MMAKI JANTJIES: SENIOR LECTURER IN COMPUTER SCIENCE AT UNIVERSITY OF THE WESTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA
If South African students use VR glasses to learn about chemistry in future, then Mmaki Jantjies’ latest project has been a success. The computer science lecturer studies and develops tools to provide children from rural areas with a better education.
Mmakis’ parents were in complete agreement: their four children were destined to become engineers. So they did everything in their power to make it happen, wanting to give their kids opportunities that they had never had. Under Apartheid, black students were locked out of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – fields. Occasionally her mother and father would even invite white engineer friends over to spark their offspring’s interest in the discipline. Their efforts were successful: Mmaki and her brothers went into civil engineering, biochemistry and computer science.
“My parents sensed that these fields would open a world of opportunity for us. You could still be the first in something,” Mmaki recalls. She is probably South Africa’s first black, female computer scientist to hold a Ph.D. “I suppose I have yet to meet another black female South African computer science Ph.D. holder at any rate.” This is probably more down to money though, as after graduation most computer scientists choose well-paid jobs in the private sector over the academic track. Not Mmaki: “I was really passionate about research. I wanted to use my skills to impact society.”
Mmaki researches and teaches at the University of the Western Cape today with a focus on technology in the classroom. Technology, she says, makes it much easier to give poor and underserved children access to a better education, and to make the subject matter available in all of the eleven different languages spoken in South Africa. “It’s easy to create an app with textbooks and learning games, and even to capture teachers’ notes.” At the moment she is immersed in a virtual reality project developing VR animations that will allow students to run chemistry experiments even if their school has no lab.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Mmaki sometimes feels like a stranger in a strange land. “Many computer science men liked games when growing up. I really didn’t. But games were what they wanted to chat about.” Mmaki did not have many role models in the computer science field as there were not many women around, especially as a mother trying to balance a family and a career. Over the years, she has really come to appreciate how important it is to network with other women and support each other.
A few years ago, Mmaki founded a tech club for girls in impoverished areas as part of a project by UN Women and the Mozilla Foundation. The teachers in the clubs were all young, female information systems graduates from similar backgrounds, living proof for the girls that they too could successfully walk the same path. Today there are also tech clubs for boys. She insists that all kids should grow up tech savvy. “Today, innovations can come from anywhere. Even in the most isolated villages, kids can program apps and earn money with them.”
“Tech has put the power in the hands of the people who did not have it before.”
This article has originally been published as part of the publication "Women in Tech: Inspiration, no fairytales" by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). You can download the publication or order a print edition of the book on the #eSkills4Girls website.