‘By foot from Havana I obtained my degree’

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Tuwilica J Kahuika
Windhoek

On April 21, a photo of a young man in his graduation attire, taken in Windhoek’s Havana informal settlement emerged on social media. The photo soon went viral, with thousands of likes and shares.
In the photo’s background are blurred images of silver shacks, heaps of rubbish and live electric cables running across the dusty roads and shebeens, but in the forefront stood a proud 23-year-old Elifas Helao Nghitomoka, bracing a broad smile with a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resources from the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) in the bag.

Childhood
Born in 1993, in Onanghulo in Ohangwena Region, Elifas completed his primary schooling at Eheke Primary School and would already walk 20 km to school, even in Grade 7. He completed Grade 8 to 10 at Kapembe Combined School and Grades 11 and12 at Iipumbu Senior Secondary School in Oshakati.

It was at Iipumbu SSS that he gained exposure to social activism, which later cost him a position on the learner representative council, because he was suspended for misconduct. He took the punch for a fellow female learner, but it appears he also liked the girl. The firstborn of seven siblings, Elifas only met his biological father when in Grade 12.

Prior to this he was raised by his mother, uncle Hafeni Shilikunye and his aunt Josephina, to whom he is full of gratitude for having instilled discipline in him from an early age. Elifas’ father, a shift supervisor at Namib Mills came looking for him after he had heard that he had a teenage son.

“I met my father at the most critical time in my life, where I was about to embark on a new stage in life and he contributed largely to where I am today,” he says sitting in the kitchen of the three-bedroom shack he shares with his father, his wife and siblings.

The neatly built shack uses the “people’s connection” (illegal electricity connections), has a bucket sanitation system and is situated one kilometre from the nearest communal tap. In the yard, is a small makeshift shop and daycare centre that his father’s wife operates.

Elifas says that he wished all fathers would assist their children, no matter their circumstances, because “when you invest in your child’s education, you have invested in the family”.

From Havana in pursuit of education
After relocating to Havana with his father in 2011, Elifas rewrote a few Grade 12 subjects before enrolling at NUST the following year. Studying was exciting, but not easy. Several times, “I walked from Havana to NUST, starting at 05h00, so I could be there by 07h00 at the latest.”

Once there, “I would clean my shoes and rest, so not to look like I had just walked for two hours.” In fact the last time he walked from Havana to NUST was a few weeks ago. “You don’t want people to see your struggle, because at NUST everyone is equal and just because I am from Havana doesn’t mean I will get extra marks,” Elifas says.

One of the lowest moments for him was during the first semester at NUST, right before the exams; with no loan he owed NUST N$15,000 and almost did not write exams. It was as if he was failing a journey he had not even started.
For his father, Erickson Nghitomoka, money was a challenge, but “I had to sacrifice for my son, so he could go to school and have something to eat and focus on his school,” so on graduation day “it was a great honour to see the son of the family pave the way to a bright future for his siblings.”

Another bitter blow came when he was bumped by a car while walking to NUST one dark morning. As he lay on the ground, he thought, is this what he had to endure to get an education? But, “I got up I thanked God and the driver and continued walking.

After graduating
The former NUST student representative council member, who was part of the group responsible for the NUST lockdown when students protested against high tuition fees in 2016, is also the vice president of the African Union University Club, a radio presenter and part of the NUST Review Committee alongside management.

He intends furthering his studies in law and politics, whilst job hunting and continuing with his civic duties. Currently, basis he is an interpreter on a part-time basis at the High Court, which he has done since 2014. At home, his siblings look up to him and are competing for some of his trophies and medals to follow in his footsteps.

Elifas says God’s mercy has followed him all the days of his life. In relation to his famous graduation photo, that illustrates how one can defy all odds against you in pursuit of success, he says, when he posted it he had no idea it would cause so much positive and encouraging responses, even from people he did not know.
Looking at the photo, he says: “If a boy like me can walk from Havana, and graduate, so can you.”

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