Nanji Sheni (NS) holds an MSc degree from UCT and she is a Chemical Engineer at Mintek. Nanji is an alumni of the Barclays Brightest Young Minds Initiative. She is also a founder of the Shalom Christian Mission International Polokwane’s Young Professional’s group and a co-founder of Kingdom Catalysts for Life, both of which are youth empowering organisations.
“I strongly believe that the God Who has brought me this far will see me through and that I am not a mistake or an idiot by any means.” Says Nanji as she shares her experiences as a young black female with us in the interview below.
MM: Who is Nanji and what makes her the person she is? Give your life’s background. Where and when you were born, where did you go to school, etc.
NS: I was born on the 7th December 1990 in Benin City, Nigeria. Both my parents are Nigerian but we moved to South Africa when I was still a child. I am the eldest of three children and the only girl. I have spent most of my life in South Africa, having attended pre-primary at Pietersburg Nursery School, primary at Mitchel House Preparatory School and then at Pietersburg English Medium Primary School (P.E.M.P.S.) and high school at Capricorn High School. All of my basic education was done in Polokwane, Limpopo, where I grew up.
My family and I are all extroverts and love God, animals and the outdoors. This led me to leading a very active lifestyle throughout my basic education. I got involved in sports including netball and athletics and even competed in debating and drama.
My parents are both academics: my father is a professor of Optometry, and currently a Vice Chancellor, and my mother a medical doctor, so naturally I was well exposed to the sciences and a love for science growing up. Growing up we were taught to do our best and to push ourselves to be better.
MM: What has your educational journey been? Giving details of the challenges you’ve gone through, endured and overcame
NS: During my basic education, my experiences were mostly good, I was a top achiever in school and had a fun and active lifestyle. Things seemed to come quite easy for me in primary and high school and I was a prefect and became head girl in my high school. However, this did not necessarily prepare me for the challenges I faced in varsity. During my undergraduate I realised that although I came from a good school, Capricorn High School, a Model C school in Polokwane, I did not have a strong enough foundation in the sciences to excel in my undergraduate degree. The school had good teachers but not all the scientific resources needed to train us for the kind of experiments we’d be exposed to in varsity. This made the jump to varsity difficult.
I got accepted to and went to the University Of Cape Town (UCT) for an undergraduate BSc degree in Chemical Engineering. I ended up just making it through my first year and then failing for the first time in my second year. Although it worked out such that I would still be able to finish in the required four year period, it was the first time in my life I had failed a subject/course. It really took me aback. I did not know how I was going to tell my parents nor my sponsors as I was on a scholarship that not only required me to pass every year but also pass with an overall average of 60%. The stress hit me and I remember breaking down in my mum’s car one night at home and telling her through tears. She comforted and encouraged me and it gave me strength to tell my dad as well. You see, West African parents are very, very strict on academic performance and want the best results. They definitely love you but the pressure is strong for you to perform, especially as a first born child; you set the standard for your younger ones to follow. When I eventually told my dad he also took it quite well. And surprisingly they then shared stories of failure in their lives. Knowing that my family supported me was really what I needed to make it through. After that I picked myself up and kept pushing. There were other failures during my undergrad but I knew that the God Who started with me was going to see me through, it may not be in my perfect timing but I would definitely finish by His Grace.
My undergraduate graduation was a joyfully emotional time and I decided to stay on for my masters to give me a competitive advantage in my coming job search. By the time I started my masters I had obtained a bursary from Mintek, the company I currently work for. Mintek had sponsored one year of my undergrad and were willing to sponsor my masters.
Masters is a lot easier in terms of work load when compared to undergrad but depending on the field you do it in, the content can still be difficult to grasp. I did my MSc in UCT with the Centre of Minerals Research group of the Department of Chemical Engineering. My MSc focused on the electrochemistry of flotation, a key process in minerals beneficiation in the mining industry. I was very excited to take on this project and although chemistry had not been my strongest part of undergrad, I had great supervisors who were patient enough with me to allow me time to come to terms with the “nitty-gritties” of the work. Having sponsorship from Mintek gave me access to analytical resources that made my research more robust, so things were really looking up for me but I had no idea of the challenges to come.
Nearing the first half of my first year of the MSc, I was walking home one day and then a car pulled up beside me. A tall, coloured man came out and raised a fish knife over my head demanding for my bag. In that moment, one’s instincts revert to fight or flight and although I am not a confrontational person by nature, I reverted to fight. At the end of the day I was mugged and stabbed 3 times; once just above my left elbow, another just above my left knee and once in my back. Thankfully when the assailants sped off, there had been another guy in the car, people gathered to help me including my friend who lived in the area. I was taken to the police station and then to the hospital to be treated. The damage inflicted by the incident was not only physical but also psychological. For a while I could not sleep well because I would keep seeing the image of the raised knife in my mind. But the incident did teach me something even more powerful, and I don’t say this lightly, Jesus loves me. My pastor at church came and took me to stay with her as soon as she found out, my brother who schooled at the University of the Western Cape came through to see me, my varsity friends checked up on me, and during the flight home one of my church pastors and his family were on the same flight and handed me over to my mum when I landed. My supervisors sorted out everything for me academically. The love was all so overwhelming and very much needed. The pastor I stayed with made sure that above all I did not feel like a victim which is so easy to do in such a scenario. She ministered to me and prayed with me and made sure I knew exactly where Jesus was during the whole incident. Through those sessions I realised that Jesus was literally inside me like a buffer to the stabs. The physical proof was that when I later went home and got to see a physiotherapist he scanned my wounds and told me that the elbow and leg wounds were around 2 cm from vital tendons and veins and the wound in my back was not deep enough to have pierced my lung. If the assailant had moved the knife even a little I could have lost function in those limbs or even pierced my lung and possibly needed surgery. It was a real revealing moment for me. Yes, I received 14 stitches and for a good while, about 2 months, I could not bend my elbow fully and I walked with a limp, but I made a full recovery and was able to finish my experimental work in a matter of months as well as complete and hand in my masters in less than the two year required period. The amount of time I actually spent on my masters excluding the downtime for healing was about 1 year. That’s a testimony! During the healing period I met with a couple of psychologist, one of whom is also a Christian, and she told me not to let myself be the victim and not to give the devil even an inch. I found this recurring message so true, because if you give the devil an inch he takes a mile and your healing may take forever. When I returned to Cape Town to commence my experiments I moved to a safer residence on campus and although I had times when I would cross the street swiftly if I saw a ‘dodgy’ looking man, the lack of sleep soon stopped and I could also do the physical labour of my experiments myself.
So to answer your question on overcoming the challenges, I’d say it’s really been God and the support of the amazing people He has placed in my life. Holding onto His Word that He loves me, I am not a victim and I would make it through, in those tough seasons got me through so much and I am ever grateful.
MM: What did you study?
NS: I studied BSc in Chemical Engineering and stayed on to do my MSc in Chemical Engineering, both at UCT.
MM: When did your love for this specific study develop? What encouraged you to?
NS: I actually did not want to be an engineer by any means. I wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. I was keen and ready and even headed towards doing my community service requirements. I had read Ben Carson’s “Gifted Hands” book and I felt very inspired. I even applied to UCT for medicine and was accepted with a little funding attached. But during my matric year I realised I did not want to do what my mum or dad did or anything near their field, I wanted to be unique. And I felt that I wanted something that would combine all my interests and not limit me to one field for the rest of my life. So during an extra science lesson I asked the teacher, Mr Kumbackal, what he thought and he told me about chemical engineering and how broad and interesting it is. So I prayed, made a move towards it and got accepted.
MM: Why did you choose to study it?
NS: I loved the fact that it combined all my subjects: maths, physical sciences, life sciences and even accounting. And that it is a very versatile degree. From the skills obtained in this degree one can go into almost any field of work including biotechnology, management consulting and investment banking. I strongly believe in using all of one’s talents to the uttermost and knowing the versatility of this degree gave me that platform.
MM: What are you doing now and why that specific work and/or research?
NS: I am currently working in flotation as a Chemical Engineer in Mintek. I initially got the job through my bursary contract with Mintek but I love what I do and I love that it is directly in line with what I studied.
MM: Now that we know the kind of work you do, please tell us how your day starts and how does it conclude?
NS: I am currently on the graduate development program which means that I am rotating through the different departments within Mintek and in each department we, the new graduates are given projects to do. Therefore on average my day would start with me consolidating emails and any admin needed. It would then consist of going to the laboratory to conduct experiments, which can take anything between a couple of hours to half a day or a full day, depending on the project. If there are no experiments to be done, there is research that needs to be done on how to conduct the experiments and how to optimise processes. Then at the close of the day, I would need to account for what I’ve done that day as well as what still needs to be done going forward.
MM: What are the challenges you are facing as a young black female in that sphere/industry?
NS: In my specific workplace, I do not experience many challenges. The female colleagues at my workplace are very outspoken and have made sure that even as I come in as a new female I am not side-lined based on gender in any way. Our human resources department has an open door policy and actually takes allegations very seriously.
However, outside of my workplace, when we go on plant visits for clients etc., it is a very different experience. As a female, irrespective of colour, you have to keep your wits about you on the mine. It doesn’t always happen but there have been and sadly still are instances of rape and sexual harassment taking place on plants where females are the victims.
Another thing I have learnt is that females need to work harder to prove themselves. We should know the full detail of whatever process we are working on and make sure there is no room for error. Yes males need to do so but especially when dealing with clients, a female needs to always know all there is and more to do with the project.
MM: How do you deal with the demotivating institutional barriers set up by hundreds of years of the exclusion of black people and females in the field of Sciences?
NS: In all honesty, it still makes me quite angry. Knowledge has no racial or gender preference and to exclude one based on that is foolishness. The next ‘great’ in any industry may probably be a black female and if nations do not want to lose out on their competitive advantage, they need to start stripping away all the barriers they’ve allowed to sink in over the years, even if those barriers are only there subtly.
What I do to deal with this is, like I said before, always know everything and more of what I need to know. In other words, prove them wrong. I take whatever opportunities I get to work in environments where it is common knowledge that these barriers still exist and I go in there with my God and my full knowledge, ready to learn and reveal that even as a black female there is no difference between my knowledge and theirs.
I’ve learnt that the best revenge on any adversary is success, so succeed! Also, I do not let the environment or ‘powers that be’ change the person that I am. I am a very outgoing, friendly and bubbly person and my personality and faith should not change because an environment is backward in nature.
MM: Do you have any mantra? If so, what it is? What keeps you pushing even through the hardest of hardships and obstacles?
NS: I strongly believe that the God Who has brought me this far will see me through and that I am not a mistake or an idiot by any means. If I do not know something I can and will learn it. I also believe that I am here for a purpose and will fulfil my God-given purpose in life, come what may.
My talents will not be wasted but rather every opportunity in which they can be used to fulfil purpose is a good opportunity.
That’s what keeps me going.
MM: What are your aims, goals and aspirations for and with this specific work you are doing? As the young generation says, when will you say “I have made it in life, I have arrived”?
NS: Well, growing up I’d always read about someone being the first black person to do something or first person, period, to do something and I always thought I want that to be me someday. I want to be remembered for doing something good and beneficial to humanity. I want to be legendary. I’m not yet sure whether that will occur through my career or not but it definitely is something I aspire to.
In terms of my career, I want to head my own international engineering consulting company that focuses on bringing African solutions to African problems. We have our own way and breed of doing things as Africans and we should not be ashamed of the amazing God-given potential we have. Africa has so many resources that for one reason or another are not being used to benefit Africans and that needs to change. We have intelligent people worldwide doing great things outside the continent and it is time we do even greater things here at home.
MM: Are you involved in any community projects and if so, what are they?
NS: I am very passionate about community development, especially that of African communities and those in which I have grown up. I believe charity begins at home and if you have not done something on your home ground what are you bragging outside about.
For this reason I am involved in a couple of NGO’s. I am a co-founder of Kingdom Catalysts for Life, an organisation engaging the young community to effect change through trainings, mentorships and youth events. I am also the founder of Shalom Christian Mission International Polokwane’s Young Professional’s group. This group aims to help young people, aged 18-35, to not only discover their God-given purpose in life but also be the fully, well-rounded individuals God has called them to be. The group meets once a month and has discussions and seminars aimed at speaking to where the young adults are in life. We recently had a career day in July wherein we invited young professionals who work in Rand Merchant Bank, University of Limpopo, Cisco, the Department of Social Development and that are self-employed to speak to the youth on not just how to practically apply and get into various fields of study but also step by step guides on how to make it in industry as a young Christian professional. We also aim to have financial talks to guide the youth on how to invest and plan financially for the future. The youth we primarily target are those from the rural communities around Polokwane including Moletjie and Mankweng/Turfloop. Some of these young people don’t believe they have what it takes, lack the support, have given up or don’t know how to achieve their dreams and Shalom Young Professionals aims on inspiring them and giving them that platform to make their dreams come true. They need to know that anything is possible with God.
I have also been part of the Barclays Brightest Young Minds initiative and am now an alumnus of the organisation.
MM: Thank you so much Nanji for being so open and sharing your story in such depth. In closing, what do you have to say to the young black female learners still in primary and high school, and those who are facing hardships in higher institutions of learning pursuing different career paths and are met with challenges and obstacles (some similar to yours)?
NS: Never give up! Hold on and you will make it. Trust in God and in His perfect timing and know that by virtue of you being in that grade you deserve to be there. Know that you are very, very talented and don’t doubt yourself. Even if you do not understand things as quickly as others do, don’t get frustrated, just make sure you put in the time you need in studying for you to excel. And dream big but know that the bigger the dream the harder the obstacles will be. Don’t let that deter you but rather know that God will never let you go through what He knows you cannot overcome.