The 52-year-old graduate

2012-05-26 17:39

Empangeni widow graduates with Bachelor of Arts after beating insurmountable odds

When Nompumelelo Zulu was 11 years old, her father and stepmother told her there was no more money for her to carry on going to school.

Last week, 41 years later, Zulu walked across the stage at the University of Zululand to collect her Bachelor of Arts degree in tourism.

The widow from Empangeni travelled a long road from disappointed school dropout to university graduate.

“I’m so happy I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel pride. I feel elation,” Zulu told City Press.

“But I also feel deep sadness since the people who were the biggest cheerleaders in life are not here to experience my proudest moment with me.”

Two years into her studies, Zulu’s mother died.

Months later, her only sister died. Then, later that same year, her husband died.

It took her a long time to tell her husband that she had enrolled at university – she says she was afraid of how he and her in-laws would react.

For the first few months of her degree, she walked and hitchhiked from her home in Ngwelezane to lectures in Dlangezwe when she could not scrape together enough money for taxi fare.

She often left lectures early to make sure she was home in time to prepare her husband’s supper.

She used grocery money to pay back the family friend who had graciously paid her registration fees.

When she eventually told her husband that she was studying, he supported her decision – although he said he was worried about how the family would survive on his mechanic’s wage and the small amount of money she earned from running a tuck shop.

It was not the first time she had set a goal and stuck doggedly to it. After being forced to leave school at the age of 11, she went to work for a Greek family in a tea room.

There, she learned to speak some Greek – she can still count in the language.

She worked for a few years to save money.

Zulu then approached a high school principal in her neighbourhood and told him she needed to skip some grades in high school because she only had enough money to pay for three grades, including matric.

Zulu pestered the principal, eventually convincing him to let her write a test along with other prospective Grade 10 pupils.

Of 96 pupils, she was one of only six to pass.

A year later, she moved from Empangeni to escape her abusive father, moving in with a fellow pupil, her boyfriend, in eSikhawini.

They survived on money from her boyfriend’s parents, sometimes eating only avocados for days at a time.
Her only consolation, Zulu says now, was that the young man eventually became her husband.

She managed to finish Grade 11 and then the couple ran out of money. She dropped out.

But decades later, after having three children, she went back to school in 2007, obtaining her matric certificate through an adult basic education course.

“I completed matric at 47. I registered for seven subjects. The problem was only one of those subjects was offered at the local high school.

“So I would stop school kids after school and ask for the day’s notes.

“While selling paraffin and bread with one hand, I would be taking notes from them with the other.”

She even convinced fellow matriculants to run study groups at her tuck shop so she could take part too.
Her studies are not done. She is now reading for a postgraduate certificate in education.

Zulu knows that jobs in the tourism industry are scarce, so she hopes that one day she’ll be able to teach the subject she is so passionate about.

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