The Professor from a dusty village

The Professor from a dusty village

MASERU-IF Professor Mosotho George had his way, every Lesotho Prime Minister would have a scientist by their side as an adviser. Only that way can any leader pull the country out of its current poverty, he argues.
“There also should be a science and technology expert as an adviser to the Prime Minister rather than having a politician as an adviser.”
Prof George knows all about pulling out of poverty and obscurity into prosperity. Once a poor boy from a tiny village with only a handful of households in the remotest area of Maseru district, the 48-year-old is now a locally and internationally respected academic.

“If I were to talk to the Prime Minister, I would ask him to have a scientist in every ministry because everything involves technology,” says Prof George, who recently headed the chemistry department at the National University of Lesotho (NUL).
“The Ministry of Science and Technology should be independent so that it can develop the research agenda of this country,” he says, adding that it is wrong to churn “consultancies to foreign experts while we have experts in Lesotho”.

Prof George says the manifestos of all of the country’s political parties promise to uplift the manufacturing industry, yet they do not expand on how technology would play a role.
“You can’t do that without the support of science and technology,” says Prof George, who grew up in the rural village of Setleketseng, Ha-Mokola, Maseru.
A village so small that it had about twelve households and currently dwindled to only surviving two households, has produced not only a professor but a chemistry professor, the second Mosotho Professor in 75 years of NUL, today professor who feels he still owes the community.

He navigated his way through the poor conditions he grew up in until he acquired a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Johannesburg in 2011.
One of his defining moments in his career was when he was offered a job at the University of Johannesburg and had to choose between being a full time employee or a PhD student.
He chose school.

“I chose to study instead of working because I wanted to establish myself,” Prof George says.
He says he wanted to come back home to fix the situation at the NUL.
And return he did. He was tasked with heading the chemistry department in 2013.

“I realised if I had stayed in Jo’burg I was only going to be a small fish in a sea of sharks. But if I came back home I wouldn’t start way too low because I know the people and the culture,” he says, adding he wanted to return home to build his legacy locally.
He even risked rumours that NUL could shut down due to a strike that was taking place then.

“I took the risk in order to come fix the situation,” he says.
At that time the university management would ask every department to justify its existence and after self-reflection, the science department realised that research papers done by its academics and published internationally were not being consumed by the country’s politicians as such offer no assistance to change the countries fortunes.

Grassroots local people also did not have access to the publications.
“What do we do for those people to look at us differently? At the same time we can’t go to the media because at that time the media was only interested in politics,” he recalls.
He then proposed to invite the media to watch students present the projects they did while on attachment with different institutions.

The response from companies was overwhelming.
“Every time we watch TV we see politicians, economists or farmers, but nothing about science and technology and I felt we needed to do something about it,” he says.
The science expo in 2015 became a success.

“The community started calling on radio appreciating what the university was doing after seeing our innovative products,” he says.
He describes the event as his first major achievement at the university “because now people look at NUL differently”.
The university’s Innovation Hub, the NUL Science, Technology and Innovation Expo and Conference (NULISTICE), has turned the event into a regular activity.

“Now the hunter has become the hunted,” he says of what he describes as the university’s growing reputation.
Prof George says they used to hunt for companies to provide attachment programmes for their students, but the companies now go to the NUL looking for interns.
Due to the high rates of unemployment, the university encourages innovation as a way for students to establish themselves.

“It helps youths to create jobs for themselves and others and also respond and contribute to the economy. The problem that hinders the businesses to grow is that there is no seed funding. The government does not show much interest to invest in those,” he says.
The National Strategic Development Plan “only includes a little bit of manufacturing”, he says, adding that the country depends on tourism and agriculture while neglecting the role of science and technology.

“I saw a gap… science is not appreciated in this country,” he says, adding that when it comes to science and technology people look at Information Communication and Technology (ICT), which is why it is even placed in the Ministry of Communications.
“I totally disagree with what was said in Vision 2020 that Science and Technology would be well established. That statement shows just how much we don’t understand technology. According to us, technology means cell phones,” he says.

“Do not let the Ministry of Science and Technology get overshadowed by the cell phone and radio network towers,” he warns.
Prof George says technology will never be well established because it keeps evolving all the time.
“There is never a time when we will say it has reached the climax,” he says, citing the outbreak of the coronavirus which has got scientists scrounging for solutions.
“That means technology is still very far from what it’s supposed to be.”

There is need for a “catch them young” approach to properly develop science in the country, he says.
“We need to polish the ground, meaning people need to be educated.”
That is how the Science and Technology programme on Lesotho television was born.

“The most innovative thing to ever happen to our national TV,” he says with pride.
“It was put on TV because people are able to relate more to what they see than what they hear. The public has responded very well to the programme since it debuted.”
“I have received feedback from South Africa and Botswana because they understand Sesotho. I did it in Sesotho because I was targeting Basotho,” he says.
Such is the versatility of a man who has collaborated with institutions such as the University of Botswana, University of South Africa, University of Johannesburg, University of Pretoria, University of Zululand, and Wits University.

He feels more needs to be done to empower local scientists, adding that the government’s science department may not be able to communicate messages very clearly because “it is not necessarily equipped with the best scientists in this country”.

The best scientists holding Masters and PhD degrees are based at NUL and not in Maseru where the policies are made.
Although now globally acclaimed, Prof George never forgets his roots.
He speaks fondly of his primary school, St. Bernadinus Primary School in Setleketseng Ha pholo and how he feels standards have plummeted.
Blaming the new educational system in Lesotho, he says, “I am almost 100 percent against the system because I am looking at my school as an example.”

He says the school only has three teachers to cater for Grade 1 to 7 classes.
“It is impossible for the teachers to identify and nurture the (children’s) talents and help the students to work to their full potential as this curriculum so prescribes,” he says.
Prof George and his five siblings were raised by their unemployed mother because their father passed away when he was still young.

Like most Basotho boys, herding cattle was part of a normal life for the young boys, juggling it with school.
All boys from the village used to take turns to attend classes and look after the cattle. Herding cattle was all he knew.
“We didn’t even have animals at home but my uncles had them,” he says.

When Prof George had to choose courses at the NUL, it was “quite tricky” because he hated biology because of the microscope and he was terrible at drawing.
In his village there was no one who had passed high school except him so it was a big issue when he wanted to go to university because his family expected him to work and support his siblings.

But he fought to go to university and shared his scanty allowance with the family.
“I passed Standard Seven with first class and I didn’t care about what that was. I don’t even remember the school that I’d applied for if I did at all,” he says.
At that time he was even staying at the cattle post and cared less about education, especially because he did not have the means to go to secondary school.

He even tried finding a job from the mines but never succeeded.
“Not that I loved working in mines but just to save some money so that I could go to school and become a teacher or a mechanic one day,” he says.
“I didn’t like herding cattle as well even though I was such a good shepherd.”

Two years later, with the help of his then principal he was able to enroll at St. John Tlali High School, 10 kilometers away from home and he would walk to school on a daily basis.
He says he had always been “a genius” in class.
He started classes in April and after the June examinations he was holding the first position in Mathematics and the second in Science.

“My Mathematics teacher, Mr Seqao Thakali, and my literature teacher, Mr Joseph Ntlaloe, inspired me a lot and they still do even today,” he says.
Prof George says he felt very fortunate to have gone to school given his family’s financial circumstances.

“We could not even afford to buy fat cakes during lunch break,” he says.
Instead, he opted to read other students’ textbooks while they went for lunch.
Prof George’s hard work earned him friendship with teachers and they started lending him their textbooks because they saw the potential in him.

He passed Junior Certificate with a merit.
That was when he discovered his potential and continued doing science alone in his class. He passed Form E with a first class.
“I am very proud of my humble beginnings,” he says about becoming a professor who hailed from a village with just twelve households.

’Mamakhooa Rapolaki

 

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