Neema Umutoniwase

Neema Umutoniwase had put her dreams of achieving a degree on hold, when life handed her gift in the form of the Moshal Scholarship Program.

Neema Umutoniwase has already experienced life in more African countries than most people will ever see. The Business Science student at UKZN was born in 1996 in the Democratic Republic of Congo after her parents fled their native Rwanda during the genocide.

When Neema was two, her parents returned to Rwanda where she lived until the age of 10, when the prevailing political unrest forced the familly to flee their country once more. They travelled to Uganda, then kept going until they reached Mozambique.

“My father was determined that my sister and I would receive a good education. When he discovered that good schooling in Mozambique was expensive, he sent my sister and I to Durban, South Africa to live with our aunt and attend school. We arrived in October 2005 and we were to start school the following year. We only had a couple of months to learn English,” she says.

Neema always enjoyed her school years, but looking back she feels that the school system of teaching everyone in the same way didn’t benefit all the learners. “I found school easy and I enjoyed it, but only really felt challenged when I got to university,” she says.

Flexibility is key

“During my final two years of high school I was certain that I would go on to study B.Com accounting because I was excelling in accounting and maths. After looking at the BCom curriculum I realised that it was very structured, and I didn’t want anything that wasn’t flexible,” she says.

Neema’s maths teacher tried to persuade her to study Actuarial Science, but although she was brilliant at maths, she says she wasn’t “passionate about it”, and was more interested in studying Business Science, after she heard about the degree from a friend.

“During my Matric year, I applied for two bursaries but didn’t get either due to not having permanent residence documents. My father wasn’t working at that time, and my mom had to support all six of us. So I knew they couldn’t pay my fees. I spoke to my father and begged him to at least try and get me money for registration. He managed to do so and I enrolled for first year Business Science,” she says.

However, Neema was unable to pay her first year fees and decided to leave university in her second year, with the intention of getting a job to come back and pay for her studies. “I planned to be the hero of my own story,” she says.

A fortuitous meeting

At that time she met a woman called Jenna who was working for the United Nations. “She was doing a short film about the effects of xenophobia and my family was featured. She got to know about my school situation, and brought me the Moshal Scholarship forms out and told me to just fill them out as I had nothing to lose. I had already dropped out and was working as a hostess but I filled the forms out. That was the first time I heard about the Moshal Scholarship Program,” Neema recalls.

Acceptance into the Moshal program has inspired and renewed her hope of creating the future she dreamed of. “Being accepted into the program felt like a miracle to me. I applied to Moshal with no hope or expectations. When I got accepted it made me feel that someone else believed in me and seen my hard work and my marks,” she says.

Meeting Martin Moshal, founder of the Scholarship Program, was a huge inspiration for Neema. “The fact that this one man is giving so much to students and doesn’t expect to be paid back inspires me to give more to my community. Even though it might seem that what I do is a little bit and doesn’t make much of a difference, I’m inspired to know that every little bit makes a positive difference and it all adds up to eventually making a big difference,” she says.

 A greater power

Her father, she says, has been an inspiring and motivating influence throughout her life. “Even though we’ve never lived together and we only see each other twice a year, my dad has continually motivated me to put education first and to be an upstanding example,” she explains.

Neema describes herself as an open book, claiming there’s not much people don’t know about her – except that she talks to herself when she’s in a room on her own. “I have full-on conversations and debates with myself. I’ll take the other person’s role and say what I think they would say and ask and answer questions,” she reveals.

Neema would like her message to the world to be for people to know that peace, happiness and joy comes from within and is not connected to anything outside of themselves. “For the past three years that’s been my main goal to find that place within. And I feel that when you find that, everything else falls into place.”