Mthatha-born Dr Ncumisa Jilata, 29, is among the new batch of fellows for the Council of Neurosurgeons of South Africa, following their graduation at Glen ridge Church in Stamford Hill, Durban on Thursday. Jilata knew she wanted to be a neurosurgeon from when she was at Mthatha High School
“I was already in Grade 11 when I decided I want to be a doctor, but at the time I wasn’t doing biology, so when I got to matric I had to do three years of biology in one year, in addition to the subjects I had already selected from Grade 10. During that period I discovered the concept of a neuron, which is amazing, and the fact that society as a whole is influenced and controlled solely by the existence of this structure, intrigued me,” Dr Jilata told the Daily Dispatch.
The young achiever completed her Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree at Walter Sisulu University’s Mthatha Faculty of Health Sciences in 2009.
According to the World Federation of Neurological Societies (WIN) survey the estimated total number of women neurosurgeons in Africa shows about: 150 women in the neurosurgical field i.e. neurosurgeons combined with the number of female residents currently under training. Several countries are without a single neurosurgeon and in about 15 countries the situation is still unknown.
The largest challenge, especially in the African context is Culture which remains the first barrier faced by women choosing Neurosurgery.
Jilata said she had to constantly prove herself throughout her studies in the male-dominated field of medicine. “It’s common to be second-guessed as a woman, but one’s work ethic will always speak volumes. I worked hard to break through barriers of patriarchy in the field, and to pave the way for other young women, to give them someone to look up to.”
The first female and black neurosurgeon in the whole of the African continent Dr. Delisile Ndzimandze is the Swazi who blazed the trail for Jilata and other female neurosurgeons. In 2003, when she went back to Medunsa to specialize in neurosurgery, she proved her genius when she passed in three and a half years instead of four.
Dr. Ndzimandze, observes that Neurosurgery is not an easy field however, has advised young girls aspiring to be neurosurgeons to be careful not to achieve success at the expense of sacrificing their wants. She said achieving this goal was possible, “It can be done; you can have this as your career and take it as high as you can. However, this should not come at a sacrifice. You can still be a woman and have a career; your womanhood must be celebrated.”
Funny enough, Dr. Ndzimandze did not even know she was the first black, let alone female neurosurgeon in Africa when she completed. “That is the funny part really. I was not aware of this and it hit me later when I registered as a neurosurgeon in 2003. I would go to conferences and be the only female and black person in the room and most of the time they would forget me while greeting us, as they would refer to ‘gentlemen’ and forget me,” she chuckled.
Asked how it has been being a female neurosurgeon in a male dominated field, Dr. Ndzimandze said, “It is funny that the many people I have had to explain myself to are professionals, not my patients. I am not going to apologize for being black or female. The only time I have had to explain myself in Swaziland was when dealing with the court, where I was asked to produce my certificates and curriculum vitae.”
Speaking about her support system and mentor; University of Cape Town graduate Dr Coceka Mfundisi, 36, from Engcobo Village, the fourth female neurosurgeon in the country; Jilata said, “My support system was Dr Coceka Mfundisi, who broke most of the barriers for me so that my time as a registrar [specialist in training] was smoother than it would have otherwise been.”
Showing the support that women in the field are extending to their younger contemporaries as women are still underrepresented in leadership positions both in organized and academic neurosurgery. There is a need for more experienced female neurosurgeons to help young female neurosurgeons to overcome their weakness and have confidence in their capacity and promote their accomplishments through mentorship and guidance, share practices.
Even though there is still a lot to do, it is clear that the face of Neurosurgery and Women is certainly changing in several parts of Africa.