… and her name is A.
I’ll tell you about A in a minute. She’s worth waiting for.
I remember when we still lived in England and I was struggling to decide if I should enroll my precious three-year-old daughter in the posh girls’ school in a neighbouring village, where she’d learn to play the violin at four and mix with Surrey’s little rich girls, or if I should send to her to the far cheaper and much more convenient, but average, state school in our village. While I was sweating the decision – which luckily I didn’t have to make because we decided to move back to Germany – I spoke to my Dad, who wisely said, “If your child applies herself and works hard, she will do well no matter what school she goes to.” There is a lot of angst in England about going to the right school, which will get you into the right university, and finally into the right job. It’s less prevalent in Germany, but it’s slowly going that way as more private schools spring up and parents become anxious about getting their kids a place at university. It’s a great big spiral of middle-class angst, and one which I try, but sometimes fail, to not get caught up in.
Anyway, this wonderful A who I met a couple of weeks ago is proof of my Dad’s axiom. I had to interview her for an article, and the interview took place over the phone, because unfortunately my client wasn’t footing the bill to send me to Johannesburg to talk to her in person. During the course of two hours in her presence, I laughed, cried, was moved and inspired. I thought to myself, “If there are As in this world, then there is hope for my country.”
A was born in Soweto, outside Johannesburg. She is one of seven children, and has a twin sister. She knows who her father is, but the family have no relationship with him, and her mother raised all seven kids alone. Despite having various depressive episodes, and including spending some time in a mental institution, A’s mother was a committed parent. A says she “made parenting look easy”. She was deeply concerned that her children would complete their education, as she only had South African Standard 3 (fifth grade). While A was in high school, one of her brothers died and her twin sister fell pregnant and had a baby. A was the first person in her family to make it to Matric – South Africa’s final school year.
In the October of A’s Matric year, her mother fell ill. A had nine final exams to write, and between her first and her second exam, her mother died. Instead of collapsing, as I’m sure I would have, A gathered her strength and wrote all eight of her remaining Matric exams. I asked her how she managed that and she said, “I had to compartmentalise. I put my grief in one place, and my exams in another. I didn’t want to fail Matric and send a whole year down the drain.”
A says the proudest moment of her life was when she opened the newspaper that December to see her name amongst those who had passed Matric – and she had not only passed, but got good enough grades to go to university. Her greatest sorrow was that her Mum was not there to see it too. (This was the point where the hardened journalist did some silent weeping, and wrote very illegible notes. Good thing the interview was telephonic.)
In January, after completing her exams, A was sitting around at home with her brothers and sisters wondering what she was going to do with her life now that she had finished school. The post arrived, and with it a letter to say she had been awarded a bursary to CIDA, a university in Joburg that offers free education to students of previously disadvantaged backgrounds. CIDA is unique in that it is run by the students, who participate in every facet of the organization from administration to facilities management. Each student leaves CIDA after four years with a Bachelor of Business Administration, and the skills to join the business world.
During her time at CIDA, A worked part-time in a bank to pay for her travel costs into town and for her food. Her older brother also contributed to her costs. She took on a second course of study – an intensive IT course, where students were brought up to speed with computer software basics (Word, Excel and so on) and then could choose from one of three streams: the networking, ERP or programming. A chose ERP, effectively signing up for a second degree. She also managed during those very busy four years to set up a community outreach group at the college, cooking food for street kids, starting a couple of nursery schools and advising people on health issues such as HIV/AIDS. She says, “You know I thought I’d had it difficult in my life, but when I worked in this group, I had to tell myself, ‘Think again, sister!'”
After graduating, A was snapped up by a big software company, where she sailed through their Graduate Recruitment course and now coordinates the company’s alliance programme. She is also the breadwinner of her family.
Despite having had such meteoric success, A is not arrogant. She is understandably proud of her achievements, but she says, “I owe it all to my Mum”. She also believes that everyone in the family has something to offer: her older brother works in the informal sector making money for the family, others stay at home to cook and look after the children, while the two youngest go to school.
“You should hear me yelling at them, telling them to do their schoolwork! I sound just like my mother,” A laughs.
Despite supporting a large family and having a demanding job, A finds time to volunteer in her community. She has got her company to sponsor some Soweto schools in the First Lego League, where kids have to design a Lego robot and then programme it to do tasks, and she herself is mentoring a Lego League team of children from a Soweto orphanage. Some of these kids had never seen a computer before and in three months, A and her fellow volunteer have taught them to programme a robot!
A is only 25 years old, and her achievements are massive. She has fought poverty, lived through tragedy, got herself educated, found a great job, supports a family and finds time to help those less fortunate than herself. She has a sparkling sense of humour, a big laugh and a very soft heart.
I believe with those achievements, there is nothing in the world to stop her from becoming president of South Africa or running a major corporation one day. If she wants to.
She is an inspiration to me. Now, if I ever think I’m having a difficult day, I tell myself, ‘Think again, sister!'”