Tenele’s Story: My Rough Journey Up the NQF

Life, Reality and Curve Balls 

I’m almost certain that we are all familiar with the phrase “life throws curve balls”. Well, it is true in most cases, if not absolutely so! We often plan our lives and envision how everything will turn out, but little do we know what tomorrow has in store for us. At least that is how things happened with me…

I often envisioned how my life would turn out, go to school, live with mommy and daddy, go to university, study law, become a lawyer, get married at 27, start a family at 30…and and and…the list goes on and on. Then something tragic happened, I lost my father in a car accident at a young age, 10. From that moment on, things changed, I moved out of my parent’s home to go live with my aunt my dad’s sister.

Out of School– Back to School

When we moved with my aunt to Bots, I was made to look after my then 6 year old cousin, who was not attending school due to ill health. That meant both of us weren’t attending school at a time we were meant to be in school. I was 11 going for 12. So when I finally got enrolled into a school, I was made to repeat a grade. It was a very frustrating idea and I moved out of my aunt Nomsa’s guardianship.

I went to live with my mother’s older sister and her family. It wasn’t all rosy being there, I found their house rules to be very strict. My uncle was a very conservative man, for instance, as a girl child you weren’t allowed to wear pants. Or if you were a boy child in the house, you weren’t allowed to wear a cap as he associated that with thugs, something I really found hard to comprehend. It was a culture shock for me.

On top of adjusting to my new home, Integrating into the new school environment proved a little harder than I had expected. I found it hard to make new friends, grasp school work and find my feet.

Somehow I got through it! I worked as hard as I could and before I knew it the year was gone and I did well and moved on to grade 7. In the new grade, life became difficult again and no one was really willing to pay for my high school tuition. No one wanted to take responsibility for me. School began while people were still debating about whose responsibility it was to pay for my fees. Eventually though, my aunt Norah came through for me, but I had to move back to my aunt Nomsa’s house.

I enrolled in the middle of the school term. I had to play catch up, new school again, new people, the work was different obviously from primary school. It was a big adjustment again. Things at my aunt Nomsa were tough.

For a long time, I did not have a complete school uniform, no school shoes. I wore these black shoes someone in the family had passed on to me, no school jersey. I had to wear a different jersey to keep warm which I took off as soon as I got to the school premises, no bag for books. I had to ask a male friend to take my books to protect them from being rained on.

Remember my cousin, the 6 year old? 

Only now she was 8 years old and not attending school. I was told she had TB and she had to go to receive her meds at a local clinic every morning at 8am.

I had to take her to clinic before I went to school, however I was required to be at school at 7:30 am. So because I was always late for school, I was always in detention. Every single day.

Double Trouble Liar Liar

At home I was expected to be back at a certain time to look after my cousin who was home alone as we did not have help to take care of her while my aunt and I were at work and school. Because I couldn’t be home on time after school as I had to stay behind for detention, my aunt didn’t appreciate that. So she laid down a rule and made it clear that my being late for school was not her concern.

It felt like being between a wall and rock. So I resorted to lying about what time I got home.

Unknown to me was that my aunt had asked her daughter to keep track of the times I got back home from school. In the evening she would ask what time I came back, I would obviously give a different report from that of her daughter. I would get a slap in the face and sometimes a good hiding using her high heeled shoes. You know how physically abused people would wear a scarf around their neck to cover up the scars? Well I did that for a while at some point in my life.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I ran away from aunt Nomsa’s and went back to aunt Norah’s. That evening, my aunt Nomsa came back home to find her daughter alone and in darkness. She immediately called my aunt Norah to check if I was there. She was told I was so she demanded I go back home immediately. I refused.


I can only imagine how unhappy she was, because after that incident, we never saw each other again. I was told after a while that she fallen ill and passed on, along with my cousin and the new baby she had after I left. I learned later that they each had HIV/AIDS, not TB. It shocked me!

I mean I was the only one taking care of my cousin and the idea of contracting the virus scared me. I mean there were times when she would cough blood and I had to clean it up. At times she developed sores which I had to administer ointment on. It took me a long time to gather the strength to go for an HIV test just to be sure. I was very relieved when the results came back negative.

School, Job, Career: To Choose or Not to Choose? 

Midway through high school, I was advised to drop out and pursue a teaching qualification as there was no one willing to pay for my school fees. I was heartbroken, I mean teaching for me was not what I had planned to do. I had always wanted to be a lawyer. I remember crying that night when aunt Norah and her husband told me about this decision.

My uncle felt that it was not their responsibility to take care of me because they had taken care of my mother when she was in school and she had fallen pregnant before she finished school. I have no details of what happened to that pregnancy afterwards. So in the days that followed, the search for a teaching college began. I reached out to my aunt Sithembiso, one of my dad’s younger siblings. To my surprise she offered to take me in.

There were some disagreements with the decision, with my aunt Norah saying ‘where was she when I needed her the most, only now when I was a big girl was she wanting to help!’

It was a protracted discussion over a period of several days. Eventually, they gave in. I moved in with aunt Stembiso. Life seemed to be looking up there. I managed to complete high school. I was however made aware that’s the furthest she was willing to assist as she had her own two girls almost my age to look after. I was ok with that, I told myself I could get a job and enroll into a university part time. In the midst of me thinking all this to myself, my uncle, dad’s youngest brother, offered to pay for my varsity tuition and all the other expenses. I moved into his place.

I enrolled for a Financial Management Degree at UNISA through MGI. But UNISA advised that I do a bridging program to meet their requirements for this course.

For a change things seemed to be shaping up and looked hopeful ,that year was blissful for me, I would get dropped off and picked up by my uncle.

It really was nice, I would sleep over at my friends place and vice versa. Things hit a turn when I was supposed to start my Financial Management programme at varsity. I started that first semester having only paid my registration fees. Uncle stopped dropping me off at school, I had to learn how to use public transport. Luckily I had a very kind friend who would take me to the taxis.

Before long I was streetwise. Lol! A lot of things started to change, I was not given enough transport money to get to school. One day I would be short of R5, at times R2. Two months into the new year, the school started asking for payment of tuition. It was hard going to school as I had to get in with the help of my friends, I would use their student cards to gain access into the school premises.

I dropped out, owing money to both UNISA and MGI. I stayed at home, luckily I found a job at Shoe City, where I was a floor assistant to customers.

Those who have worked at such places will tell you that you stand the whole time you are there except at lunch or tea time. It felt unbearable initially, but I eventually managed to get the hang of things. Getting money at the end of the week motivated me. It wasn’t much but it was something.

So that year was almost coming to a close, I had no plan whatsoever of what I was going to do with myself. My future dreams were slowly fading away. I realised that as soon as I thought I was getting my break, things would just come to an abrupt halt. While I was pondering on this, I got a call from my cousin. I will call him Gift. He told me he was aware of my situation and he wanted to help. He offered to pay for my studies, but also asked me to move in with them (him and his new wife and daughter).

I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

So I left my uncle’s house, moved in with this new family. You can imagine uncle was not happy about all of this. His ego and pride was hurt. Again, people where holding conferences about my fate. To this day, we don’t really have a great relationship with our uncle. We are civil to each other when we meet at family gatherings, but that’s it. Beginning of 2007, I re-enrolled at MGI.

I had to drop out of the UNISA programme as there was limited funds and I owed UNISA quite a substantial amount of money. Being back at school after a yearlong absence was great. First semester went well, I passed my modules and was looking forward to the 2nd semester. I made new friends and was loving this varsity thing. Basically that year went by almost without any glitches fees wise. Come 2008 January, I received a statement from school stating that I was owing money. Something I was not aware of until that statement came through.

I was devastated yet again, the idea of reliving the past was painful.

To cut a long story short, I stayed home in 2008 as I dropped out because of unavailable funds. I was sad, maybe depressed even at some point. I was at home, no job coming my way even after sending out my CV. However, I managed to go back in 2009, I changed my qualification to Marketing Management.

It felt like a wise decision as I couldn’t afford buying Finance textbooks, they were expensive and not easily accessible compared to marketing books.

The goal was to just get any tertiary qualification.

It didn’t matter that I had deviated from my initial dreams due to circumstances. Things at home were unbearable to say the least, we lived under strict conditions and we weren’t allowed to leave the house.

I remember there was twice an incident where my cousin didn’t speak to me for two months. He was against the idea of me having a boyfriend, and when he found out (even though I tried to keep it to myself) he was not impressed at all. If he bought you something, it was only yours while you were still on good terms with him. When there was bad blood, he would remind you whose house you were living under, whose food you were eating and who bought you the clothes you had on. The list went on and on. It felt like being in prison. I resented him. I felt trapped, my only consolation was that as tough as things were, I was still studying.

My goal was to study. I got a new weekend job as a promoter in stores so I could pay for my own transport to school. I managed to finish my studies in 2010, but not without a huge debt in tuition fees. My graduation was in in April 2011.

Qualification Success and an Internship

In February 2011, I was placed on an internship at a film production company. I received a stipend that covered my transport money, so I saved up for my graduation gown and other necessities that come with graduation. A week before the graduation, my cousin asked for money from me promising to pay it back before my graduation, but that didn’t happen. Long story short, I never graduated, not because I had failed, but because I had no money to acquire elements for my graduation ceremony.

I’m still hopeful though that when I do my Honours, I will wear a graduation gown.

For now I’m consoled by the fact that I have a qualification even though it took me more than the usual 3 years to get it.

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Leonie Hall

Leonie Hall, disruptive thinker and dynamic strategist, is an expert in education, development, quality management and innovation. She has spoken at local and international conferences; and currently works as an independent consultant and content developer. Contact Leonie for a consultation.

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