AMONG the excited throng of UCT students graduating on June 21 will be three graduands from the conversion programme in the BSc Speech-Language Pathology course in the Division of Communication Sciences and Disorders. This is a new degree programme instituted in 2000 as a fast track course for students from disadvantaged communities.
One student in particular, Nokuzola (Zola) Mbengashe, has excelled academically and clinically and is determined to make her mark as one of the few black speech therapists in the country. Mbengashe intends to continue her research into communication disorders within the Xhosa community after completing her Masters degree.
"I always wanted to work with people," recalls the student who hails from the Eastern Cape. "My first choice was medicine, but because my maths mark was not good enough, I went into another people-orientated course, psychology." After graduating with a BA in Psychology (Honours) from Vista University, Mbengashe enrolled for the Masters course but left to have a baby. In 1999 she saw the UCT speech-language pathology course advertisement calling for Xhosa-speaking speech therapists, and applied.
"It was the hardest decision I ever made, leaving baby Anda with my family, making the journey alone, coping with a new environment and the challenges of arranging study loans, accommodation ... But I knew it was best in the long term and that I would have a better chance as a single mother to take care of Anda."
Without a medical background and as an English second-language speaker, Mbengashe said she struggled initially to learn the medical terms, such as those associated with the anatomy of the larynx. "But my psychology background did help and the lecturers and tutors were a great support, especially Carol Legg and Dr Dale Ogilvy," she added.
There is a dire need in the community for Xhosa (and other black languages) speech pathologists. "Firstly, we don't have benchmarks for the development of language that we can refer to in normative testing. We've been using rough translations from English. There is also a lack of knowledge within these communities of the services provided by speech pathologists."
Mbengashe has been working at special schools in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu, helping these children develop their language skills. "Many of them have language problems and some are non-verbal and we devise sign language, or alternative augmentative communication."
She is a trail blazer is many ways. The older of two sisters, Mbengashe said her example of enduring even when circumstances were tough, motivated her sibling to enroll for a course in environmental health at the Cape Technikon. She is also an advertisement for the profession among the communities where she works.
Her special day on June 21 will be shared with the three special people in her life; her mother, sister, and of course, three-year old Anda, who is especially looking forward to being reunited with her mother.