When Nkokhelo Mhlongo was a little boy, all he dreamed of was getting a matric and finding a job. That was the most anyone in his rural KwaZulu-Natal village aspired to.
Today, armed with a BSc in Computer Science and Information Systems and a job developing software, this 24-year-old dreams of setting up a business back home to benefit the people of his village about 40km north-east of Pietermaritzburg. But, most importantly, he wants to show them that getting a matric is not the last word in education and “anything is possible if you carry on with your studies”.
As a child, Nkokhelo was unaware that other people lived differently to him. He didn’t realise he how little money his family had to survive on. He didn’t know that the fact that he lived with his elderly grandmother because his mother worked in another town was not the norm. He was just another child living in a village. Nkokhelo’s father died when he was two years old and his mother was a domestic worker in Greytown. She battled to make sure that her two children had enough money to eat and attend school until they got a matric. She believed that piece of paper was going to enable her children to have a better life than she had. The nearest school was almost an hour’s walk from Nkokhelo’s home.
He enjoyed learning but the teachers in his school used the cane to ensure the children did their work and did it well. Nkokhelo explains that if they did a test and he got seven out of 10, he would be caned three times for the lost marks. He says: “I was very focused on my books, mainly because I was afraid of the teacher’s cane. We were told they were punishing us to force us towards the right path.”
Despite these painful lessons, at school Nkokhelo discovered he had a passion for science. “I think I loved it because everyone seemed afraid of it and while we didn’t have the resources to do real experiments, I was very curious to see what made them scared.”
The first person to recognise that Nkokhelo was not just an ordinary village schoolboy was his high school physics teacher, Ntobeko Ndlovu. She picked up on his intelligence, ability and potential and encouraged him to apply to university. At first, he couldn’t understand why this would be worthwhile, considering it was not something people around him aspired to. “I suppose my teachers and the doctors and nurses around had gone to university, but for the most part, if people did study further, we didn’t know because they simply didn’t come back to the village.” His mother didn’t comprehend why he was even thinking about this. All she wanted was for him to get his matric and get a good job. “My teacher convinced me that it was for my benefit and even sent in my university application forms and offered to pay my registration fee.”
Nkokhelo had no idea what study options there were at university or what he could do with the degrees they offered. He decided to apply for mechanical engineering, believing that it was akin to what the mechanics at his local garage did.
“I liked the idea of fixing cars and machines,” he says.
But, unfortunately, he didn’t get in as his marks weren’t high enough. So, he took a job on a local farm as a labourer for 2010.
His mother was not happy that he was working as a farm labourer as she believed he was meant for something better than that.
But Nkokhelo had a plan.
He had saved enough money from his R1 300 monthly wage to pay his registration fee and, this time, he got in to study computer science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “I had no idea what I was going to be learning,” he says. “I thought it would be fixing the electronics of the computers. It turned out to be far more interesting.
“Truth is, I feel a bit like I am God when I am creating something out of nothing and making it work,” he says with pride.
His mother still couldn’t quite get her head around the idea of her son going to university, but she was pleased he was no longer working on the farm.
Nkokhelo managed to secure a government student loan for his first year in 2011. He realised this meant he would have to pay it back with interest once he graduated. But that wasn’t meant to be – after a few months of study, he received a message from the university’s funding office to say he had to apply for a scholarship. Shortly thereafter, he was notified he had been awarded a Moshal Scholarship.
“I was sure it was a scam; there was no proof it was genuine and it didn’t make sense to me,” Nkokhelo says. But the money came in and he even had enough to send some home to his family.
Those first months of study were daunting for Nkokhelo because he was on his own, without parents, family or old friends, and the way of learning was new to him.
“I missed my family but I did made friends. I didn’t have anyone to watch over me and make sure I did the right thing and did not go out to nightclubs all the time, like other students. I Idid that for a while, but I kept thinking what would my mother say if she knew what I was doing and how would I explain it to her. That soon stopped me from going astray.”
He reached out to others on his course for help in getting accustomed to the different teaching methods and he found the other students very willing to help. “I discovered that I learn more when I try to explain it to someone else. So, they helped me when I helped them,” he says.
The Moshal Scholarship Program introduced a new element to his university life – a comfortable support structure.
“Jodi (Bailey) was always there for us. She was our friend and parent through university. I knew I could reach out for any help, advice and support.”
The highlight of Nkokhelo’s university career was being taken to Johannesburg for their first Moshal Scholarship workshop in July 2011, where students were given practical advice on handling the obstacles they faced at university, at home and after they had completed their degrees. He also met other Moshal students, some of who were at the same university as him, and made lasting friends.
But the excitement for him was going to Johannesburg, because he had always known – from his village – that when people finished school, they would head for Johannesburg and never return.
“Well, I went, loved it and came back to KZN,” he says.
A low point for Nkokhelo was realising that he had made bad choices in electives when he started at university because he didn’t understand what was on offer and, at the time, he didn’t have anyone to guide him. “I was very upset and didn’t think it could be fixed but I was able to sort it out over the course of my studies.”
He completed his degree in 2013 and graduated in April 2014.
“Getting my degree was a feeling of total victory, like I had been born again. I now see things in a different way,” says Nkokhelo.
He was fortunate in getting a job for as soon as he finished his degree. He has been working as an associate software engineer at ACI Worldwide – a company that develops payment applications – ever since.
“I love developing software. There are lots of challenges that activate my brain and make me think.
“My mother is happier now that I have a good job and am not working on a farm. She now realises that getting a degree was the best thing I could do. I believe she will encourage my little sister, who is 15, to go beyond matric.”
Nkokhelo, who lives in Cape Town, doesn’t go home often. “It makes me a bit sad because my old friends don’t really want to have anything to do with me because they think I have got big-headed because I left and went to university. For this reason it is important for me to help my community understand that there is more to life than matric and getting ahead is not impossible.”
Nkokhelo’s plan will mature over the next few years, but for now, he is focused on saving enough money to buy his mother her own house.