Born in Ladybrand, Nthabiseng Molongoana was nine when her family moved to Botshabelo, where she attended the Mariasdal Catholic School.
“I matriculated there and I really wanted to go and study further, but my parents could not afford it, so instead I enrolled at a teachers training college. It was not really my dream to be a teacher, but I thought if I did well, it could be a stepping stone to studying further.”
Nthabiseng did so well in her first year at college that she was given permission to register for first year university at UNISA.
“I went to register that Saturday. I was so excited afterwards when I got back to the college hostel. I decided to join a group of friends from the hostel to go to town. We caught a taxi, but the taxi would not start. Some of the passengers got out and pushed. I remained inside.”
She remembers the taxi being push-started and then nothing. She woke up in hospital two weeks later. A friend told her that, as the taxi engine started, the driver did a U-turn in the road and collided with an oncoming car.
“I was in hospital for nine months. Initially I did not cry. I firmly believed I would walk again. The only thing I was concerned about was my studies – how was I going to finish my degree. Maybe it sounds silly, but academic achievement was the only thing that defined me at the time.”
What kept her going during those nine months was her family, friends, and the catholic sisters who regularly came and gave her communion. “Whenever I hear the Celine Dion song, “Because you loved me”, I think back to all the wonderful people who were always there with me.”
Still, Nthabiseng believed the accident was just a setback; it would all pass and she would walk again.
“One Easter, I was in hospital and my brother was visiting me. My legs started jumping. We were so excited; we thought my movement was coming back.” But they were just spasms. Slowly the realisation set in that nothing was going to change. “A psychologist came to see me. I just cried and cried. She was wonderful. She let me talk and cry.
“She became more of a friend to me and with her help and my occupational therapist, Erika, I found hope. I could see it in their eyes and I followed it.”
With their help, Nthabiseng learnt to write and eat - to use her hands. “Initially I had no strength in my arms and wrote with my mouth. As I became stronger I learnt to write with a splint and the computer.
“But even while I was going through all these motions, I still did not think of the future. I only thought about going back to university. Erika saw this and talked to me about it. We agreed I would go for a career preparation assessment.
“I failed the assessment horribly. I was nervous, ill at ease, and had spasms and sweated. I was heartbroken to say the least. I cried and cried. Eventually Erika said to me: if you think you have anything to lose, then stop, but if you think you can go through the assessment again, then go back.”
She did and passed it. “I think my attitude the second time round was different. This time I noticed the other people there. Some of them were worse off than me, but they were dealing with it. That made me determined to do the assessment to the best of my ability.” She promised herself that she would go back and complete her degree.
But another challenge was presenting itself: it was time to go home. “My parents had separated. I could live with my father in Botshabelo, who had the resources to support me, or I could to Bloemfontein and live with my mother, who did not have the resources to look after me.
“But my mother was determined. She was not going anywhere without me. We might struggle, she said, but we will see this through.
“So I went to my mother’s house in Bloemfontein. There was no electricity to charge my power wheelchair. Within a week of being home we had electricity. And so I came to understand that this was my life. I continued practicing my handwriting and it improved.”
But life was not easy. Nthabiseng’s brother had finished studying, but was battling to find employment. Her mother did not work. “I don’t know how we managed, but we did. And we were happy.”
Erika, in the meantime, had contacted the Association for People with Disabilities (APD Free State) in Bloemfontein and they came to the house to help. “They discussed my future with me. I still harboured my dream of studying further. They suggested I find work. I applied for a receptionist post at the APD Free State office, but did not get the job.” It was at this time that Nthabiseng’s mother began to experience severe back pains. “My brother and I were worried about her. I decided that the burden of looking after me was too much for her and applied to live at Jean Webber home. I was accepted. My mother cried – she did not want me to go. I didn’t want to either, but felt I had to.
“I remember my first day there. It was after lunch and I was taking a walk when I heard someone call my name. It was my mother. There she was – we ran to each other. I missed her so much, but I had to convince her I was okay.”
Nthabiseng began working as a switchboard operator at the APD Free State office shortly after that. Her brother had also found employment and with her disability grant, things were looking up. And she had not forgotten her dreamâ€¦
“I got a loan and did some psychometric tests and in 1996 I registered for first year at the University of the Free State. At that time the university was not very accessible and I was too embarrassed to ask other people for help to get to class or go make photocopies in the library. I was embarrassed by who I was and so I failed.”
But Nthabiseng did pass maths and she also decided to go back. “This time I had a changed attitude. I decided I would pass and if it meant asking for help from 10 people, I would. I passed.
While this success increased her confidence, she had neglected her health and developed a pressure sore. This meant that she had to abandon her studies the next year.
“I had moved back home that year as my brother was now living with us so he could help my mother with me. Unfortunately my mother, not knowing what a pressure sore was, put Zambuck on it. It healed it perfectly on the outside, but on the inside it festered. It took a year before it healed properly.”
By then Nthabiseng was in and out of university. But in 2004 she wrote her last exams and stood on the verge of achieving her dream. “I had also been promoted to manager of the Disability Information Line at APD Free.
“Then my mother became very ill,” says Nthabiseng quietly. “She had been diagnosed with cancer in 2000 and went through the ordeal of chemotherapy.”
However, the Road Accident Fund finally paid Nthabiseng out. “Life was suddenly easier for us. I got a care attendant which was a relief for my mother. I also got someone in to help her. We build a new house and a vehicle, and got a driver.”
But her mother’s health continued to deteriorate. “We would have conversations about who would die first. I would cry as I could see she was in pain, but selfishly I did not want to let her go.”
Nthabiseng’s mother passed away in August. “My brother and I hugged each other, happy that we were with her until the end and that she was not in pain anymore.”
Shortly afterwards Nthabiseng received a letter saying she had received her degree. “I wanted to die. I wanted my mother with me – it was she who had done everything in her power to help me achieve this. And I had and she was gone.
“I went to the graduation ceremony and I dedicated my degree to my mother. She will always be with me, and I talk to her often. I don’t know how I could have done what I did if it was not for her love.”