INTERVIEW SERIES | A Special Mother's Day Interview

Happy Mother's Day! 

Today, for a special edition of our interview series with women who inspire us, I interviewed my mom: Michelle de Villiers. She is, after all, the most inspiring woman I know!

It's a fun activity I recommend everyone try, whatever your age. 

Michelle de Villiers at work

1. Tell me a little about yourself 

I grew up in South Africa, in a time that in retrospect was idyllic, even when it wasn’t. I spent lots of time unsupervised in nature. We pretty much ran wild, though our society was patriarchal, divided, and unequal. My parents were younger than all my friends’ parents. Both lived away from their families, my architect father’s in the Cape, and my mother’s in Kenya, and later in the "LowVeld." We played in tobacco sheds and on muddy riverbanks with crocodiles. We built treehouses, antlion mazes, and swam in slime green dams.

After an excellent strait-laced girl school education, I studied metallurgical engineering. My father felt that architecture was not a suitable career for a girl. I finished on a bursary and entered my career as the first female engineer in the mining industry. Later I did a Masters in Engineering. Today engineering is behind me. I spend my days in my studio overlooking a forest and a creek, painting and writing. 

2. In your opinion, how different was it living as a child then compared to living as a child today?

The biggest difference was that, as children, we had no internet. We read a lot, seen, not heard. Corporal punishment was common and religious instruction mandatory. It wears the glow of memory, the smell of buttermilk rusks and syringa tree blossoms.

3. How old were you when you first moved away from home? How was the experience?

I left home for the first time when I started my engineer-in-training circuit. At gold-, uranium-, coal-, and base metal plants I did shift work with some very rough diamonds. Training included sorting, milling, extraction, process engineering and laboratory work. I progressed from trainee, supervisor, to plant metallurgist. I worked off my bursary on the mines. Later I moved away from the mining industry to mechanical engineering: design, line, and project- and program management. 

4. What was it like to leave South Africa? Did you ever imagine you would end up living in Canada?

I never thought I was leaving South Africa and, as it turned out, my engineering career. At the time I thought we’d be gone for an exciting two-year adventure, and some time off to support my growing family. I ended up moving across four continents, had three children, and learnt new languages. Experiencing different cultures was interesting. We moved house nine times before finally settling in Ontario, Canada.

5. What is a piece of advice you would like to share with me? What advice would you give your 26 year old self?

Life is unpredictable. I would tell my younger self to be kinder to herself and to others, not to sweat the small stuff. Realize that it is very hard to get back into a career once you’ve left it. You need a support network and role models. Child rearing is tough, but rewarding. Invest in yourself - as they always tell you on airplanes: put on your own mask before assisting others. Look after your health! 

6. What amazes you most about society today?

We have access to so much today: the internet, indoor plumbing, healthcare, abundant food, etc. We have but one life and one earth - it would be amazing if we were to look after it better!

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