By Lenin Ndebele
LIKE the fictional character in American film maker Steven Bochco’s film Doogy Houser, MD, Zimbabwe’s youngest university graduate Maud Chifamba who graduated from the University of Zimbabwe at the age of 18 had to face the problems of being a normal teenager with all eyes on her.
Early in October, she joined 3,000 graduates capped by President Robert Mugabe at Zimbabwe’s premier higher learning institution.
“I wish I could have this moment for life! When His Excellency saw me, he exclaimed: “Ohh, she’s a lady’. And my heart answered, “Yes Your Excellency, I’m a lady,” Chifamba posted on her Facebook after she was conferred with an Honours Degree in Accounting.
Born to a poor family in the Hunters resettlement community in Chegutu on November 19, 1997, Maud grabbed international headlines when aged just 14, she enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe after passing her GCE Advanced Level with flying colours.
At that age, many girls are in pre-puberty and are only beginning their second year of secondary education.
Teachers who recognised Maud’s talent made her skip several grades along the way.
Oddly, she is the first in her family, including the extended family, to have a degree. Her parents – both late – were intelligent, she has been told, but they never had a shot at tertiary education because of poverty.
Her father, though, made it a devotion that his children would have what he never had. He would not live to see her graduate though, after he died when she was aged just five. Her mother followed in 2011.
“He saw the vision before I was old enough to see it,” Maud said. “He made sure he equipped me to see his vision when I would be old enough. From as young as three, I had these charts all over my house, hand written by my dad. He would always tell me how he saw me as a strong and powerful woman, telling me stories about Condoleezza Rice [former US Secretary of State] and Jendaya Fraser [former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs], updating me of their every move.”
She also told how after finishing her Grade 7 examinations – the last level before secondary school – and passing with distinction, her guardian family decided to move from the rural settlements to Zimbabwe’s central city of Gweru so that her talent would not go to waste. It was not easy, she remembers.
“I remember after Grade 7 and passing with four units our guardian thought he could afford living in the city with us, for me to go to school there, so we moved to Gweru. We ended up staying at the Gweru Railway Station for a week, homeless and hustling to get just enough for us to have a roof over our heads,” she said.
But moving to the city finally paid off. Her arrival at the University of Zimbabwe in 2012 automatically cast her as the “it girl” – but not for sorority groups or boys’ attention. Companies stumbled over each other to endorse her and the university leadership realised that they had an ambassador in Maud Chifamba. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) took her in – the bright star of Zimbabwe’s academia.
Her enrolment was eagerly awaited, and the university’s Vice Chancellor Professor Levy Nyagura had to be personally updated on developments around his star student, whose arrival had been announced by CNN.
“The Vice Chancellor offered me to choose any programme I wanted, even outside commercials because he felt I had the ability to start and be successful in anything I really wanted to do at university. I still chose Accounting,” she said.
She admits her intelligence is largely natural, but is keen to downplay the whiz kid tag.
“When it comes to modules, I never struggled with anything. It wasn’t simple, but I managed to pass all of them. The only challenge I had was pressure from people who had stereotypes of how I should behave and live,” she says.
“They wanted me to live up to their views and ideas. It wasn’t fair because I’m not God’s only daughter.”
Now degreed and consciously aware of the power she wields as a history maker, she finds herself wanting more. Thus when she sees other people, young girls in particular, faced with gender oppression and other burdens of being girl children, her heart bleeds because it could have been her too.
“The other day I was very sad. I received news that my late aunt’s daughter eloped voluntarily to live with some grown man. I think marriage is a milestone to be celebrated, but not for a 2000s baby, when she’s 16,” she said.
“My head was spinning, trying to figure out who is to blame, how did this happen? Then it hit me, it was a long time coming.
“She was not going to school since she was 14. The school is far away from home. At the end of the day, she had to narrow her goals to being a wife. I mean, in her ladder of progress, the next logical step was finding herself a husband. Her dreams were taken away too early.”
Maud – now enrolled for a Masters in Accountancy degree at the UZ – says there is still more learning to do on the academic front for her. Mukundi Chifamba, her brother aged 16, has also enrolled at the UZ for an Honours Degree in Business Studies.