This quietly extraordinary woman has set new precedents for what can be achieved with passion and dedication against the odds.
Mtumwa Hassan Ali was born in the small village of Matemwe, on the north-eastern coast of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar Island). With a subsistence economy mostly based on seaweed farming and fishing, and educational support only to Form IV (senior secondary school), the opportunities for tertiary education are rare.
In 2004, at the age of 20, Mtumwa had reached a crossroad. She had a hunger to continue her education, but this called for the brave step of moving away from her home village which she had lived in all her young life, to stay with her Aunt, a teacher in the town of Bububu, on the west of the island.
Africa Foundation’s Community Leaders Education Fund (CLEF) was launched in 1995 in South Africa and 2016 in Zanzibar. The aim of this partially-funded bursary programme is to grow leadership by offering promising learners the opportunity to improve their career prospects through tertiary study.
Student, wife, mother
In the four years following her move to Bububu, Mtumwa completed her Diploma in nursing, with midwifery specialisation; with this qualification in place, she was able to secure part-time work in the private sector. Important milestones in this period included her marriage to Bakari Jaha and the birth of two daughters in 2011 and 2013.
Even as a married mother, Mtumwa’s efforts to further her nursing career continued undaunted, and in 2012, she was employed by the Ministry of Health as a volunteer nurse, with only a nominal salary, while she waited on a permanent position. Her sights were set on further studies, but this seemed an impossible reach given the financial obstacles.
Then in 2016 everything changed when her husband Bakari, a Conservation Officer for Africa Foundation, encouraged her to apply for a CLEF bursary. Mtumwa’s application was successful and in 2017, she started studying for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
Each CLEF bursary covers one year of study, with a process of re-application at the end of each year. Bursary renewal is dependent on the student’s performance and dedication in the preceding year.
Mtumwa qualified for a CLEF bursary for her four years of study, and in 2020 she graduated from Zanzibar University with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). In January 2021, she took up a permanent position as an ICU nurse at the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital, Zanzibar.
When asked about her choice to specialise in ICU nursing, Mtumwa explained, “I like to provide care. Everyone needs care. As the fifth child in a family of 10, I grew up looking after my younger siblings.”
She is the first in her family that has entered the medical profession; however, her example has inspired her youngest brother to follow in her footsteps, and he is currently in his third year studying radiology.
Working in ICU, I am providing the full care needed by those patients who are fighting for their life.
Ups and downs
In talking about her duties as an ICU nurse, Mtumwa shares the frustrations of intensive care in a third world country, with outdated, semi-operational monitoring systems; however, on the up side, the ICU nursing teams problem solve together and share learnings that have worked around these shortfalls.
CLEF bursaries provide partial funding, with the onus on the student to raise the balance of funding needed for their studies.
This posed a big problem as Mtumwa’s parents were both unemployed and in no position to provide any financial support. Thanks to the support of her husband and her aunt, who has been a second mother to her, she was able to fund the difference.
“My first mentor is my lovely husband, Bakari. He makes me proud of being his wife.” Another counter to the day to day study stresses was the steady support from Africa Foundation’s CLEF Programme Manager, Nonhlanhla Ambrose (Nonny), who was “like a sister”.
Mtumwa attributes her success to time management. “It’s all in the planning – time for family and time for study.” Sometimes she moved Bakari and the children out of the room to study; on occasion she would wake up at 2 a.m. to cram in some study time as the family slept.
In her final year, she was pregnant with her third child – a little boy this time. Two days after delivery, she sat her final exams.
Even now, working a three-shift roster of 7 – 2 pm; 2 pm – 9 pm, and 9 pm to 7 pm, with a young family and baby still breastfeeding takes a serious amount of organising.
Part of the CLEF bursary conditions is the giving-back (buyisela) component. Students are required to dedicate time in their holidays providing volunteer services to their communities.
Over her four years of study, Mtumwa made the most of the holiday periods for a number of community services:
She spent time with other CLEF bursary recipients visiting community schools, talking to Form III and IV students, in particular the young women, encouraging them to study further and to work hard on their goals. Needless to say she intrigued them being a married mother that was also building a career.
In the years since Mtumwa started her degree, there has been a steady increase in the number of female bursary recipients, predominantly in the field of education.
Being married is not the end of your story.
In addition to working at the Matemwe Hospital as a volunteer, she also conducted a research project for the hospital and community around the reasons that the majority of women in the community choose home births rather than accessing the support of the hospital.
Her findings here pointed to a number of social and infrastructural issues, mainly:
- The transportation challenges of the 5 km rocky road to the Matemwe Hospital, with no hospital transport available
- The financial challenges of getting to and from the hospital
- The midwife staff shortage at the hospital, with only two midwives on call
As a result of her research findings, the hospital was able to motivate the employment of two more midwives, enabling a 24 hour service for the community. The transport issue is complex, but is currently receiving attention from the Ministry.
Mtumwa is simply unstoppable. Her intended next step (subsidised by a Chinese sponsorship) will take her to Beijing for an 18-month Masters in Emergency Nursing. She will be using 2021 to study the basics of Mandarin reading, writing and speaking to prepare herself for this goal.
This remarkable woman’s story pays testimony to the support she has received over the years from her husband and aunt; to the opportunities enabled by the CLEF programme, and to her firm conviction that with passion and dedication, a woman can do anything.
The compounded impact of the CLEF programme – with an exceptional pass rate of 98% – extends beyond the students.
Tertiary education unlocks the door to increased job opportunities and earning potential. Consequently, unemployment levels are reduced, family household incomes are supplemented and communities are uplifted.