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Courtesy of 21 Icons of Africa

It is difficult to know where to start the story — so far — of Tebello Nyokong. Perhaps it should begin with the renowned chemist being named, alongside the likes of Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, among the icons of South Africa for her pioneering research of photo-dynamic therapy as a cancer treatment.

Or, maybe with Nyokong’s current leadership of a joint Africa-Canada consortium, that could mean a new way of purifying drinking water for an entire continent.

It would be too easy to start with Nyokong’s connection to Western, where the impassioned scientist earned her PhD while raising two young children in a foreign land.

Instead, we will begin here: In the mountains of land-locked Lesotho, 8-year-old Nyokong tended sheep. She carried her books with her because, on alternate days, she also attended school. Her classmates poked fun at her, with her bare feet and hand-me-down clothes. But no one mocked her sharp, sharp intellect as she rose to the top of her class.

Nevertheless, in high school, her peers and teachers steered her away from maths and sciences – those subjects were too hard for a girl and led nowhere for a young woman destined for marriage and family. But she quickly grew bored in the arts and, three years into her studies, diverged into the sciences — completing three years’ worth of study in two.

After graduation, her family needed her to work to support her sister and brother’s quest for education. So, even as Nyokong mixed mortar and laid bricks for her father’s construction company, her heart insisted she was meant for something more. She compromised. She would work until her sister finished high school, and then enrol in University of Lesotho. At 26, she graduated with a degree in chemistry and biology.

A Lesotho lecturer with connections to McMaster University urged her to apply through the Canadian International Development Agency for a fellowship that would enable her to study in Canada. After earning her master’s, she arrived at Western.

“I needed to be able to touch things, to learn things so that when I came back (to Africa), I would be able to build things myself. Western gave me that opportunity.” She pauses for a heartbeat, then erupts into a belly laugh. “I destroyed a few things in the process.”

By the time Convocation took place in 1987, she was back in Lesotho working to change the world at a university that had few of the resources she needed.

“Let’s be honest, when you are in Canada, you have state-of-the-art equipment. You are thinking, your brain is forever thinking about new ideas. You are dreaming. Then you come back to Lesotho and there is absolutely nothing – no facilities, no allowance for that type of engagement. You become dry.

“I’m not the only one. People educated in Western schools return and they cannot continue their education because they do not have the facilities. In the sciences, we need help, we need an infrastructure. That was our greatest frustration – I could not exercise my brain.”

She was offered a position as lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her work and leadership there quickly earned her an appointment as a professor, then a distinguished professor.

Moving to South Africa, where the social and economic scars of apartheid linger, had its difficulties. “But in terms of research, I can see potential. The current South African government put money aside to make sure we continue to do research, scientific research in particular.”

Nyokong holds a Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation professorship in medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology. She is also director of the DST Nanotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes University, which has attracted scientists from across Africa and around the world.

We actually have brain gain. One of the staff members I have is Canadian. They came here to work in my country. We are getting brain gain because we have the facilities.

Her interdisciplinary team is seeking to develop a specialized kind of photo-dynamic therapy to battle cancer. Instead of undergoing chemotherapy, patients would be administered a specific drug that would be activated with laser light — figuratively placing a molecular bull’s eye on cancer cells.

For this, and her related research, Nyokong won the prestigious Africa-Arab State 2009 L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.

Her latest work is “a huge project” that includes a consortium of researchers in Canada and Africa working to find new ways of sustainable water purification.

Where rain or watercourses are scarce, there needs to be a made-in-Africa way of recycling, purifying and re-using what little water is sometimes available. “We are chemists. The same principles used in killing cancer can, at the same time, be used in killing bacteria in water.”

In a real sense, that girl who started tending sheep in the Lesotho mountains now shepherds young scholars and researchers.

More science needs to take place in Africa, by Africans, and not just for girls and women, she stresses.

“Boys are removed from education very early so they can go and take care of their families. You can promote (science) to girls but you also need to be aware of the fact boys also need encouraging. I’m sincerely driven by promoting young people. That is my greatest passion. I feel we need to create leaders,  particularly from the African continent, who are disciplined, who know the value of hard work, who are honest and are accomplished.”

Nyokong continues to be hands-on in the lab – and she sleeps little.

“My mind is always active. People say they burn out. I can’t understand it,” she explained.

She admitted to demanding much from the students and researchers who compete to be able to work with her. But there is so much to be done and she is eager to move it along. “People think when you work hard you don’t have a life. You can work hard and have a life.”

Likewise, she holds both admiration and high standards for her children – born in Lesotho, raised in Canada and South Africa – who are now adults with careers of their own. “They are doing ‘differently better’ than I have. ‘Differently better’ is not about making money. It’s about making a difference.”

Africa has a wealth of young talent just waiting to be found and nurtured, she believes. That talent is slowly emerging from the city suburbs, rural villages and even remote sheep pastures. The world will always present obstacles for learners, but they are surmountable, Nyokong insists.

Your brain should not be determined by your circumstances.

Photo of Tebello with sheep.