship administered by the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Nebraska where she spent five weeks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln followed by another week in Washington DC.

“It was challenging and I was not expecting that kind of challenge. I think I was expecting a challenge in terms of content and theory but instead I was more challenged as an individual,” Mcunu said about her experience.

“My highlight was just seeing how much effort is put into community, in terms of a soup kitchen or a place where the community can go get clothes or a place to shop for vitamins and food. It’s not just soup and bread, you literally take a trolley and grocer, that’s amazing and that’s how much donations they get. I think we need that culture here,” she added.

The fellowship which runs for six weeks brings together young leaders from 48 different African countries. This year, 63 South Africans were part of the fellowship. The fellows are selected for their outstanding leadership in their communities.

Mcunu applied for the fellowship based on her involvement in social entrepreneurship through her non-profit organisation(NGO), Black Women in Science (BWIS), and her PhD research which focuses on climate change and food production.

“I learned to have confidence in what I’m doing and in the way that I deliver what it is that I’m trying to do … I also learned a different way to view my NGO. It’s not just a charity thing that I’m just running but something that I need to start running as a business,” said Mcunu about what she learned from the fellowship.

Mcunu started BWIS in 2015 and her intention was to start an NGO that reaches out to black female university science students and teaching them scientific skills.

“I think that having more black females in the science industries can add some kind of different eye and perspective to whatever scientific topic that is there. I’s very important and it hasn’t been explored so we can’t say it doesn’t work,” she said.

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Tiisetso Lephoto came second at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin as the best researcher in South Africa/Africa. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

Tiisetso Lephoto came second at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin as the best researcher in South Africa/Africa.                                                                                                                                Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

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What research are you working on for your PhD?
My project is based on trying to come up with ways to reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Since 2011, when I started with masters, I’ve been trying to discover nematodes; microscopic worms which can kill insects. So, instead of spraying harsh chemicals which can make us sick because our food has been highly contaminated, my project wants to come up with ways of reducing or eliminating the use of these harmful chemicals, and find biological control agents. That’s the healthier way of killing insects without harming people or animals in any way.

What influenced the role you play in aerobics today?
I joined an aerobics community programme. They taught us almost everything, and it became fun, like a dancing routine, so I incorporate everything into my aerobics routines. And it’s more like a God-given talent, that’s how it feels, I just think of steps in my head and I execute it.

What is the most fulfilling part about being an aerobics fitness and training instructor?
I started an NGO called YesWeAreMoving in 2011. My aim was to spread the culture of healthy living, so I started to organise aerobics marathons alongside academic tutoring under a programme called Katleho Pele Education. We help grade eight to 12 learners in Soweto maintain their studies and health. We have a marathon this Saturday at the Squash Complex on West Campus from 9-11am. I organise the marathons to donate and fundraise for orphanages. This year is aimed at collecting food, toiletries, and clothes. And with my own personal training company, TiiMoves, I encourage others, and help people to put nutrition together with exercise, and feel good in their own skin.

What is most central to your life’s philosophy?
I give back to the community, this is my philosophy; I believe the higher you go, you have to find a way to lift other people with you. I like seeing someone happy, it’s very fulfilling to share knowledge, to help someone, and then see them succeed. I always think, with so many things that I do, ‘God where will you place me?’ I’m passionate about science and I’d like to be one of the leading young researchers and discover something to save the future of agriculture. So, the future holds me continuing to research, help other young people, encourage them to pursue what they love, and maybe to do science. Everything needs to just be well. Wellness is everything.

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