Who is Dora Muanda?
I'm Dora Muanda — I'm a biologist and science teacher based in New Orleans, in the US for the last two years. I'm also the Scientific Director of 'Semaine de la Science et des Technologies', an annual science festival that aims to bring together young minds, scientists, and STEM experts in DR Congo, the continent and abroad.
For Dora, her love of science is something that has grown over the years, she initially wanted to become a doctor but that soon changed.
I grew up I realised that I didn't want to know the problems and fix them but I was more interested in discovering the strengths in people and how to develop them — and what's a better job than becoming a teacher to do that and push young people to grow?
Why are you passionate about education and especially STEM?
For me, the STEM field is a complete discipline because you use your creativity, your understanding of the history of science to understand the world, you are able to make innovations for the future, and with certain data you can also predict what will happen in the future.
In other words as a scientist, you are at the same time part of the legacy of the past whilst living in the present and you can also make a huge impact on the future within the same discipline. It's a real pleasure to continue learning and teaching science.
What was your journey into teaching?
I was always the only black girl in the classroom and I felt a little bit alone. One day, my younger sister who was studying to become a kindergarten teacher met the only black girl in her class and the girl hugged her tightly. This little girl was also the only black girl so I thought maybe we need more representation of us — and that thought stayed with me.
In 2012, while I was at university I met my physics teacher who was a black woman called Raïssa Malu. I wasn't very good at physics so I decided to take some private lessons with her.
I remember feeling like I was the only one not understanding the lessons and as the only black girl, you start to say to yourself maybe it's because I'm this or that. But if a black woman in physics can teach and explain physics to me then anything is possible — this completely changed my mindset. She helped me understand physics and she also made me feel understood.
How did 'Science and Technology Week DRC' start?
In 2013, a year after graduating Dora and her former teacher Raïssa Malu founded 'Semaine de la Science et des Technologies', this year marks their 8th edition of the annual festival.
The team wanted to create an event open to everyone from scientists, students, to professionals interested in learning about the latest scientific innovations and research, but also a place for science-adjacent businesses like pharmacies and tech investors.
Our main goal was to spread a scientific culture among young Congolese people because you can only develop yourself and your society when you master your environment and technology, but you can't reach this level if there isn't a scientific culture.
In the first edition, we didn't really have any money or support but we worked in partnership with a school, paid for TV advertisements, and to our surprise we had 3,000 visitors that year.
Each year, Science Week DRC is held after the spring break. The festival has grown and attracted support from the Ministry of Education. In 2019, more than 10,000 people visited the science village across two days.
The government doesn't give us money but they pay for the venue, they organise buses for some schools to attend, send out letters to schools ahead of the festival.
Now, we have a team in Kinshasa, Goma and this year I will be going to Lubumbashi.
Last year, the festival was held virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions. The NGO behind Science Week DRC, Investing in People, produced videos to help students continue their studies despite national school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This year, we'll have a hybrid version, where the conference with a panel of guests will be online and the science village will be on a ticketed event opened for one day only to manage social-distancing requirements.
What have been some of your highlights from Science Week DRC ?
We have been able to create a focus on the importance of science for a whole week for 8 years, and not only in the capital but across the whole country. When you look at Congolese TV coverage there are programmes on politics, church, and music but not science. Our approach is to freeze time for that week to talk all things science and cultivate innovative mindsets in young people.
In 2019, the team launched a competition for students from all regions of DR Congo, where the winner would be awarded a bursary to realise their idea. Students had to make a presentation raising a local problem and their innovative solution.
I think the winners for this edition were two young girls who had the idea to use plastic waste, which is prevalent in our towns and cities and transform it into insulation material for their homes.
My hope is that the policymakers look at these examples and see that people are ready with solutions but we just need resources and security in place to turn these ideas into a reality.
Why do you think it's important for Africans to bring the solutions to the problems Africans face - and how can STEM help?
It's important more than ever to include Africans in finding solutions, because if we are not part of the process then it's understandable that our people will reject these solutions that come from 'the outside', because nobody asked or consulted them, and nobody seems to care what they think or see value in what we bring to the table.
It is a question of dignity — it's important that the continent and particularly DR Congo takes part in the conversations about the current and future challenges in the environment, ecology, technology, health and plays its role in finding solutions.
In science it's important to have a lot of different perspectives and each people or scientist will bring a little bit of his/her culture in their creativity and innovation. I think African scientists can bring a bit of their tradition, knowledge of natural resources and plants for example into their innovation, in doing so we'll be offering a new perspective to the world. The point is that nobody can think like us but us because it's coming from within.
We have a perspective that nobody else can have and it's important more than ever to be able to offer that to the world, the world is missing something — and that is our contribution. We need us first and then the world needs us.
Three words to describe the Africa you want to see and why?
First of all, I will say innovative because we need to take our place in tackling the collective challenges of today and tomorrow, by bringing something new, and by that I mean something with a new perspective.
Secondly, diversity not only because I want more women in science, but I also want young and older people. It's important to remember that all Africans are not facing the same problem at the same time and in the same way. There is this mindset that all black people are the same — lumping all black people and Africans as one. But there are like 50 shades of black, 50 shades of problems and 50 shades of solutions, so I think we have to dare to show all the nuances and particularities unapologetically. I want more diversity in the STEM world but also in the representation of ourselves.
And finally dignity, I want each African person to feel equal dignity with everyone else's ideas. I don't understand why something which comes from Africa should be seen as having less value. We have the same dignity as everyone so we have the right to not accept this or that because we don't feel respected. So dignity for ourselves because we deserve it, we have it, we have to show it unapologetically.
NOTE: This year's Science Week DRC will be held from April 5 -12.
Follow the link to find out more about the events during the week.