Celebrating Africa’s inventors

Celebrating the lives of Africa’s inventors at the launch of ‘We Were Always Always Here’ at Ike’s Bookshop last week were facilitator Masisonke Sokhela, publisher and contributing author Les Owen and author Sizwe Malinga. | SHELLEY KJONSTAD Independent Newspapers

Celebrating the lives of Africa’s inventors at the launch of ‘We Were Always Always Here’ at Ike’s Bookshop last week were facilitator Masisonke Sokhela, publisher and contributing author Les Owen and author Sizwe Malinga. | SHELLEY KJONSTAD Independent Newspapers

Published Jul 7, 2024



This is an extract from We Were Always Here: Stories of Black Inventors Across the African Diaspora by Dr Candice Bailey, Lerato Makate, Sizwe Malinga, Les Owen and Therese Owen:

The story of Mashudu Tshifularo begins in 1964 in Mbahela, a rural village in the former Bantustan of Venda. For this book, we were granted an interview with Professor Tshifularo.

As the surviving twin and the third son of six siblings, he was the apple of his mother’s eye. Florah Tshinovhea Tshifularo believed Mashudu epitomised the name she gave him – “Blessed or Blessed One from God”. He was a sickly child but enjoyed immense love and care from his mother.

Despite suffering health problems, he, along with the other village boys, were required to herd cattle. Yet, the young Mashudu was different. Instead of sitting under a tree staring at the grazing cattle, he chose to spend the time in the fields studying and doing his homework.

His thirst for knowledge and fascination with the natural world created a curiosity, which was nurtured by his affinity for maths and science. “Bantu Education was hard, but I loved learning. I would stay in the classroom during breaktime to solve a mathematical problem on the board. I loved it. I also loved biology and my brother was my biology teacher.

“One day in Grade 5 we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were limited career options open to black people in apartheid South Africa – a teacher, a nurse, a policeman. I stood up and announced that I wanted to be a doctor. The teacher told me I was not clever enough and, because she had studied with my elder brother, she claimed she knew I would never be a doctor.”

He did not allow this negative response to deter him. Instead, it spurred him on. “That moment and my love for what I learnt kept me focused on achieving my goal. I was going to become a doctor and prove her wrong,” Tshifularo remembers with discomfort. His goals were supported by his parents, particularly Florah. She made sure that all her children understood that education would alleviate them from poverty and the apartheid system. Her advice worked. Today, the Tshifularo family boasts five doctors and two professors, including Mashudu.

In 1981, at the age of 17, he attended the University of Venda for pre-medical studies. The following year he was accepted into second-year medicine at Natal University. It was an impressive achievement for a black man from rural Venda in segregated South Africa.

His studies were funded through the Venda Homeland Bursary. He was adamant that he would not return a failure. He wanted to qualify and serve his community. It was a highly politicised time in South Africa. The university was one of only two medical schools that admitted black, Indian and coloured students. He remembers there were only a few black students in a class. It was tough being far from home and the language barrier did not help. His trip from Venda to the university would take two days via a third-class train for black people and he could only afford to travel home once a year.

He boarded in the black university residence where 700 students lived.

“There I learnt about Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism from my fellow students.”

Among his student peers were future South African health ministers Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Dr Zweli Mkhize, Dr Joe Phaahla and deputy health minister Dr Sibongiseni Dlomo. They were part of the political student leadership on campus.

“I remember the confiscation of political books, the police raids at the residence and the conflict between the IFP and the then banned ANC.”

He was also arrested and interrogated.

Despite the difficulties, Tshifularo qualified as a medical doctor at the age of 22. He decided to specialise in ENT (ear, nose and throat) as, at the time, there were only two black ENT specialists in the field.

He returned to his village to practise his medical internship at Tshilidzini missionary hospital. Tshilidzini was the hospital he was regularly admitted to when he was battling childhood ill health with tonsillitis, nose bleeds and otitis media – a reoccurring middle-ear infection. In fact, it was these childhood ailments which led him into the field of ENT. “It was frustrating not to be able to hear due to my continual ear infections. I can relate to deaf people because, like them, when I was struggling to hear, I felt isolated from the world and rejected by people.”

Professor Mashudu Tshifularo, an ear, nose and throat specialist, began his learning journey under a tree in Venda, and is now famous around the world. | THOBILE MATHONSI

Tshifularo’s story is interwoven with the many experiences of apartheid history: segregation, black uprising and the generation of the next freedom fighters. He was navigating a system that was not constructed for his participation as a black person.

Yet, he was able to make an international name for himself. With the research taking him over a decade, he pioneered a successful groundbreaking step in ENT surgery. Tshifularo was irked by the fact that middle-ear operations were not always successful and that the patients would likely have to return a few years later for another operation. Issues with the middle ear affect one’s balance and hearing.

The middle ear has three delicate sections, which if damaged requires an operation to replace the tiny bones. Often, even if there is slight trauma to the head post op, these replacement bones would be damaged and the patient would lose hearing again. Like many visionary doctors, he decided to find a permanent solution to what he viewed as a temporary problem.

He travelled the world consulting with other specialists on how to solve the problem with middle-ear surgery. He found the current method too expensive and the installed cartilage and materials not stable enough to prolong the patient’s hearing.

Then he encountered a company that owned a 3D printer in Germiston and experienced a light bulb moment. Why not use the 3D printer to print middle-ear interconnected bones made from human-compatible titanium?

The first operation was conducted at Steve Biko Hospital in Tshwane, which is affiliated to the University of Pretoria, in March of 2019.

Professor Mashudu Tshifularo became the first surgeon in the world to operate and install a 3D printing middle ear implant. This has set a new course for hearing specialisation globally. It has given hope to those who have suffered trauma and broken bones in their middle and inner ear. This includes those who were born with this medical abnormality.

“Previously, if the bones in the middle ear were broken, we would fold our arms and say there is nothing we can do about it. I changed that narrative. With this new development, I can take a CT scan of the middle ear and in a few days a patient-specific prosthesis of 3D middle ear bones can be inserted and the patient can hear again immediately.

“This procedure is more stable with better sound transmissions than the previous operations. Another great advantage is that 3D is not expensive, which means a medical solution is available to more people. Previously, we had to import the small bone ear replacements from Germany, but with 3D you can create them in South Africa. It makes the operation, easier, quicker, cheaper and safer.”

The world-renowned ENT specialist is working on several designs of middle-ear implants for which he has filed for patents. He also has 120 patients from African countries, Papua New Guinea, the US, Australia and Europe waiting to participate in the study so they may receive their hearing.

Aside from heading up the ENT department at the University of Pretoria, he is currently working on six other patents around the improvement of different segments of health. He is also a preacher and has his own charitable foundation.

In 2008 he made history by developing a surgical technique that allowed a bloodless endoscope tonsillectomy. This operation is a world first. He is humble in his achievements. “I did not do medicine for the money. I did it to heal people and help improve lives. And it is a privilege. I respect my work and do not take it for granted.

“So, you can imagine – a small boy from Venda, who studied under a tree, who was told he cannot be a doctor, who believed he had something special. He thinks like MacGyver. Now he is world famous in his field.”

He has these words of encouragement for learners and aspiring innovators: “Adapt or die. Innovate or perish. We black people can solve our own problems, find our own solutions. Africans are innovators. We must not give up … I want to leave a legacy. Once a child has missed out on the first five years of hearing, their life is gone for good. That is why I love this invention so these young children can become part of the hearing world.”

We Were Always Here: Stories of Black Inventors Across the African Diaspora is available in all good bookstores and online. Recommended retail price is R250.

Independent on Saturday

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