31 December 2022

Ngomane was not born with a disability. Her story of triumph began shortly after graduating from high school. “I slept one night and woke up the next day unable to get out of bed; my entire right side (upper and lower limps) was paralysed.

"I was hospitalized for several months and used a wheelchair while also going to therapy, which helped me to start believing in myself. I soon realised that I couldn't change the situation, but could live with it, that's when I decided to return to school and follow my dreams of becoming a nature conservationist.”

Ngomane has not allowed her disability to undermine her dream of becoming a renowned scientist. After enrolling for a Diploma in Nature Conservation at UMP, she realised that she couldn't change the situation but had to make the best of it.

“I could either throw in the towel or accept my disability and follow my dreams of becoming a nature conservationist. With that mindset, I began to gain confidence and in 2019, I stopped trying to hide my disability, and started living my life and enjoying my studies." 

She adds: “I was never discriminated against because of my condition. My lecturers have been warm and loving, and I enjoyed every minute of my work integrated learning during my third year."

Fit to pursue her research

Ngomane’s love for nature and the environment started when she noticed that not all species enjoy the same attention and protection: “Fish and insects are not fully protected as they are not considered as ‘charismatic’ as lions and elephants and are becoming extinct as a result of human impacts.

It inspired me to pursue and continue with studies in nature conservation so that one day I will be able to provide solutions and save the lives of both terrestrial and aquatic organisms.”

The 24-year-old is part of the Aquatic Systems Research Group (ASRG), headed by UMP lecturer Dr Tatenda Dalu.

“The ASRG group allowed me to do what I can on my own. If I struggled, everyone within the group was there to land a helping hand, including Dr Dalu who took me and other students for all our field work excursions. Thus, during the field data collection I was also part of the process, including doing my own lab work.”

UMP Nelisiwe is ready to do more research when she pursues her Master's Degree in 2023.

Her study aims to educate the public about the dangers of poor plastic management and the damage it causes to our rivers. It seeks to find ways to reduce plastic waste pollution, particularly in the aquatic environments.

“It demonstrates that microplastic pollution was prevalent within the Nelspruit region. In the case of microplastics, there isn't much that can be done to reduce them other than proper plastic and waste management, education, raising awareness and reducing the plastic products that we use every day.

As I have discovered, most wastewater treatment plants do not have the latest technology and are not designed to remove microplastics during the wastewater treatment process, but I believe that with improvement in wastewater treatment technology in the country, we will be able to mitigate and significantly reduce the number of microplastics entering the environment."

The research was carried out in two river systems, the Crocodile and Luvuvhu located in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, respectively.

“Both river systems were in deplorable condition and were heavily polluted with microplastics. Furthermore, the study discovered that there was more plastic littering or illegal waste dumping taking place within these two river systems along its banks.”

Ready for her Master's

Ngomane says that she has enjoyed her research and has intentions to continue further with her studies. “I would like to do more research as I move to my MSc studies for 2023.

My MSc research will aim to further investigate issues around plastic pollution and pro-environmental behaviour to assess how these communities preserve plastic pollution while further aiming to raise community awareness of the consequences and impact of polluting our rivers,” she says.

Nowadays, Ngomane doesn’t think of herself as being incapable. She says: “I can do almost everything that other students can do, and I no longer rely on other people for help.

I've learned to live with my disability and developed new coping and adapting strategies to accomplish even the seemingly impossible, such as going to field to sample rivers in Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces for research projects.”

@ Story by Lisa Thabethe. Pictures supplied.