DUKWI: Seventeen-year-old Xolile Ngwenya dreams of becoming an Actuarial Scientist, but despite finishing top of her class, she probably will not be able to go to university nor pursue her chosen career path.
Ngwenya, a Zimbabwean refugee, emerged as the best student at Nata Senior Secondary School after she accumulated 48 points for the 2018 Botswana General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE) examinations.
Ngwenya’s results recently circulated on social media and a majority opined that the government’s policy not to fund refugees for tertiary education is catastrophic.
The general feeling was that government should start funding tertiary education for deserving refugees as well as offering them employment because they can be useful to the country.
Ngwenya’s plight reflects that of dozens of Dukwi refugee children who year after year face barriers when trying to access higher education in the country, primarily because of their ineligibility for government tertiary student sponsorship.
High university fees, coupled with exclusion from student loans, also put university out of reach for many bright and motivated refugee students.
Additionally, there is no guarantee that they can get international humanitarian scholarships to persue tertiary education because such opportunities are very limited. Burundian refugees Linda Nikiza, 20, and Cynthia Fortunate Nduwarugirwa, 19, also accumulated 47 points and 45 points respectively in the last BGCSE exams.
Nduwarugirwa is an orphan who lives with a legal guardian (Liberty Hafungimana who is also from Burundi) along with her three siblings. Mitchelle Musavengane, 20, a Zimbabwean also accumulated 47 points in the last BGCSE examinations. The three aforementioned students, who are Ngwenya’s closest friends, are also amongst the best students at Nata Senior (for the 2018 BGCSE exams). Ngwenya and her mother Beauty Mlilo, 36, fled Zimbabwe (in 2008) as a result of the unrest that the country experienced post the 2008 general elections. She was in Grade 1 then. She would complete her primary and junior secondary school in Dukwi before she went to Nata Senior.
“I want to make my parents’ life better and also I want to be an inspiration to all the refugee students. I hope that I will get a sponsor to pursue my chosen course, which is Actuarial Science because I am good in maths. I really want to show other refugees that education can enable them to build more hopeful and secure futures for themselves and their families,” an optimistic Ngwenya said during a visit by The Monitor at the Dukwi refugee camp early this week.
According to her, the desire to raise awareness about the situation in Dukwi is the reason she wanted to do all she can to score 48 points in her BGCSE examination.
“I used to see kids with 45 points, but are still here in Dukwi (because there is no sponsor for their tertiary education), then one day one teacher called Mma Poloko (at Nata Senior) said to me if you see people who got 45 points but are still in the camp why don’t you aim to get 48 points. Since then, I told myself that I will fight to get 48 points with the hope that it will raise awareness about the situation in Dukwi.” The 17-year old is quick to admit that she gets deeply frustrated when she thinks about the possibility of not getting the right sponsorship or no sponsor at all to pursue her dream course.
“I strongly hope that narrating my plight to the outside world will help me attract suitable sponsors to fund my tertiary studies and further highlight the difficulty faced by other refugee children in the country when they want to pursue tertiary education.” She said that should she be given a scholarship to do A-levels, she would instantly grab it then pursue her tertiary education at a later stage.
Her initial educational goal was to pass the PSLE exam with very high grades to attain a scholarship to study at Maru-a-Pula School, which would have placed her on the right path to do A-levels. Maru-a-Pula offers A-levels.
“Although I got an overall grade A for PSLE I got two Bs in some subjects, which meant I did not qualify for the Maru-a-Pula Scholarship. I had a similar goal when I sat for my JC, but again although I obtained a great A did not do well enough to deserve a scholarship at Maru-a-Pula. Now I am in a better position to attract scholarships to do my A-levels,” she said. Ngwenya says that all her academic achievements are a result of working hard and maintaining a greater sense of resilience in the midst of various challenges she often came across as a refugee student.
“I had no inspiration in the camp. I also studied with limited resources. I could not afford a tutor nor revision books because the menial jobs that my mother does within the camp do not generate enough. She would have had to work for two months just to buy me two revision books. I had to work hard with the limited resources I had,” she said.
Ngwenya felt that government should review its tertiary education policy on refugees. She believed they can be valuable if sponsored up to tertiary level then offered job opportunities. “Personally, going back to Zimbabwe is not an option because I grew up here. I consider myself to be a Motswana because I have been here for almost my entire life,” she said, adding that the situation in Zimbabwe is not safe enough to warrant her return.
The soft-spoken teenager pointed out that she would not become disillusioned if she does not get a suitable sponsorship timely. “I will keep on praying hard until I get a suitable sponsorship to study my preferred course.”
The 17-year old’s hobbies include playing chess and reading magazines because they stimulate her mind as well as enhance her knowledge.
As a parting a shot Ngwenya sent a very strong motivational message to refugee children in Dukwi. “They should know that their background does not matter; it is not the one that determines their future. They should not be restricted by circumstances but rather work hard to achieve their goals, then they can be able to change the situation not the situation changing them.”
Her mother says that she cannot get over the fear that without a Good Samaritan her child may never get a chance to pursue her academic dreams. “As a girl she is very vulnerable to many social ills. There are some girls in the camp who did well at BGCSE but because they did not get an opportunity to go to tertiary schools they ended up being exposed to various social ills. Some of them became pregnant. I am afraid that she may follow the same route if she does not get a sponsor,” she said.
Mlilo added that she was not surprised by Ngwenya’s recent academic achievements.
“She has always been an extra-ordinary kid who is very disciplined and passionate about education. We are also a God-fearing family and I guess this has helped her stay grounded throughout the years. What she has attained has also come as a result of constantly praying and fasting,” the 36-year old said. The family attends the Seventh Day Adventist church in Dukwi.
Ngwenya’s mother has also not explored the idea of going back to Zimbabwe in a bid to find a scholarship for her daughter. She is of the view that Zimbabwe is still undergoing turmoil, which means that prospects for her child getting scholarship are closer to nil. Mlilo also opined that refugees in Botswana should be allowed to be fully employed, so that they can rebuild their lives.
Refugees in Dukwi have often complained that being restricted from being fully employed means that their lives remain in limbo for years and they cannot lead better lives.
“For example the food ration we get is not enough to sustain us for a month. We literally do not get any toiletry and if we were allowed to work things would be better,” chipped in Ngwenya’s stepfather Ernest Tieho, who was relatively quiet for the most part of the interview. Tieho is a Namibian refugee.
Dukwi Refugee Camp’s Settlement Commandant, Fortunate Majingo told The Monitor that the government does not provide tertiary funding for refugees even after they performed outstandingly. He said that organisations such as Skillshare International often assist Dukwi refugee students to get scholarships for tertiary education. Skillshare International is an international volunteer and development organisation. It works in partnership with communities in Africa and Asia to reduce poverty, injustice and inequality and to further economic and social development. The Monitor managed to get a hold of the organisation’s coordinator at the Dukwi refugee camp, Mogogi Leburu. She said that sourcing funding for tertiary students housed at the camp is a serious challenge. “We depend on organisations and individual donors to fund the tertiary education of those eligible to go through tertiary. Often times what we get is not enough to sponsor many students at a time.” She added, “We have assisted some refugee students to secure scholarships at various local and international institutions. There are also some who are still within the camp because we did not manage to secure sponsorship for them to pursue tertiary education.”
Leburu noted that some of those were not absorbed by local tertiary institutions are studying online through scholarships offered by the University of the People.
“The other challenge is that if limited funding is secured for scholarships at times a child may not be able to pursue his or her desired course if at all the course is expensive.” She highlighted that at one point the director of the organisation tried to convince the government to sponsor refugee students at tertiary level, but the move did not bear any fruit.
“As for Ngwenya’s case I am optimistic that she will get suitable sponsorship because some people have already called with regards to offering her sponsorship (after they saw her plight on Facebook) although nothing concrete has come through as of now.” Ngwenya who has two primary school-going sisters currently volunteers to supervise children for leisure activities at the Skillshare centre (in the camp). She also provides free tutoring for children who usually come to the centre. Dukwi councillor Thatayaone Kehetile is also concerned about the barriers often faced by children from Dukwi refugee camp when they want to access tertiary education. “I think as a nation we need to rethink our education policy and sponsor academically excelling refugees to pursue tertiary studies. They can be of great benefit to our country if sponsored then offered jobs locally,” he said. He stated that over the last few years Dukwi schools have performed well as a result of the ‘immense contribution’ made by children from the refugee camp.
He added, “I think as a country we should embrace refugees and allow them to fully integrate within our communities. Some of them boast expertise in various areas and can help grew our economy if allowed to fully integrate within our communities. We should not only provide sanctuary and other basic necessities for them. That is not enough.” Kehitile has also in recent years been lobbying government to give some refugees citizenship to no avail.