Africa Foundation established the Community Leaders Education Fund (CLEF) scholarship program in 1996, and is supporting 100 students in 2020. The aim of the CLEF program is to assist young people to acquire education and skills that would not otherwise be available to them, with the ultimate goal of reducing unemployment levels, increasing household incomes, and uplifting communities.
As universities around the world close due to lockdowns, family homes have become the new university campuses, backyards the new quads, and bedrooms the new lecture halls. While students in countries like the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are finding that studying from home comes with many struggles and obstacles, we wanted to find out how students from rural African villages are facing this pandemic – our CLEF students. We spoke to four CLEF students from three different countries to find out how their studies, and life in general, has been impacted by COVID-19 Here is what we learned from them:
Family is what matters.
Kwanele is an 18-year-old South African from KZN studying Aerodynamics at WITS university. He normally lives on campus in Johannesburg, but due to COVID, is now back at home with his mother and three brothers. When we asked Kwanele how the closing of the university has affected his life, the main concern for him was in fact, the health and safety of his family – and especially his mother who is a nurse at the local clinic. He said he would be ‘too worried’ about his mother if he was still living far from home on campus, and is much happier to be able to help support and take care of her as she works in a high-risk environment. As for his studies, he will have to write his exams online and is particularly missing the face to face content with other students and the lecturers. While living at home means he has less access to his classmates, and resources such as internet, libraries or even quiet study spaces, Kwanele was sure that home was where he was meant – and wanted – to be right now. In fact, all students we spoke to expressed in some way the important role their family has played during the pandemic. They said they were enjoying the extra time with their families and that this was the main, if only, positive take-away from the whole experience.
Internet access is a privilege not to be taken for granted.
Unsurprisingly, access to data and internet, as well as the related infrastructure, was the main stumbling block cited by all of the students we interviewed. It is the main barrier to them achieving productive work. Nhlayiso, from Mpumalanga, South Africa, is 17 and in his first year of Law at the University of Limpopo. He has had limited access to data, no Wi-Fi, and no laptop to work on. He said, with some pride at the achievement, how he had typed up his essays on his phone. Many CLEF students do not have access to electricity in their home and must walk to charge phones and laptops at neighboring houses or electricity points- something made difficult in the context of social distancing. The consequence is that it is almost impossible for our students to effectively study to the level that they strive for and that meets the demands of their universities. The impact is an overwhelming feeling of frustration and stress about the progress of their degrees.
Economically speaking, the seas are rough.
For all of us, there is no doubt that one of the most serious impacts of this pandemic and subsequent levels of lockdown is the economic one – on us as families and on the countries in which we live. Many of the students in the CLEF program are from families who solely rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. Now, with markets, shops and other forms of trade all but vanishing and the price of goods dropping, these families are finding themselves with little to no income. Tezra, a 22-year-old from Tanzania is in her third year studying Water Management and Safety at the University of Dar Es Salaam. Tezra’s father is a subsistence farmer. Tezra told us that he planted a lot of crops and usually sells all his produce, however since COVID, the price has dropped, and he cannot sell products over the border due to lockdown. Tezra says that her family has experienced ‘a great loss’, and this is a huge worry on her shoulders on top of thoughts about how her graduation and ability to join the working world is also being put on hold.
Their futures are uncertain.
When we asked these students how much communication they were receiving from their universities, the answers were disappointing. Apart from one South African university which was putting up online material and supplying underprivileged students with free data, support from other universities has varied significantly leaving some students feeling stranded. Rather than a criticism of universities, this appears to be the result of a general insecurity and uncertainty that has pervaded all facets of life – educational institutions notwithstanding. John, 33, is one semester away from graduating from Kenya University as a Special School Teacher majoring in physical education and history. The closure of his university and the subsequent radio-silence has had a huge impact on John; it will inevitably stretch out the date of his graduation and the acquisition of a job by at least a year. He says, ‘I am just there hanging somewhere. I’m just in a cocoon and I can’t think outside’.
They will not give up.
While there have been many barriers to productivity in the last few weeks for these students, one thing we can be sure of is that they do not lack motivation or determination. The goals and dreams spoken about by our interviewees was nothing short of inspirational. Kwanele wants to improve aeroplane and rocket fuel efficiency to help the environment and progress human scientific exploration. He will be an innovator. Tezra hopes to improve water management, security, and quality in her rural community and beyond. It is important to her that her community has safe water, and she wants to help make that happen. She will be a life-saver. Nhlayiso, on his path to being a lawyer, has been fascinated by the legal system since he was a boy – constantly reading law books in his spare time. He will fight for justice. John wants to provide better access to education for children living with disabilities in his community. He said that it was watching his younger brother struggle with his disability that motivated him to pursue this career. He will be a life-changer. In fact, these are the people who will change the world.
But this is not exactly surprising.
Since its inception, the CLEF bursary has been incredibly impactful and has helped nurture students into adults who can be looked up to by their communities and indeed, whoever they meet. The program first and foremost aims to empower individuals. As you can imagine, this results in students who are passionate and dedicated to their chosen area of study. Secondly, the program does not fully fund a student’s university education. The CLEF bursary is a partial bursary and students must fundraise or obtain other bursaries to fulfill the full fee of their studies. This is hugely empowering as it places responsibility on the student and the community to support and prioritize university education, creating students who have a sense of ownership over their degree. The benefits of this are clearly visible now when all of our students are adapting to their new challenges and finding solutions that work for them. Thirdly, the CLEF program, its program manager Nonhlahla, and the entire CLEF community compromising of past and present students, creates a strong network where students can access emotional, mental and practical support from their peers and the adults involved in running the CLEF program. This third point has been one of the more crucial aspects of our CLEF students managing lockdown, as each of them said the support they receive from the CLEF network has helped them tremendously – not just to study but also to stay positive.
Article by Tanya van der Ploeg, Africa Foundation (SA) Donor Relations Officer