Tuesday marked the start of a new school year in Zimbabwe. And as is always the case, life becomes a hive of activity for students, teachers and of, course parents, who are faced with multiple challenges in ensuring that their children are well prepared for their big day. I am writing this piece for them all – to reflect on their collective strength and resolve to give their children the best of what they can. But I am writing this article especially for the mothers, and one woman in particular; forty-seven-year-old Gloria Sekwana.
Gloria was not preparing her brood for school on Tuesday morning; she was not even in Zimbabwe as the sun rose over the start of a new academic year in the nation. No. Gloria was all the way in Johannesburg queuing with her 19-year-old son on the grounds of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), one of South Africa’s well known and reputable academic institutions. Thousands of young South Africans and their parents had set up camp for 24 hours at the university, hoping to grab one of the remaining places for admission for the new academic year beginning soon. The university would select only 800 more students for the 2012 intake. But in those 24 hours of pandemonium, officials say UJ received more that 7 000 applications from poor students who hadn’t had access to the Internet to apply online during the normal application process window period in 2011.
Gloria had travelled from the UK, where she worked as a nurse, to try to ensure that her son got a place to study biotechnology at UJ. But what should have been an ordinary, if not energy-sapping, day spent queuing turned ugly when a stampede broke out among the crowds of students waiting to learn their fate. It is understood that the university’s gates were opened and a rush of people forced their way into the premises, making a beeline towards the admissions area. Some people, numbering about 20, were trampled and injured.
But Gloria was not so lucky.
She died during the crowd’s unforgiving onslaught, unable to keep up with the ferrocious and unrelenting pace. Gloria didn’t die in a politically-fuelled protest march, or in a dark, dangerous, derelict downtown alleyway as you might expect to stereotypically read about in South Africa; Gloria died on a university campus, trying to secure a better future for her child, playing her part in contributing to a better South Africa. The irony is frightening and painful and cruel.
And while I didn’t know Gloria personally, I empathise with her and celebrate what she stood for, and sadly had to die for; for what Gloria represented, and still represents, is the kind of woman that Africa already knows but needs more of; the woman who understands how important a sound education is to her child and nation’s future, a woman who does all she can to ensure this.
I have seen many examples of this everywhere – the woman who sells old clothes on
the street corner to make enough money for her child’s new school shoes and stationery; the high-powered professional who works to her absolute limits to ensure that she has enough money saved up to send her children to the best schools; the mother who walks obscene distances from home to work to allow her child the comfort of travel on the bus. I have seen many examples and they all stand out in the way that Gloria’s does, reminding us of our privilege to have parents or guardians who have valued our potential, and made sacrifices to see it blossom through education.
My own mother is not much different to Gloria. I remember one day when I’d been to Harare to visit her and was on a bus back to Bulawayo (where I studied), how chaos broke out as people rushed to ensure that their travel cases could be accommodated in the storage space on either side of the base of the bus. I was already in the bus and watching my mother from below as a swarm of bodies attacked her from all directions. She was not prepared for this and she fell over, still holding on to my bag, heavy with books and clothes. But she was determined. And soon she was back up on her feet, fighting the swelling army, doing as best she could to ensure that my bag found space on that bus, that I could take all the possessions I needed back with me and continue my studies comfortably.
I felt awful watching her; a voyeur to my mother’s suffering for me. But I couln’ t get out of the bus. And my mum had shown herself equal to the task by picking hersefl uo and making sure my bag was on the bus. Only later did she think about the bleeding gash on her knee. All along the way back to Bulawayo, the image kept replaying in my mind as the bus hummed along. She had phoned me to say she was fine. But I kept thinking of that determination, that selfless love that made her lose sight of herself for my own sake. She would have done anything to ensure my comfort.
And this is something I saw constantly. When food became a scarcity in Zimbabwe, I knew my mother would always send me the best of what she had and sacrifice her own nutrition. I knew that if I needed money for something urgent, she would make it come together somehow – she just would!
And I suppose this is why I empathise so much with Gloria… because in her, I see my mother (who did the same thing and queued with me when I was late to register for my undergraduate degree); because in her I see unconditional love for her child.
UJ has said it will give Gloria’s son a full scholarship towards his studies, but I hardly believe that that will console him at this time. But as the years go on, I do hope that he honours his mother’s spirit by excelling far beyond all the expectations he ever set himself.
And I also hope that UJ and universities all over South Africa institute some sort of award, in the name of Gloria Sekwana, to celebrate her spirirt and the spirit of other mothers who wake up early every day – not just at the beginning of the academic year, but EVERY waking day – to ensure that stomachs are fed, lunches are packed, uniforms are ironed, homework is ready, and that we, as children, are in the best possible mindset to go to school or college or university and make a difference.
It is women like Gloria who build nations. And it is women like Gloria whom we should celebrate.
May her soul rest in peace.