Despite all odds, resilience and persistence can change your life trajectory, writes professor Bila

From an early age, I have proven that I was a resilient and persistent young girl. A girl hailing from the dusty streets of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, currently known as Gqeberha. My childhood seemed grim; however, I have shown that your life history cannot determine your future. When I was growing up with my eight siblings, life was not a bed of roses. We struggled to make ends meet. That was not surprising. Both our parents were unemployed. The neighbours did not see any good in us, due to the low socio-economic status of our family.
The fact that our parents were also illiterate did not make our situation any simpler. We called ‘abantwana bamaqaba’ meaning children of the illiterates. This was a bitter pill to swallow, to be called names because of your background.

Prof Nontembeko Bila | Pic: Supplied

Then, going to school was another ball-game; I did not have a decent school uniform.
It was torn, and my school shoes were also in dehumanising condition. I became the laughing stock among my schoolmates due to the state of my school uniform. Despite that, I was not discouraged by all the mockery. I was persistent, studied hard and managed to pass my post-primary studies.
The challenge came when I passed Grade 12 with an exemption since I did not have the money to proceed to tertiary institution. Since my poor parents could not afford to pay for my studies, I had to hustle.
I got employed as a receptionist at a general practitioner’s surgery. I was earning R100.00 per month and it ended up being used merely as my transport fare. This was in all respects a meagre wage and my dream of saving for my tertiary education was not possible. The year passed by and I did not save any money for my fees as I had planned.

I had to look for an alternative. This time I was employed as a preschool teacher where my elder sister was working. It was better now as I was able to save some money because I was just walking to work as the school was a stone’s throw away. I worked at the preschool for two years and, at this time, I was informed that the City of Ibhayi offered a bursary to disadvantaged prospective students and I could apply for it. I applied and indeed got the bursary. God works in miraculous ways, and I was elated as I had already applied at the University of Fort Hare. I had gained acceptance for a Social Work degree and the only challenge was the fees.

I went to Fort Hare after the City of Ibhayi had given me a bursary promissory letter.
However, another woe emanated whilst I was at Fort Hare – the ‘bursary’ failed to pay for my fees, and I was ordered to pack up and go back home. I left my bags behind, as I went to source funds to pay for my fees. I was confident that I would come back and continue with my studies. It was so difficult, and I was crying in the taxi to Gqeberha as I did not know where I was going to get the funds.

Indeed, if you are resilient and persistent, you will get what you want. I managed to raise the money through the assistance of my siblings and the church, and I was able to go back to the university. The following year, I applied for a bursary, and I was successful. I was able to study for the four years required to complete my studies in BA (Social Work). I completed my studies in record time. I only joined the university four years post-matric. I worked extremely hard, and I graduated within a record time. My tears were wiped out and that was the greatest achievement ever. I was a first-generation student. I was the first graduate in my entire family, and that was a breakthrough for my siblings as most of those coming after me managed to gain tertiary education.

When you are resilient and persistent you can change your life trajectory. That poor young girl who passed matric and hustled through is now in possession of a doctoral degree from the University of Pretoria and she has been promoted to Associate Professor. My doctoral research was based on mental health and recovery-oriented mental health practice. Hence, I am passionate about mental health, and I am a big advocate of mental health and promoting mentally healthy lifestyles.

With this story, I want to encourage a young girl from a rural area or a township who feels that she cannot amount to anything due to her circumstances. The one who does not see any breakthrough; I want to say that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I am a classical example and the epitome of success. If you are resilient and persistent you can achieve your dreams. You must shoulder on and push until you succeed in life. You need to bounce back in life – that is the meaning of being resilient. As a result of my life history, I am a founder of the Sasanani Empowerment Organisation. My heartbeat is to see young people succeed. As a result, I have taken it upon myself to advise young people about university admission procedures and financial assistance. My story has made me compassionate towards the education of young people. I also visit schools and distribute sanitary towels to schools in informal settlements. I do not want to see a girl child skipping a day due to the lack of sanitary towels. I am also sponsoring Kamcare to manufacture reusable sanitary towels to distribute to girls in informal settlements. I also buy school uniforms for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. My messages is: whatever the background, if you push, you can make it.

Prof Nontembeko Bila (Associate Professor: Department of Social Work and Criminology, University of Pretoria)

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