Determined: Dr. Chipo Mutambo Nyathi Shares How Education Liberated and Empowered Her

Photo provided by Dr. Chipo Mutambo Nyathi.

The following story was narrated to TWSC Contributor Naume Mubure.

My name is Chipo Mutambo Nyathi. I am a projects director at Gezubuso Projects in South Africa and completed my PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in public health and completed it earlier this year. But looking back at my life, college and high school were a struggle for my mom because I went to a school which was way beyond her means.

My mom sent me to a boarding school (St David’s Girls’ High School Bonda) where the whole of my first term, I wore my primary school uniform from Mgiqika and other children laughed at me. Even my sheets did not fit the single bed – no tuck, nothing. When my aunt managed to get uniforms for me, they were old uniforms from a distant cousin who had completed [Upper Six] (Grade 13) the year before. But I remember wearing that uniform with pride.

Eventually, I was awarded a scholarship by National Foods, where my father was working, and it covered everything from school fees, uniforms (I had so many), food, holiday lessons, everything. To get the scholarship, I applied and met the criteria of points by a very large gap, and the company paid for my fees. My life changed!

I passed [my high school exams] and went to the University of Zimbabwe. I did struggle again with school fees so I ended up registering for the cadetship programme. We were the first cadetship students. I was one of the fortunate people who received their certificates without being bonded by the government.

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Zimbabwe in health education and promotion, and secured an internship with Research Triangle International, where I was mentored by Dr. Fortunate Machingura.

I travelled throughout Zimbabwe training frontline healthcare workers responsible for managing healthcare data. However, I was raising funds for my study visa and transport to go study for my master’s. With the help of my uncle, I managed to secure a place for my master’s.

I moved to South Africa in January 2013 when I got a scholarship to do my master’s at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in public health for three years. It was the College of Health Sciences Scholarship, which covered living expenses and running costs of research.

When I arrived, I was relieved to find my uncle waiting for me at Durban Station. I remember thinking to myself, ‘My life is now changing for the better! Nothing can stop me now.’

I only had R20, and my phone battery was about to die, but my uncle was there waiting for me. To be honest, I never lacked anything in his care because he took care of my every need, drove me to college, clothed me, fed me and read my assignments! He is my hero!

I completed my masters and in 2017, started my PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in public health and completed it [earlier] this year. (It was again funded by the College of Health Sciences Scholarship that funded the master’s degree). I got a job at AIDS Foundation of South Africa, where I was the youngest employee, as the monitoring evaluation officer.

I moved to Durban for greener pastures and worked for Zoë-Life, an international NGO which works to better children’s lives and promote gender violence prevention for children and women, and my contract expired in June 2021. It was a lot of work because I was going to school for my PhD, [going] to work and [tending to] my family at the same time. It was not easy to attain the PhD, but by the grace of God, I completed.

Balancing family and work was hard. I was away a lot for work, and also needed to rest a lot and take power naps when I could. Also, during my final year, I got pregnant, which made it even harder to review corrections from journals with a brand-new baby.

I think I pulled through with the support and encouragement of my supervisor, Dr. Khumbulani Hlongwana, who is my biggest mentor and supporter, and a friend of mine, Dr. Kemist Shumba, who read and reviewed my work. During my PhD, I also bought myself a new house, a new car, bought my parents a car, and also got married and had a wedding. So there was a lot going on. I am not saying things were easy, but I had to make money and study, which was a huge undertaking at the time.

During the course of obtaining the PhD, I had family obligations and work obligations. I have had to pay school fees for my younger sister from Lower Six (Grade 12) up to 5th Year engineering at NUST (National University of Science and Technology). That’s been hard because [my] parents have that expectation, and I did not want her to go through any challenges at school. I have parents who also expect to be looked after and I also have a husband, Thabani, and my children, Seth (4) and Mukundi (1).

I have had help of nannies while I travel and go to work. My husband is very hands-on and very supportive, loves his children and always makes sure that he takes care of the children when I am working or studying. However, the PhD, particularly research papers, required many late nights and all-nighters!

My son Seth did not even know me because I travelled a lot and would only see him on Fridays and Saturdays. That was very painful for me because I started leaving him when he was just 3 weeks old. That used to hurt me and make me cry a lot when I was at work. But with time, I adjusted. We created a routine.

I’m currently working at Gezubuso as a projects director, and it is mostly project management, grant making and fundraising for children’s education programs and livelihoods with corporates. Our donors are from Germany and Netherlands, so I manage a large complement of staff, including project managers, office staff, foster care managers, etc.

Gezubuso Projects runs Sunshine House, which is a secure and caring home for children who have been orphaned or half orphaned by AIDS or who for other reasons are very vulnerable. It also works in education to give the children not only a home but also a good chance of a self-determined life through better schooling. Gezubuso Projects also offers adult training courses and wholesome nutrition, promoting self-help.

I decided to pursue my PhD because in my line of work, it gives you more respect and there is more room for promotion. I was inspired by my uncle, who is a professor, to take my education further so that I inspire my nieces, nephews and relatives since I am the first on my father’s side to be a PhD holder.

A PhD gives me clout in the field of public health. When I speak, people listen. And I have now started consulting work, which pays well because of this PhD. People prefer to work with you if you have a PhD because they synonymise it with quality. Also, a PhD gives confidence and opens doors which were closed. People pay attention to you. In the current job I have, my boss liked the fact that I have a PhD. So a PhD is liberating, empowering and eye-opening.

Since I work in a foster care [facility], most children call me mother, and I feel really good because they are free to share their stories with me. But when I am attending meetings on behalf of the organization, I use the title Dr. Chipo.

Women should not be intimidated in pursuing their education because it is a lifetime reward, and education is liberating; it can open so many doors. Every woman has room to study even when they have children. You can manage your time, and before you know it, you will be a graduate. I believe that the sky is the limit, and sometimes even go beyond it.

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