Nokubonga Mweli-Ndima, now 26, grew up the youngest daughter of a factory worker and a community organizer. The financially struggling family of six lived in the small town of KwaNyuswa, KwaZulu in Durban, South Africa. As a child, Nokubonga proved herself incredibly precocious and intellectually curious, having started the first grade at age four.
After her primary and secondary education at public schools, she enrolled at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to study pre-medical sciences. She hoped to become a surgeon because the profession was a way to help people and save lives – her true passions. At the end of her first year there, however, she realized that working in agriculture could tap into those same passions while addressing the root causes of illness and rampant malnutrition throughout Africa. Shortly thereafter, she applied to EARTH University and was admitted.
The challenging nature of her international education kicked into high gear almost immediately. Upon arriving to Costa Rica in January 2009, a stranger greeted her with a friendly ‘hola’ and she was dumbfounded, not knowing how to respond. “Before that, the only Spanish I had ever heard were the lyrics to ‘La Bamba’, and, even then, I had no idea what they meant,” she said. To add insult to injury, her luggage had been misplaced by the airline.
It was in the face of these trials, however, that Nokubonga learned what an inclusive and supportive community she was joining. “Other schoolmates immediately checked on what they could give me from their closets,” she remembers. “No one wanted me to go without.”
She arrived at EARTH’s campus one week before the start of classes. Having only a few days of Spanish practice presented its own set of challenges. Luckily, her EARTH professors understood her unique situation, allowed her to use Spanglish to stay on top of the content the first few months and ultimately assisted her in learning Spanish. A bilingual Costa Rican classmate tutored her, as well. “These actions helped me to understand that I would not be alone, that I had a new, supportive family here,” Nokubonga said.
In her third year at EARTH, Nokubonga returned to South Africa for a professional internship with Wilderness Leadership School – a nonprofit aiming to reconnect humans with nature and sensitize them to its struggle via educational camping trips. Nokubonga is grateful to have completed the internship in her home country because “I got to know people in the business and nonprofit world, make contacts and begin to understand how my country’s laws affect the landscape,” she added. “It taught me how my country works.”
Her first big opportunity after graduating from EARTH in 2012 was an apprenticeship with Future Farmers Foundation. Through the organization, she was placed in a hydroponic farm, starting at the very bottom of the pay scale. “I was the youngest on the male team, so I had to prove myself as a young person and as a woman,” she said. “I remember returning to my house dead tired each day because I tried to excel every minute I was there.” The hard work paid off. Nokubonga was regularly awarded salary raises and, after only three months on the job, the role of manager. “I relied heavily on my EARTH education, recalling the lessons from my soils classes, business courses and more,” she added.
Presently, Nokubonga works for Orchard: Africa, an organization that equips local churches to respond to poverty and injustice throughout South Africa by focusing on four pathways: ministry, education, care of the sick, and food and agriculture. Nokubonga started at the nonprofit in 2015 and serves as the director of its food and agriculture mission, working out of its Cape Town office. The organization believes that, by providing children with nutritious food and clean water, it can reduce illiteracy, sex trafficking and abuse. Nokubonga is in charge of seven team members and has been overseeing vertical farming initiatives, which train local farmers to bring that food-security technology to their own villages. “I have always been invested in South Africa,” she said. “It is my home, and I want to make a change where I am from.”
Moving forward, Nokubonga is eager to continue overseeing projects that help South African communities and upskill struggling people. She’s thankful for the EARTH education that has propelled her to this point.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity of a lifetime my donors gave me. EARTH molded me to be more responsible and open-minded, to care more for people and to ensure the next generation will have an environment to hold on to,” she added. “I hope (my donors) can see how the seeds they planted in me years ago have grown and today bear fruit for others.”
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