By Hlamvu Yose
When Maya Angelou wrote her poem Phenomenal Woman, she had women such as Rhodes University’s Distinguished Professor Tebello Nyokong in mind. Not only is she a gem to the science industry, but to South Africa as a whole.
Hailing from Lesotho, Prof Nyokong continues to be a true inspiration to everyone. This week, she received her third Honorary Doctorate (Doctor of Science Honoris Causa) from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, with the previous two being awarded by Walter Sisulu University (WSU) and the University of South Africa (UNISA) in 2010.
Prof Nyokong says that receiving her third Honorary Doctorate still feels like the first one. “Such awards are usually given to artistic people or people in the entertainment industry, not scientists,” she added.
Although it may seem like she has reached her goals and ambitions, she still has aspirations of seeing her products in the market. “As a chemist, I have travelled the world to give talks, and supervise students in Europe. I currently have 40 students globally that I am helping develop into the best that they can be,” she explained.
Although Prof Nyokong has broken several barriers academically and professionally as a black woman from Southern Africa, it should not be forgotten that she is fundamentally human. She has two children and has fulfilled her role as a mother during an era where women were seen to be incapable of anything. Being her parents’ eldest child, she was raised to never limit herself.
“I see myself as being made up of two parts,” she said. “A woman and a black person.”
Her determination and drive comes from her telling herself that she is fighting a war – a war where no one will knock her down and defeat her. “I fight ten times harder than my peers,” she said. “It has always been this way for me. I keep reminding myself that if I fail, I fail not only as a woman, but as a black woman, and I cannot bear the ‘I told you so’ repercussions of any situation.”
Her name ‘Tebello’, which means ‘expectations’, gives testament to the woman Prof Nyokong has become – the person she has always strived to be.
Prof Nyokong maintains that science has always been her calling, and this made it easy for her to grow up with a passion for the industry. She is a role model to many, not only as a brilliant mentor who produces excellent students that reflect her work ethic, but simply because of her deep love for chemistry as a whole.
“Your background does not reflect who you are, and as black people, we need to have confidence in everything that we do,” she asserted.
Beyoncé’s song I Was Here embodies Prof Nyokong just as Angelou’s poem does. Hearing her speak, it becomes clear that she is here – she has loved and she has lived her life to be the best she can be with no regrets. Best of all, Prof Nyokong gives us a timeless legacy of what can be achieved if we follow in her footsteps.
Although Prof Nyokong admits success has never specifically been part of her life goals, she is a living, breathing epitome of what true success looks like. She is our own timelessly phenomenal inspiration.