The university of life
A campus photography project gives a rare insight into the frustrations and challenges that sparked the #FeesMustFall movement
During the #FeesMustFall protests and the media coverage surrounding them, most South Africans saw faceless mobs of angry students, not separate individuals with different backgrounds and varied reasons for frustration. In the midst of the mayhem, few stopped to wonder where the students came from and what obstacles they faced in their path to graduation. This is part of what moved Port Elizabeth photographer Leonette Bower to create #StoryOfMyLife, a documentary photography project that tells the story of students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). These portraits and their accompanying stories are now being exhibited in Johannesburg. Bower said her collection focuses on the theme of access, namely “students who are confronted with and negotiate various challenges in accessing the university. The project portrays eight students in their personal spaces, giving a glimpse into their lived experience.” The students were involved in choosing the settings in which they were photographed, allowing Bower access to their homes and other places they frequent, so that she could “capture the essence of the various facets of their daily lives”.
She also asked them to write their own stories, which are displayed along with the portraits. “Through telling these stories, I wanted to maximise the contribution of the students as part of the process of their portrayal, providing them with the opportunity of projecting their own voices by means of handwritten notes to accompany the images,” said Bower.
The stories provide a moving backdrop to the strikingly intimate monochromatic images.
Faith Moyo moved with her five younger siblings to Port Elizabeth from Zimbabwe when she was in grade 10. Her father was an assistant farm manager and she was enrolled in the local farm school, within walking distance of their home.
“As a teenager,” she writes, “I went through a series of adjustments which ranged from learning a different culture, surviving life in impoverished schooling conditions and growing up in general. My parents guided me through the transitions. I had invaluable support from my teachers because I carried the culture of discipline and hard work from the grounding I received growing up.”
Faith helped her parents make ends meet by becoming a young entrepreneur. “I saw the need for good cheap snacks amongst the learners as there was no tuck shop in the school, so I sold R2 sandwiches. My product range grew to sweets, chips and stewed chicken heads and feet that I would cook every morning before school. I enjoyed the taste of independence and appreciated the support I got at home and at school.”
When her father lost his job, her parents took over Faith’s budding food-vendor business. “They increased the stock levels and further diversified the product range to include fruit and ice lollies. That was the income the eight of us survived on. It was hard but we kept close and happy as a family.”
‘I spent four hours travelling to and from campus every day. I had good test results, which was a confidence booster’
Faith matriculated with seven distinctions. The one that ➜ pleased her most was the A for isiXhosa as home language, even though she had begun learning it only three years before.
She, her teachers and parents were all confident she would receive a scholarship to university, but, she writes, “little did I know that my citizenship status would be the iceberg that almost sunk my dreams of attaining a university qualification. My father had found another job as a gardener in Jeffrey’s Bay but his salary would never be enough to feed and send six children to school.”
Her family convinced her to attend the first lectures until the last date for late registration. In that time her father’s employer agreed to help with her initial fees, but she was also required to pay medical insurance fees because she was not a South African citizen.
“It was the first time I ever felt excluded. I had been integrated into the society very well, from living in an RDP house, seeing the daily struggles in ekasi and relating very well with the local citizens … the sudden different treatment I received from the university was very difficult to understand.”
Finally a way was found. “I remember the way I appreciated my student card, hung it on my neck every single day of my first year.
“I spent four hours travelling to and from campus every day. I had good test results, which was a definite confidence booster. My friends continued to support me, I am forever grateful for the bus fare and food at times. But the tuition debt had to be settled otherwise I wouldn’t get my end-of-year results.”
Her programming professor helped Faith raise her tuition fees through an appeal post on Facebook, and she spent every holiday working, as “a housekeeper, farmworker, waitress and administrator … I also received some academic merits from the university and assistance from the alumni bursary fund. Social life went past me but it is a trade-off I was willing to make. I found so much joy in mentoring first years in programming fundamentals, which I still do. I am humbled by the fact that the first group I mentored turned out as brilliant students who are now pursuing their honours degrees.”
Faith obtained her bachelor’s degree in record time and is now doing a postgraduate diploma in accounting. “It is a journey that I am still travelling,” she writes, “but I sure am a better person than I was on the first day I registered at NMMU. My dream is to do things that will make a difference in people’s lives. I want to have a positive impact in society. Grace carried me this far and by grace, I will carry on.”
Bower’s project has opened these windows into the lives of South African students, their struggles and aspirations. She said “the process of photographing these stories has been an enriching and rewarding experience for me. While my main objective was to offer others a window into the lives of these students, I often found myself being taken out of my own comfort zone and into another’s reality. I have been welcomed into their homes, have shared meals with them, met their parents, siblings, members of their communities, and dogs. My wish it that this project will encourage the sharing of our life stories, as it has the ability to break down walls.”
✼#StoryOfMyLife is at the FotoZA Gallery, Shop 402, Level 4, Rosebank Mall, 50 Bath Ave, Rosebank, Johannesburg, until October 28
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