A few weeks ago Rhodes University confirmed that I will be graduating with my undergraduate degree in April. It was a very emotional moment for me because the journey to obtaining this degree has been long and painful. But it was more emotional for my family, particularly for my mother and my maternal grandmother. The latter has been going around the neighbourhood telling anyone who cares to listen that “Ngoana ngoanake o lo apara purapura” (my granddaughter is going to wear a graduation gown).
My grandmother never went to school. She is illiterate. Long before she reached her teenage years, she was forced to stay home and take care of her siblings and other children in her family. When she eventually left Parys in the Free State province in the 1960s and moved to the City of Gold to find employment, it was in the homes of White people, cleaning. She spent four decades of her life being a domestic worker until she became a pensioner a few years ago. While she was a domestic worker, she was constantly exploited. I recall the times when she was sick but would be forced to go to work by the family that she was working for. She would not be given sick leave even when it was clear that she was in severe pain. But because she was desperate and did not know her rights, she would abide by their unlawful demands. She would later tell me that it was in moments like those where the pain of not having an education hit her most.
My mother had me while she was still in high school. My father, like many men, decided that he would not postpone his goals to help raise a child. His child. So when he packed his bags and went to the University of the Witwatersrand to pursue his studies, my mother had to postpone her own goals and take care of me. She found work in NGOs and with her meagre salary, took care of me and her siblings. My grandmother’s wages were too little to make any significant contribution in a home of seven, so my mother was practically the breadwinner. She put me and her three siblings through school. There was no money left for her to pursue her own tertiary education despite having obtained an impressive exemption in matric.
Because of this, my degree means everything to my mother. She sacrificed her own education so that I could have mine. My grandmother, who is afflicted by illnesses of the elderly, has lived long enough to attend a graduation ceremony of her child. She might not be able to read the certificate, but she understands what it means. She understands that it means that after many years of living in poverty, moving from shack to shack in the township of Meadowlands, someone in the family has a fighting chance. She understands that getting an education significantly increases the chances of the Mahlatsi family having a better life than it currently has in the RDP settlement of Braamfischerville on the outskirts of Soweto. Though she never had the opportunity to study, she always encouraged us to study hard. She believes that education is the only way that the child of a domestic worker can become someone great.
This degree also means a lot to me. Although I matriculated in 2009, it was not until 2012 that I started university. A gentleman named Mike Maile, whom I had met on Facebook, offered to pay for my education. I enrolled at Rhodes University for a BSS (Earth Science and Industrial Sociology) degree. I had been ill for the most part of 2011 and when I collapsed on campus one afternoon, I was sent to a cardiologist in Grahamstown. I was diagnosed with a heart condition, Barlow’s Syndrome, and was put on medication. The following year I was financially excluded from the university as my sponsor ran out of funds. It was a devastating period in my life. In that state of depression I wrote my book, Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation. I had no way of knowing that a year later, the book would be a bestseller and have its rights sold internationally.
Throughout my degree journey I had many struggles, most of them financial. It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. In my case, it took a village to educate a child. A number of people lent a helping hand to me. Generous individuals have contributed to paying my tuition, accommodation and ensuring that I do not want for any academic needs. This degree is as much for me as it is for them, the community that carried me.
As I begin my postgraduate degree this year, I am thankful to have had people invest in my education. If we are serious about redressing injustices of the past, we need to start investing in the education of our country’s youth. Education arms us with the tools to not only have better lives, but to help our families and communities become better. We must create a society in which no family is without a graduate. It is not impossible.
*Malaika Wa Azania is doing her Honours in Geography at Rhodes University.