Read the opinion article by Ginie Servant-Miklos
The scholarship system is broken: here’s how we fix it
Scholarship organisations are not serious about supporting those most in need, Ginie…
After reading the article, I thought I understood why an underprivileged Zimbabwean student from a township would be the better choice for a scholarship than a more privileged one. Poverty came to mind, lack of access to libraries or books, perhaps a dysfunctional family. Tinashe’s story is much more complex than that. The odds were stacked against her in more ways than I could’ve imagined. It’s a story about abuse, sacrifice, financial hardship, risky border crossings but also about karate, bravery and perseverance.
Beverly Hills of Zimbabwe
Tinashe, now 23, is calling me from her office. She recently landed her first official job, as an administrative assistant at a private school in what she calls ‘the Beverly Hills of Zimbabwe’. The rich kids’ school doesn’t pay a lot. “I can pay the rent and buy food, but that’s about it.”
She grew up in a mission in Murewa, a township seventy kilometres east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Her father was a teacher in the mission. From a young age, she wanted to do karate. First, for fun. Later, ‘to protect myself and my mom from my father’. Her high school offered a karate class, funded by FairFight, an NGO founded by Servant-Miklos and EUC colleague Alexander Whitcomb in 2015. It changed Tinashe’s life.
Karate means so much to me. At home, I didn’t have peace. I was always afraid to say something and be shouted at or beaten. I honestly didn’t understand exactly what family meant, until I joined karate. We really looked after each other. I suddenly had a safe place where I could be myself and didn’t have to hide in some corner.”
She initially hid karate from her father, who, like many Zimbabwean parents, viewed martial arts for women with extreme suspicion. Tinashe says: “He didn’t want me to do any sporting activity, as it could distract me from my schoolwork.” But soon, Tinashe could no longer hide it. After only six months of training, she participated in a national tournament in Harare, and won gold in the Kumite (sparring) category. She was selected for the national team to compete in international tournaments. In 2017, she won a bronze medal at the All Africa Games Zone 6 tournament, and in 2018 two gold medals at the Kofukan Tri-Nations tournament in Durban, South Africa. Because of her success, she was able to keep training in Harare, live with her sister and avoid her father for a while.
Trouble at home
After graduating from high school, she applied to study Public Administration at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. A deep sigh: “That’s when all the trouble started.” In Zimbabwe, high school ends in December and university starts in August the following year: “So you have to wait for more than half a year before you can start uni.”
It meant she had to return home and live with her parents and brother in a small house. “It was really, really bad. Every argument, even in another room, I could hear it. My dad was very abusive towards my mom. And as a kid, you don’t want to get involved, but you’re just there when everything happens. I heard my dad say he found a ‘better woman’, and call my mom ‘a weak person’ for being ill.”
The situation escalated to the point where her father stopped bringing food home. “My mom and I worked as maids, so we could buy food. And my mom would still cook for him and try to persuade him not to leave. But my dad never changed. One day, I saw him hit my mom. I asked him why he did that, and he said: ‘Because she is weak.’ That made me so very angry that I hit him. I still don’t know where I found the strength. He’s very big and I’m tiny. He lost two teeth. I dragged my mom out of there and we ran away.”
Fish business in South Africa
Tinashe is still very proud of that moment, but it also created a lot of trouble for her, especially financially. She asked him for forgiveness (‘I didn’t mean it, but I really wanted him to pay for my tuition fees’). He fobbed her off and even suggested that she should prostitute herself to pay for university. “Then I thought I really had to take matters into my own hands. I couldn’t just sit down and give up.”
She moved in with her aunt in South Africa, the southern neighbour of Zimbabwe. “She gave me money to start a fish business. I would wake up every morning at 3:00, go to the forest, find firewood, make a fire, clean my fish, dip it in flour, spices and oil and fry it. Then I would go to the nearest village and sell the fried fish.”
In two months, she raised enough money for her tuition fee for the first semester of university. “I came back to Zimbabwe, paid my fees, but I didn’t have a place to stay. So I went to my sister’s, but that meant I had to walk twenty-five kilometres from home to lectures every day, and back. That was very difficult.” Her sister only served her one meal per day, in the evening. To buy more food, Tinashe had to work as a maid at the weekends.
Helping a student in a wheelchair
“But that didn’t get me enough money for anything, really. Then I heard about a program at uni where you could help students with a disability, and uni would pay for your accommodation and three meals per day.” She obtained a position as a disability-support assistant for a student in a wheelchair. “You should know that the University of Zimbabwe is built on a hill. So I was pushing a person up who weighs about 100 kilograms. And later I had to go down again, so I would let go of the wheelchair and make sure he didn’t bump into anything.”
She had to sacrifice most of her social and academic time for this student. “I had to be with him all the time, except for when he was sleeping. I also had to clean his room, do his laundry, help with assignments, go with him to church. I had to do whatever he wanted because otherwise he would drop me and I’d be desperate. That did take a toll on me to the point where I failed two modules in my first semester.”
Meanwhile, her mother’s health deteriorated, with only the children to look after her and pay her medical expenses. That’s when she reached out to FairFight, the NGO of Servant-Miklos. “They offered to help. It meant I could quit living with this student, concentrate on academic work, and braid people’s hair or do maid work to raise extra money for food and my mom. Thanks to FairFight, I also had a mentor, a laptop and a phone. My grades improved and I passed most of my courses, but it was difficult: academia is a whole new world for someone like me.”
Things were on a roll. “Until 2020, when Covid-19 struck.”
“All sorts of income opportunities closed. And I still had to support my mom. She wasn’t in a good place; she has serious mental health issues. As lockdowns were declared and border closures came into effect, I discussed with my mentor that it would be better to ride out the lockdowns in South Africa, where I could get a job, and where I would have enough internet for remote learning. I got on the last bus to South Africa before the border closed. It was 23:30 when I got to the border, with enormous lines of people waiting to get in and 30 minutes left before closure. I made it, but had to sleep the night in a kind of refugee camp with other women on the other side of the border. The next morning, I undertook the long and dangerous trip to where my aunt lives.” Once there, she found a manual labour job at a shop and was able to attend to her schoolwork remotely. Things worked well for a couple of months, but then, ‘out of the blue, the university announced that we had to return to Zimbabwe for the exams’. With closed borders and mandatory quarantine in government facilities for those who did return, there was no way she could be in Harare in time for the exams if she followed official procedures.
There was no easy solution, but missing the exams would have meant failing the entire year. For her own safety, the details of this part of her story have been omitted for now, but suffice to say that they would make good film material. In the end, she took very serious risks, but she made it to her exams, and passed all of them with B and C grades.
In 2020, Servant-Miklos helped Tinashe apply for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship for a master’s programme in Educational Governance. “In Zimbabwe, people listen to graduates from European universities, so a master’s would be a great way to get the educational system in Zimbabwe to change.”
Education is relatively expensive in Zimbabwe, even more so during Covid, when hyperinflation keeps devaluing people’s earnings while the cost of remote learning keeps increasing. “Students have to pay data bundles of 5 dollars per hour for Zoom classes.” The average salary of a teacher is about 250 dollars a month. “Even they can’t afford to pay for classes for their children. That’s why I want the scholarship. Not just for me but also to change education in Zimbabwe. I want to try and influence the minds of the people in Zimbabwe to look at the position of the underprivileged people and offer them affordable education, if not free.”
New hope in Estonia
The scholarship application was rejected, but there’s still hope. Tinashe might be able to go to Estonia now and do a master’s there, with financial support from a private donor. “My uncle lives there, and he’s always been one of the few people that reached out to me.” For now, she’s happy to be in a ‘much better place than I’ve been in the past five years’. “I have a degree, I have money, I have a home now. It’s an ugly cabin, but it’s a house.” She can dream of a better future. “I want to write books about my life. My mom’s life. Life in Zimbabwe.”