From a medical point of view, thirty-four-year old Ntombifuthi Ntombikayise Mlambo should have gone blind by now, she would not progress further than a high school level education and finding employment was definitely a far cry.
Following countless eye procedures and two surgeries, Mlambo is now a proud recipient of a Bachelor of Education (Intermediate and Senior Phase) qualification, which she obtained from the University of Zululand (UNIZULU) on Thursday, 10 December 2020.
Hers is story of unwavering faith and tenacity. She was born with an optical condition known as glaucoma. This is a cluster of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve, which plays a major role in ensuring good vision. The common cause of the damage is an abnormally high pressure in one’s eye (intraocular pressure). While the condition can affect people of all ages, it is common in senior citizens. It is also hereditary. In Mlambo’s case, it was passed on from her late father’s side as her grandfather also suffers from glaucoma.
With this diagnosis alone, her path in life was destined to be unique. She takes medication four times daily and goes for monthly check-ups in order to regulate her intraocular pressure. Throughout her basic education journey, she was in and out of hospital due to ocular hypertension (abnormally high intraocular pressure). There were periods where she also had to take a hiatus from school, hence she was only able to complete matric in 2013 at the age of 27.
Being raised by an unemployed single mother of two meant that she could not afford all the special care she required. As a result, she went to schools with peers who did not live with disabilities. Needless to mention, she was victimised because of her special condition.
“There were days were I would go home and tell my mom that I did not want to go back to school because of the teasing. Each time, she would reassure me that I was beautiful and precious in God’s eyes. She would also tell me that I would succeed in life because I am smart. Those words of encouragement have stuck with me till today,” said Mlambo.
At the mention of her family, the graduate is completely overcome with emotion. After the passing of her father when she was merely three years old, life has been tough. But thinking of how much support she has received from her mom and older sister, Mlambo is eternally grateful to God. She may not have had much growing up but her close-knit family structure has definitely been her wealth and strength.
After finally completing high school and having been ill for two years, upon her recovery, her older sister, who was by then a qualified teacher, encouraged her to consider studying further. Though she had applied late in 2015, she was able to register at UNIZULU. Her sister paid her registration fee. Fortunately, Mlambo managed to secure funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme in her first year and a bursary from UNIZULU’s Disability Unit for the duration of her studies.
“My academic journey was definitely not easy. I was constantly ill. In 2018 alone I had two operations on my left eye and I had a leg injury due to falling on campus after an evening study. Through it all, Mr Mjadu from the UNIZULU Disability Unit and my lecturers were very supportive. Mr Mjadu helped me with medical issues, negotiated with exam people for extra time for me and that my papers be printed in a bigger font size. My lecturer, Mrs Chalufu, would keep class notes for me so that I would be able to catch up upon my return,” she recalled.
Because of her impaired eyesight, reading notes on textbooks was impossible. Her lecturers therefore made arrangements to print the content of the books in a larger font size of 20.
Looking at how far she has had to fight for her education, Mlambo is simply grateful to the almighty that she graduated in record time. All her fellow students who have her condition have gone blind now yet she still has her eyesight. In her view, God has chosen to use her as a demonstration of his power. Even when her doctor suggested that she drop out of university because of the strain it was causing on her eyes, Mlambo persisted because she did not want to depend on the government grant for the rest of her life. In February 2020, she secured part-time employment at a school in North West Province. The contract ends on 31 December with the possibility of extension.
– Naledi Hlefane