Young Motswana takes on Oxford
The year was 1999. Five-year-old Dineo Diana Tamia Serame watched on with hypnotised awe as her mother was awarded a Master’s Degree in Macroeconomics.
The little girl made herself a silent promise: one day she too would follow the education route to make her way in the world.
20 years later the little girl’s pledge became a young woman’s reality.
In 2019, Dineo, 25, received the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, granted to the best Southern African scholar.
This guaranteed her a place at Oxford University, where she is currently part of an elite group of engineers studying for a DPhil in Biomedical Engineering.
Although she downplays her achievement, Dineo is well aware of the wealth of history behind the award.
“The scholarship was established in 1902 and the awarding committees around the world follow Cecil Rhodes’ will to find the most suitable recipients. It is an extremely competitive scholarship. Truth be told, when I made it to the interview stage, I was just grateful and thought I would just go for the experience,” she admits, laughing shyly at the memory.
The experience was to last a lot longer than Dineo expected.
Although she says it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what set her apart from other contestants, she believes her zest for life may have swayed the presiding judges in her favour.
“I believe most scholarships are looking for a leader and not just good grades. I presented myself beyond my GPA. As much as it was a contributing factor to being chosen, it does not represent all that I am. We all have stories that reflect our learnings, achievements and even disappointments. The sum of these experiences and what we choose to take from them and build on is as equally important as our grades. Hence, I believe that sharing my truth and believing in God’s will cemented my chances of being chosen,” she reflects, pausing briefly before adding as if a surprising afterthought, “So, here we are!”
Dineo reveals that like many young people, upon completing her undergrad degree, she felt the pressure to follow the road most traditionally trod: seeking employment.
However, fueled by a 20-year-old memory, this is not the path she had in mind for herself.
“I knew I wanted to study further as I strongly believe it will enable me the opportunity to give back even beyond what is expected. Although I have never told her as much, my dear mother has been my inspiration and just as I was impressed all those years ago during her graduation, her accomplishments have been a huge push on my part. I know the expectation was to perhaps get a job and work for a few years hence my journey may not be according to the norm but is not that the beauty of life – we are all different and go about things inversely!”
If Dineo’s surname sounds familiar it is because she is the daughter of Botswana’s current Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame. She grew up in their home village of Phitshane Molopo under the care of both her grandmother and mother.
She speaks fondly of them and the sacrifices the two women endured to provide for her and her sister.
“I went to Phitshane Molopo Primary School and transferred to Gaborone in 2008 where I did junior school at Marulamantsi CJSS. This is where I fell in love with Science subjects and continued with them at Gaborone Senior Secondary School. I am truly grateful for all the female educators throughout my High School days who fanned my interest. I had role models in the likes of Mma Boabilwe, Mma Baratedi and many others.”
Dineo excelled at school, qualifying for the BSc Program at the University of Botswana with 45 points, where she enrolled for Mechanical Engineering.
“This would never have been my dream had it not been for the grounding I got from pursuing the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Also, I love kicking butt especially if it’s supposedly annoying to the boys!” she chuckles mischievously.
Although she thrived at UB, in 2017 she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Determined not to let this derail either her studies or her life, Dineo bravely decided to use her voice to create awareness around mental health.
“There is so much stigma surrounding issues people are uncomfortable with or know little about hence mental health activism is close to my heart,” she explains simply.
Using poetry, Dineo tackles issues surrounding mental health and sexual violence.
“I have performed my poetry on the Mmakgosi Live stage twice – an annual poetry show that is staged to sensitize people on mental health issues. I have also had the opportunity to organize and perform at a concert event here at Oxford, Rhodes House as a way of continuing this important work,” she adds proudly.
Before Covid-19, Dineo spent most of her days at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering or at the John Radcliffe Hospital.
Thereafter she would attend any event going at Rhodes House.
Since lockdown, she spends her days indoors, and is kept busy with her mentoring work as well as her therapy sessions – both conducted online.
“Time spent indoors has made me realize how much I miss the small things we often take for granted like giving or getting a hug. It is the one thing I really miss. In addition, I miss my family and the friendships I had forged with like-minded people who just want to do amazing things in the world. For instance, I had a circle of friends I hung out with including an Oncologist from Saudi Arabia – an amazing and warm individual who baked me my first cookies.”
Such connections have proved an invaluable source of strength for Dineo.
“It was comforting especially in an environment where at times I felt I was being racially profiled,” she says, adding, “ Though we do not talk about such here.
“Everyone is polite, apparently, it’s the British way. But I think you don’t get to really know people as everything is hidden behind politeness. Hence one appreciates authentic connections a lot more.”
On the upside, Dineo says apart from Oxford’s rich history and exquisite architecture, it is the opportunities available to her that she appreciates.
“Here you are sure of a job. There are structures in place to help you find employment even before you leave school. Also, engineering here is advanced. Programming is a lifestyle!”
Settled and enjoying her studies, once she graduates Dineo hopes to find a job in the United Kingdom before eventually retracing her steps back home
“Ultimately I want to go back to Botswana to pioneer medical device design labs and Bio-medical research. I think Botswana is ready and can reach Oxford standards in terms of programming for wearables. However, I do wish to work here for a while upon completion to pave my career plan and give Botswana a chance to catch up.”