Namso Nyamela was brought up to believe she was a princess - until her father was shot dead outside their home in Bisho in 2001. She was just nine years old. Namso has learnt to call on her “fighting spirit” to overcome the hardships thrown her way.
Both her parents were teachers, so they understood the importance of education for their three children. But this was incredibly tough for her mother, who had no financial support after her husband died.
“We had to do without a lot but education was the one non-negotiable,” says Namso, the eldest. Her mother was a degreed teacher, who later qualified to be a principal, although she was never given the opportunity to take on that senior role.
She was determined that Namso would go to Victoria Girls’ High in Grahamstown, rather than a local high school, because she believed local school girls didn’t get to go to university.
“I was happy to go to the local school, rather than see her selling all our furniture and struggling so much,” says Namso.
Her mother, however, was determined and gave up whatever it took to pay fees. Namso eventually got a bursary that covered schooling and hostel accommodation in matric, but it was only for the first two terms. “I was sure our finances would prevent me from matriculating there.”
She would go for months without any money but “I wouldn’t ask my mother for anything because I didn’t want to make it harder for her”.
Namso also didn’t complain to her mother about anything, not wanting to add to her worries. However, from being top of her class in Bisho, where she learnt in her home language Xhosa, she went to boarding school in Grade 8, where everything was done in English, and she was getting 12%. “It was so stressful. I would try so hard to understand what was going on in class but I struggled constantly, trying to translate what was said,” says Namso.
“Everyone laughed at me and I got bullied because my English was so bad. I had to put in so much extra work to try to sustain myself.”She explains that those pupils who got under 65% - and she was averaging 44% - got extra time to study.
“Some girls said I was getting extra time because I was dumb,” says Namso.
“I cried myself to sleep because nobody understood that I wasn’t stupid. I knew I had that fighter spirit, like my mom, and now that I was fighting with big dogs, I couldn’t be a puppy. I had to keep working hard. I was always working, all day, all weekend.”
By June in Grade 9, she had overcome the language problem and was coming 18th in terms of marks in her year and by December she was 12th. Her marks were the 6th highest in her matric class.
“I had moved from the back of the class to the front of it and helped many of the girls who used to tease me,” she says.
Namso dreamed of being an engineer but she stopped thinking about going to university because she didn’t believe there was money for her to get through school, let alone beyond.
Nevertheless she applied and was accepted to study a BSc in environmental science and chemistry at Rhodes University in 2011. It doesn’t have an engineering faculty.
She was approved for a limited National Students Financial Aid Scheme loan and her mother planned to pay the rest, while putting her younger daughter and son through school.
“I wasn’t sure I would see out my first year at Rhodes,” she says.
Adapting to university was fairly easy for Namso but she was always worried about money. Before she was midway through her first year, she found out she had been chosen for a Moshal Scholarship.
“When I heard I had received this scholarship, I thought it was a prank,” says Namso. “It only hit home when I went to the financial aid office at Rhodes to sign the contract. When I saw all my fees had been paid, I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. I was so relieved that my mother would have just a little financial relief too.”
Namso is now finishing her BSc honours degree in environmental management.
She says of the Moshal Scholarship: “When it was dark, there was light. There is hope; there is a bright future ahead of me.
“I had settled for being a failure and would dream dreams that were not realistic for somebody like me. Today, I am alive with possibility.”
When she finishes her honours, she wants to work and make money to help her mother. Thereafter, she plans to do an MSc and perhaps still become an engineer.
“I also want to provide life and study skills for young people and safe homes for child-headed households,” she says. “I hope to be a philanthropist and establish homes and youth empowerment programmes that will keep young people out of trouble.”