By PEARL MUNEMO
I sit with Yasipha Mgingqi while we wait for Samantha Ncula and Nakhane Simani to join us. When Ncula arrives, she asks Mgingqi about her phone, and they laugh together. Ncula gives her a fist bump and asks her if she is coping in school. Their conversation is effortless, like friends or siblings catching up after being away from each other for a while.
The lively Ncula first met Mgingqi and Simani through the Nine Tenths mentoring program. Now they all study together at Rhodes University. The girls describe her as friendly and talkative; someone who made them feel comfortable. “We were already hugging,” Simani laughs. It was an instant connection and one that didn’t fade away even as they had more sessions. “We can relate to her because she doesn’t make herself old – like she doesn’t remind us that she’s older than us. It’s like she’s one of our peers,” Mgingqi adds.
Nine Tenths pairs Rhodes University students with matric learners in three Makhanda schools for the year.
It does this in three phases that are divided into nine sessions throughout the year. These sessions include goal setting and personal study plans, developing effective study skills and then assisting with career opportunities and tertiary applications. The program is not just about academics; it is multi-faceted, and a more personal approach to education and developing a culture of learning. This is evident in the relationships that have developed between Ncula and her mentees. Even a year after the program, both girls feel that they can approach her at any time.
Currently, Ncula is studying Information systems, Management and Economics. Simani is studying Politics and Sociology, and Mgingqi is taking Psychology and Anthropology as her majors – both are doing the Extended Studies program at Rhodes, which is designed for students who show potential to succeed but need a more supportive learning environment. Extended Studies is an option for students that come from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. They are assisted in developing the academic language, research, computer literacy, and speaking skills that they will need in the academic space. \
When I ask what Ncula’s approach to mentoring was, she says that she doesn’t look at it as mentoring. In the beginning, she said to them, “I’m your sister I’m not your mentor and I’m not your authority.” Both Mgingqi and Simani nod in agreement. Ncula continues, “Mentoring? The title is too much.”
For Ncula, it was more about developing a relationship of trust and support. Even on days that she felt exhausted, she was willing to put on a positive face and encouraged them to bring any work that they needed assistance with.
The name ‘Nine Tenths” is based on the saying ‘Nine Tenths of education is encouragement” by French poet, journalist, and novelist Anatole France.
Mgingqi speaks about how hard matric seemed in the first term. “I feel like if I didn’t have a mentor, I wouldn’t be here.”
Most of her class was failing Maths and it looked as though the year was going to be extremely difficult. “And then the mentors were introduced to us and things started to get better,” she says. She visualized herself reaching her end goal and getting into university, but passing was done for the sake of passing. “When mentors were introduced… it sort of opened something inside me,” Mgingqi says. This was the moment she realized that she needed to be more intentional about her studying and her work. After that realization and the assistance she received from Ncula during the mentor sessions, “matric was a breeze”.
“She helped with everything,” Simani says.
Ncula was the person they talked to when they didn’t understand concepts or felt confused in class. She also helped them to work out the marks that they needed in order to reach their goals and get into University. More than that, she offered her advice and told them about university life and what they could expect.
Learning was not a one-sided effort. Mgingqi and Simani helped Ncula too. They are the reason that she decided to push herself and study a triple major. She says that looking at them she saw that, “these girls really want to do something – you know, they want to study”. She continued to encourage them to speak up in class, to ask questions and to do more than was expected. “But you can’t challenge someone when you don’t challenge yourself,” Ncula says. It was a learning experience for both parties.
“I feel like if I didn’t have a mentor, I wouldn’t be here.”
There are many factors that affect the success of matric students. Mgingqi says public schools have too many learners in one class. Students get distracted because there is no interaction on a more personal level. She adds that students are also responsible for their education, but it is difficult when the classroom is a space where learners are distracted, fighting and bunking. It’s a struggle to keep up in such an environment and “teacher’s don’t have time for one-on-ones” for those who need help. Simani adds that it is hard to engage, ask questions and get support because of the authoritarian role that teachers are forced to play.
Ncula interjects with her own experience, coming from a semi-private school. She speaks of the levels of discipline, and the way that students were told exactly where they needed to be. “Even if someone there was bunking class, they would be found,” she says. The teachers were available for one-on-one sessions and would open up classrooms for learners to sit and work.
The mentoring program is one that then offers the attention and support that learners need, especially in public schools. It’s not a teacher trying to control 50-odd kids, but a space where a learner is free to ask questions and take the time that they need to grasp important concepts.
Nine Tenths is an example of what communities could be doing; partnering with universities and higher institutions to provide learning environments that are more personal and supportive for those who do not have that opportunity in their own schools.