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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Making her mark in South Africa


If you were asked to sum up Cynthia Ayeza in one line, it would be that she sure knows how to get what she wants. By the age of 26, she was already lecturing in a top South African university, and is today the Public Relations Officer for the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars (CMRS), a prestigious position that not even the most xenophobic South African could deny our home girl after she distinguished herself academically and as a leader.

Ms. Ayeza’s dream at Nakasero Primary School was to become a pilot. But when she joined Rubaga Girls’ School she thought of becoming an architect, then a great lawyer. But all that had changed by the time she completed her A-Level at St. Lawrence Citizen’s College (Creamland Campus). Now she wanted to study English at university but her father wanted her to pursue Law. This disagreement cost her two years as she looked out for opportunities in alignment with her ambitions.

 Eventually she secured sponsorship and flew to South Africa in 2003 for a bachelor's degree in Languages, majoring in English and Communication. She immediately joined a local church, and got involved with its youth program. But it’s after she pioneered, along with three others, a campus student program called Chi Alpha aimed at injecting character in the future leaders that her leadership potential became manifest. That’s when the Dean of Students (Prof. Speckman) at the time encouraged her to apply for the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship.

 “The Scholarship stems from Nelson Mandela’s desire to see exceptional leadership capacity harnessed on the continent,” says Ms. Ayeza, “but its uniqueness is in the way it juxtaposes the personalities of Mandela and Rhodes. It is a major representation of reconciliation which all of humanity needs to learn - to move beyond past injustices and press towards a more common ground, a common vision, and rebuild our continent.”

This is what got her applying, and becoming the first Ugandan Mandela-Rhodes scholar. She went on to ace her Masters Degree in Culture and Media Studies at the end of which she was offered a lecturing job at the University of Pretoria, from where she had attained her first degree as well. Two other Ugandans: Cornelious Ssemakalu and Anthea Pelo have since benefited from the Scholarship, and 178 Africans overall.

As the CMRS publicist, Ms. Ayeza now looks forward to having more than one Ugandan getting the scholarship in a given year. At the moment you have to be registered as a student at a South African University but there are plans to extend into the rest of Africa, she says.

“You need two academic references and two personal references and if you’re wise, have some leadership initiatives under your belt of experience during your academic journey,” she says of what it takes. “They are not looking for the A student even though that can help; they are looking for a well-rounded leader; one that has a good balance of intellectual, emotional, physical, social and global awareness; also your current context matters – what are you doing to influence positive change in it?”

A very light-skinned girl with small eyes that shine when she speaks of something close to her heart, Ms. Ayeza says remaining authentic in who and what she believes, is what has brought her this far. Adjusting to South African culture was not easy: “Being black, I was expected to speak the languages here (they have 11 official languages)," she says, "so speaking in English and Zulu or Xhosa or Setswana to some ladies got me rude stares and harsh words. To them, I was a snob and trying to be white. But as I got to understand their background better, the history behind it (not that it is an excuse right now) I understood. I think South Africans are open-minded people, not half as friendly as Ugandans but generally, as is the case with Africans, they too are warm.”

 She also talks of falling in love with the spicy South African salad dish called "chakalaka", joking that Indians would love it, but nothing lights her up as recalling her first meet up with Nelson Mandela. “It was awe-evoking,” she coos, certifying him as the world’s most charming icon!

The scene shifts back to Uganda as Ms. Ayeza takes us down memory lane; being born at Mulago hospital in 1981 and her father joking that she looked like a gecko, her childhood friends in Bugolobi flats that taught her bits of Acholi, and of loving grandparents that taught her how to dig and to speak and write rukiga properly.

 “We were poor, but we had a very loving and playful mother that strived to give us the very best,” she says affectionately. It’s this love and charm inherited from her mother, and the latter discovery that words and people are what make her happy, keeps her going in a capricious world. Soon after, her vivaciousness is replaced by introspectiveness as she shares her thoughts on what will help Africa to become a superpower continent that we all can be proud of.

“I’m always re-learning that there is more to life; indeed there’s more to life than our little cocoons,” she’s emphatic. “I think that generally, Africa needs to get to a point where it thinks as a mass community as opposed to the fragment-like nature that our countries are; Africa needs to consider dreaming as one in our respective contexts.”

 She also stresses the need to function out of who we are as a people and not what the world expects of us. It’s actually Africa’s potential to hold its own and the reality of God that drives Ms. Ayeza. She also has a word for women not to measure their worth against what the men are: “You are your own person and the fight is not against men. You are responsible for your own potential, so, live and play your part in the grand orchestra that life is.”

 Talking of orchestras, Ms. Ayeza is passionate guitarist whose acoustic strings she loves to strum when she gets away. CMRS work can be draining, and to keep on top of her game mentally and physically, this single lady reads and goes swimming on weekends.