Namhla Sombexe recalls with fondness her five-year journey, on a daily basis, walking from Acacia Park to and from Phakama High School in Lower Crossroads.
She says as we sit down to talk that high school life was a ball, the challenges notwithstanding.
“I had the best support from the likes of Mr (Zamayedwa) Jaxa and Mrs Wright, although she used to tease us about boys.
“She would say, ‘Namhla, niyawathanda amakhwenkwe.’
I learnt a lot during that period of my life, even though I wasn’t the most brilliant of learners.
I tried my best to achieve the best results so I could go to varsity,” she says.
The 28-year-old made the most of that chapter of her life, although she does concede, with the benefit of hindsight, that were she to do it all over again, she would achieve straight As.
This is rich coming from someone who did more than just show up, open a textbook on instruction, rush out to the tuck shop at interval and pack up after the bell rings for home time. She was out and about.
One organisation whose project she poured her heart and soul into were Leadership South, where she worked as a peer counsellor intent on raising awareness about HIV/Aids, teenage pregnancy and other social challenges that high school learners faced. The other was the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre.
She says, “That changed my life. We had to work with communities and convince people to get tested. I remember we had events on the 1st of December (World Aids Day) every year to encourage people to get tested and know their status. HIV no longer kills people. It only kills the ignorant. The minute you know your status, take care of yourself and get your treatment. The knowledge that I acquired and the skills that I was given as a peer counsellor by both organisations have shaped me into the person that I am.”
That she had a strict mother helped her a great deal, nonetheless.
However, her boisterous demeanour suddenly assumes a sombre attitude as she offers that her beloved mother, Nolusapho Sombexe, who all and sundry referred to as MaMbhele, her clan name, passed on two months ago. Although she tries to hide the pain of loss, it sticks out like a sore thumb, so to speak.
According to her, Mambhele set high moral standards when it came to boys.
“In high school, I had friends that had boyfriends and I was also introduced to dating, but once my mother got a whiff of it, she beat the hell out of me,” the mother of one shares.
“In 2006, my matric year, we had study groups utilising the Philippi East library. She was very supportive of my academic activities, so she knew the library operating hours(by heart) ... So as things go, there was this seemingly besotted beau, who used waylay me and thus kept me late. It is when mum literally gave me the stick for it, that I dumped him.”
While Namhla was the darling of all in school, her brother did all he could to taint the family’s good name.
She giggles nervously as she reminisces of his delinquent antics: “I remember he once hit a female teacher with a broomstick in Grade 11. It was embarrassing! My mother was called in. He ended up failing that year, but it was a learning curve for him. He is a responsible adult now and I’m sure he regrets everything he did in high school. You know what they say... every family has its black sheep.”
Hers is an all-too-familiar tale; mother was a domestic worker, father worked at a restaurant. But, against all odds, she and younger brother Mzwabantu are the first in the family to go to varsity.
Mzwabantu works as an auditor for the Department of Education.
She studied Sport Sciences at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology(CPUT) and completed her Diploma in 2010. Thereafter, she studied towards a her B-Tech degree in Sport Sciences.
She then spent a while working for the South African Football Association, first as an Administrator, and then as a Marketing Co-ordinator.
Her eyes light up as she recalls her stint at SAFA.
“It was a great opportunity because we dealt with international tournaments and engage with different people from different countries. The diversity of it all. Imagine an ordinary girl from Philippi East rubbing shoulders and sitting in meetings with the likes of Danny Jordaan,” she offers.
Although this was an exciting phase in her life, Namhla says she felt that the void of being far away from her beloved Philippi deprived her of her ambitions.
“I realised that I should be out there in the community, changing children’s lives. I wanted to learn more about what was happening in the community,” she added.
If anything, the lessons from her mother came to the fore, thus: “Family support is everything. The only support my mother could give us was motivation, as we were financially bereft, and all she could do with the little money we had was to put bread on the table.
I remember boarding a train to and from university in my fresher year, because we could not afford a taxi fare.
Namhla says also that it was a combination of determination and good marks that her mother allowed her to stay in residence, on condition that she spent every Saturday with the family.
With all her past accomplishments and future expectations, just how would she describe herself, I ask.
“Namhla Sombexe is just a young girl from the township that decided to change her life. When I grew up, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I still don’t know what I want to be. All I know is that I want to be a better person. I want to be a role model to teenagers, especially girl children.
I want girls to love and value themselves, regardless of where they come from. I’d rather not be defined as the daughter of a domestic worker and a restaurant worker.”
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, they say.
“While working at SAFA House in 2015, I enrolled at CPUT and did my Post-Graduate studies in Education, majoring psychology and life orientation.
That same year, I got a job with the Department of Education, where I am currently working.
I teach at Sokhanyo Primary School in Gugulethu and work as a psychologist at two schools on a part-time basis.
Last year I did my Honours in Education and, this year, I’m doing my Masters at the University of the Western Cape, focusing on poverty, HIV/Aids and Education.”
Last year, she embarked on a project to collect school uniform and shoes for impoverished learners at Sokhanyo Primary School.
She says she is happy to report that the initiative was a success.
“I was touched by the plight of learners, some of whom came to school barefoot. Owning a school uniform should not have to feel like a privilege,”.
“Because of the desperation of the situation, you end up taking out from your pocket.
But you cannot help 100 children all at once, you need the community to be part of the assistance.
That is why I started the initiative on Facebook. Some of those I went to varsity with came on board.
I had 70 pairs of shoes that were donated to the needy.
I had 60 shirts and 35 trousers for young boys.
It was successful and was even covered by City Vision. We touched so many lives.”
Such was the success of this selfless cause, that an insurance giant has added it to their Care to Share project.
They have agreed to assist her with about R5000, 00 to purchase shoes for school kids every November.
But she is not confined to only handing out shoes to underprivileged kids every now and again.
“Every day we become victims of sexual abuse from our brothers and fathers.
Teenagers are abused daily, hence I have opted for a career in Education and Psychology.
I want to assist young girls who are victims of rape. Every day in our schools, we have cases of kids suffering abuse at the hands of stepfathers and brothers, and nothing is being done about that.
It has become a norm for mothers of victims to stand by their men once these atrocities come to the fore.
Reasons vary for this worrying phenomenon, with studies showing that women fear the spectre of financial instability once their partners are prosecuted.
Economic dependency is at the centre of this betrayal by mothers against their own children.
These challenges actually affect learner’s performance in class and thus sets them back a great deal.
Teachers face the daunting task of not only having to teach the learners but also to pick up domestic problems, as they become hard to teach once they come from dysfunctional families.
“These anomalies prevent the learners from focusing on learning. If you go to schools, teachers are complaining that learners are hard to teach,” she explains.
Namhla says these challenges have also become all too familiar in the classroom, and it needs people like her to identify and act upon.
She has a personal reference to some of the challenges.
Once, an aunt gave Namhla her own shoes to wear to school, and as everybody knows, children can be “brutally honest,” they turned her into the butt of their jokes, with some comparing the shoes to those worn by security guards.
As I prepare to leave, Namhla asserts: “Kids need role models. We run for these glamorous careers, forgetting where we come from.
Education takes you back to the community and reminds you where you come from.
I grew up in Acacia Park, so we share more or less of the challenges faced by a township like Gugs.
People are infected daily with HIV. Some learners are HIV-positive and we need to assist them.
In class, you deal with kids that are infected and affected. Before a lesson, one is required to give that child their medication because their mother is not there.
You need to constantly remember that so-and-so takes his or her medication at a particular time. If we run away from our communities, who’s going to take care of those we leave behind.
Namhla and others who strive for the better lives of others make me feel proud.