Nuclear scientist Senamile Masango’s story seems to be more suited to a Hollywood screenplay, but it’s all true.
Once a teenage mom, she was recently a member of the first African team to lead an experiment at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.
She’s come a long way from her polygamous family roots in rural KwaNongoma in KwaZulu-Natal, where her mother – a princess – was the most junior of three wives.
Despite a family background crammed with teachers, Masango’s bar was set even higher. As a high school pupil, she dreamed of becoming the first South African to go into space. When Mark Shuttleworth pipped her to the post in 2000, she found a new dream.
“I was disappointed that he’d beaten me, but then I discovered engineering. I loved the idea of creating things and the fact that there were so few women in this field just spurred me on,” she explains.
After matriculating at 16, she wanted to apply to study at the University of the Witwatersrand, but her protective father talked her out of it.
“I was encouraged to go the teaching route and stay closer to home. I persuaded my father to let me study engineering and we compromised, with me enrolling at the University of Zululand. But there wasn’t an engineering programme there, so I studied physics and electronics, hoping I could eventually convert my qualifications and still pursue engineering.”
However, Masango – previously a diligent student – found the new-found freedom of campus life too tempting to resist. A partying lifestyle led to some failed modules and then a pregnancy at the age of 19. When she returned home for the December break that year, she dreaded being condemned – but, instead, found only support.
“My dad said to me: ‘I can’t throw you out over this. I must support you because I don’t want you to make yourself sick or hurt yourself.’ His attitude really helped me come to terms with things. I realised that this was simply a fall and I had to pick myself up,” she recalls.
In May 2008, she gave birth to Sindisiwe Masango and took on a teaching job to provide for her. However, her dream of engineering endured and she decided to complete her degree in 2009.
“I had to pay my own way this time, but I was grateful that my parents took over caring for my daughter. I focused on my studies and was able to graduate the next year. Sadly, my father died a month before my May graduation. I was devastated that he wasn’t there, but thankful that he’d planted the seed of education in me,” she says.
Despite her qualifications, it took almost two years to get a post as a trainee engineer. “I finally found a job, but was thrown in the deep end, managing projects way beyond my experience. However, I knew I had to prove myself to the men in this field. Sindisiwe was five by then and we were living in Pietermaritzburg, but it was difficult. I worked long days for a small salary that had to include paying for childcare. I was crushed when I realised I couldn’t convert my degree to an engineering one, but decided to open my own consultancy and study further to build up my skills set.”
Masango again chose to entrust Sindisiwe to her mother’s care until her career was more stable. However, when the child was seven, tragedy struck. After her first day in Grade 2, she was hit by a car and died on the scene.
What followed was Masango’s most difficult and painful period.
Grieving for her child and uncertain of her life choices, she enrolled at the University of the Western Cape to do her Honours in nuclear physics.
“SA was facing an energy crisis at the time, so I thought: ‘Let me do this.’ When things aren’t going well for me, I lean on education – it’s my back-up. I got some government funding from the National Research Foundation, but it wasn’t easy. I was mourning and all alone. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed. Thankfully, my lecturers were very supportive of my situation and they – as well as some new good friends – helped see me see through the tough times. Eventually I taught myself to switch off the pain and just focus on my studies. In the end, I obtained my degree with a respectable 67% overall.
“I’ve found happiness and contentment in my work and I’m glad to be making a difference with my contributions to science.”
Now living an exciting life full of science and travel, Masango’s a full-time Master’s student in nuclear physics at the University of the Western Cape. She’s also the founder and chairperson of a local non-governmental organisation, South African Women in Science & Engineering, which aims to strengthen the role of women in those fields.