College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Dr Dadirai Matarira who overcame personal tragedy to obtain a PhD

Overcoming Tragedy to Secure PhD in Informal Settlement Mapping Research

Dr Dadirai Matarira’s graduation with a PhD in Environmental Science was a triumph in more ways than one as she faced COVID-19-related personal loss and setbacks while completing her research using remote sensing into the diversities and dynamics of informal settlements in Durban.

Matarira is originally from Zimbabwe where she completed her Bachelor of Science Education, specialising in geography and mathematics at Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE).

Her strong interest in environmental issues as well as practical fieldwork spurred her to enrol for honours in environmental monitoring and modelling at Unisa in 2009 as a distance learning programme while she taught at schools in Zimbabwe and Lesotho. Completing her honours in 2011, Matarira was unemployed for a time before returning to teaching in 2015. A few years later, Matarira heard from a cousin completing a master’s degree at UKZN that the Institution offered programmes in the field she was passionate about. She enrolled for a master’s degree with UKZN’s Professor Onisimo Mutanga and Professor Timothy Dube (now of the University of the Western Cape).

During the course of her master’s degree study, which involved research based in Zimbabwe, Matarira gave birth to her second child, but still managed to complete her degree on landscape-scale land degradation monitoring and assessment in Zimbabwe’s semi-arid Save catchment in 2019.

Matarira enrolled for her PhD in 2020, helped by a bursary through UKZN’s Big Data for Science and Society Flagship that allowed her to conduct research full-time. She relocated to Durban, however the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in the same year, sending Matarira back across the border to be with her family, slowing her research considerably as she tried to conduct work remotely.

In early 2021, Matarira was able to return to KwaZulu-Natal and started to make progress on her PhD, until June 2021 when her husband, Professor Caxton Matarira of Zimbabwe Open University, contracted COVID-19, and Matarira returned to Zimbabwe to care for him. He spent four weeks in hospital before passing away in July. This major blow, which left her a single parent during the course of her PhD, meant that her research all but halted for the remainder of that year.

Deciding to soldier on to complete her research, with the encouragement of her supervisors, Matarira returned to UKZN in February 2022 with no bursary support, no savings and having achieved no publications at that time, leaving her children in the care of a caregiver, relatives and friends in Zimbabwe. Through the generous financial support from Mutanga’s National Research Foundation South African Research Chair on Land Use Planning, Matarira managed to continue with her research work.

She continued with a textural analysis review paper on modelling informal settlements and published an article in May 2022, motivating her to continue to publish a second paper only months later.

Her research on integrating textural analysis and innovative modelling approaches for capturing morphological diversities and dynamics of informal settlements in the Durban metropolitan area addresses the need to know where exactly rapidly changing informal settlements are as they expand into flood-vulnerable urban and peri-urban areas facing the impacts of extreme climatic events, like the KwaZulu-Natal floods in April 2022 that resulted in dire effects for these settlements.

Informal settlements often do not appear on official maps, with a lack of information on their location and extent meaning they do not receive the benefits from spatial planning to allocate services and emergency government support. Matarira set out to use algorithms and mapping techniques to capture them accurately and documented the expansion and change between 2015 and 2021 using remotely sensed data.

Matarira saw improvements in accuracy levels on the Google Earth Engine platform during her research as confusion between formal and informal buildings, sometimes made of similar materials, was reduced. Her review also revealed that the planning being encouraged is advancing the mapping of informal settlements.

Matarira monitored her children from afar while she accelerated her own work, supporting her daughter through her preparation for her International General Certificate of Secondary Education O-level examinations. Within a few months, she had published a third article and met the requirements for her PhD, but Mutanga and co-supervisor Professor Maheshvari Naidu saw the potential for more, encouraging Matarira to publish two more papers, thanks to a collaboration with another researcher on Google Earth methodology. Before the year was out, her fifth manuscript was accepted for publication.

She has been able to publish in the field she is passionate about, and plans to pursue an academic path, looking out for academic or postdoctoral positions. The years that Matarira taught in high school unleashed a passion for teaching – she said what motivates her most is seeing her students achieve good results.

Matarira said she was grateful for the process of completing her PhD, saying it promoted healing in her own grief journey and revealed her strength.

Matarira thanked the following people: her children Tavonga and Tadiwa, now aged 17 and five, respectively, for their endurance during her absence; Mutanga for his dedicated support; Dr Josephine Hapazari for introducing her to UKZN; Dr Terence Mushore for his attentiveness; family and friends, particularly Mrs Shumi Machekanyanga and Mrs Blessing Mangere for caring for her home and children; and Ms Joyce Mlay and Mrs Sebahle Makhaye in Pietermaritzburg for being caring friends. She also thanked her uncle Mr George Matizanadzo for his emotional support.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan