Every time she and her mother squashed into the single bed in their tiny shack when Qaqamba Maxamba was growing up, she vowed that one day she would buy her a double bed. Today her mother sleeps in a double bed in a bigger shack and one day soon that shack will become a house, thanks to Qaqamba.
Qaqamba’s journey from being one of two children of an unemployed single mother in the Eastern Cape wasn’t easy, but she was so single-minded, nothing was going to stop her.
Today, at 26, she is employed as a junior statistician at AskAfrica research company. Her first job was as an analyst at Plus 94 Research, a market research company. She graduated with a B.Sc. Honours last year in mathematics and mathematical stats, having done three (instead of the usual two) majors in her B.Sc. undergraduate degree.
As a little girl, Qaqamba only wore secondhand school uniforms. In fact, one day her uniform was so threadbare, it literally fell apart on her and her teacher bought her a new uniform. As an exceptionally bright and education-thirsty child, she stood out at her local school. “Most of the children in my school had no desire to get matric and would drop out as soon as they could,” she says.
But from a very early age, Qaqamba’s mother instilled in her the desire for an education, a determination to have a better life than she had. “She always used to tell me I could do whatever I wanted if I had a good education. As bad as our financial situation was, she would make sure I always had what I needed for school, no matter what sacrifice she had to make. Every day, my mother would walk the long distance with me to and from school.”
Whenever Qaqamba saw someone who had achieved great things on TV, she would wonder if she could do the same. “I needed something to look forward to. I didn’t see myself sitting at home and doing nothing for the rest of my life,” she says.
Throughout her school career, there were teachers who saw her potential. In some cases, they would even pay for her schooling. “They saw something in me I didn’t see,” she says. Her Grade 7 maths teacher, Mr Marhola, in particular was her mentor. “He encouraged me and told me I could achieve great things, regardless of my background.”
Qaqamba didn’t have much of a social life. She spent her time at home studying and, during high school, she spent her weekends attending Star Schools.
She also set up an afternoon programme for maths and science, where she would give extra lessons after school to other scholars, in her year and below, who needed help. “Everyone at school knew they could call me and I would help them,” says Qaqamba. “Sharing what I know makes me happy. It always feels good to do it and see someone else progressing and knowing I had a part in that.”
She inspired other learners, particularly the younger girls as she was the top scholar.
“(When a younger girl) heard I got four distinctions in matric, she told me she planned to beat my record. And she did. Three years later she got five or six distinctions. I was so proud.”
Qaqamba was passionate about maths and when she matriculated in 2009, she knew she wanted to continue in this vein. She was accepted at Rhodes University and received funding from the National Students Financial Aid scheme.
”It was a big move for me because I had never been away from home.”
She felt so alone when she got there, as she wasn’t interested in parties or drinking, but was able to occupy her mind as soon as she started studying. The friends she made were those whom she met in the library or in class.
In her first year, she received an email from the financial aid person asking if she was interested in the Moshal Scholarship Program as they were offering to fund her studies. “I said yes, but I had no idea that they were offering me more than just paying fees. I didn’t realise they would give me all these training programmes and support through my degrees. I didn’t realise I was literally entering a huge family.”
Qaqamba excelled at university and, like at school, she willingly helped anyone she could both at university and at the schools in Grahamstown. “I loved participating in class, engaging in discussions and volunteering to present sections of a lecture – even when that made me unpopular,” she says.
Towards the end of last year, when she started going to interviews, she called on her Moshal “mothers” to help her prepare. “They would give me skype interview practice sessions so I would be ready.”
During her Honours year last year, she says, she looked forward to getting work experience. But in the first few months of work – which she started in February – she struggled to familiarise herself with a “new environment, new city and new everything”.
She moved to Johannesburg to take up her first job, rented a flat in Bramley and launched herself into her first work experience. “I feel more settled now. My mom would prefer that I was in Port Elizabeth, but I need to be here by myself. It has been a challenge but I have got used to it.”
Earning a living came with its responsibilities and Qaqamba finds she has to budget very carefully because it is not just her mother whom she is helping financially.
While she is happy in her job, she dreams of going into finance, becoming a pricing analyst for a financial institution. “This is just the beginning, I have lots to learn and experience in my career,” she says.
Next year, once she has found her feet, she plans to resume tutoring and become involved in charity work.
And while her mother is so proud of her daughter’s achievements, Qaqamba still has plans to make her mother’s life more comfortable.
“As for the Moshal Scholarship Program, I am simply blessed to be a part of such an amazing group of people who care so much,” she says. “I plan to live up to their expectations of me… and then some.”