Burn the boat to win the island

10 December 2019 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Flickr. Read time 7 min.
Delta Ndou says she wishes her father was still alive to witness her proud moment of obtaining her PhD in Media Studies.
Delta Ndou says she wishes her father was still alive to witness her proud moment of obtaining her PhD in Media Studies.

For Delta Ndou, the goal of attaining a PhD began with a whispered exhortation from her dying father, who urged her to always prioritise education and continue learning no matter what. Eighteen years later, as she is preparing to step on stage donning the sought-after red robe to receive her PhD in Media Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), all she can think of is how she wishes her father was alive to witness it.

As a fervent promoter of education, his evangelising about its value continued right up until his deathbed.

“For nearly two decades, his words have not only propelled me – they have reverberated so far into my future and have been the North Star that guided me and helped me correct my missteps. I wish he was still alive because he would have been proud,” Delta said.

For some people, success is linear, but for others, such as Delta, it can take several detours before one makes it.

Blogging her way out of oblivion

After finishing high school, Delta enrolled for a BA in English and Linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe, then went on to become a sit-in correspondent at The Sunday News. With her writing talent and strong opinions, she soon established herself as one of Zimbabwe’s most prolific young media practitioners.

During her time at The Sunday News, Delta spent five years writing a weekly gender column that deployed a feminist lens to critique the ways in which women were being subordinated through religion, tradition and law within patriarchal societies. Among other accolades, her column earned her the Moremi Leadership Empowerment and Development (MILEAD) Fellowship after she was named as one of the top 25 most promising young women leaders on the continent. She was also recognised as one of top 10 most influential women for using the media to amplify the voices of women.

“It was controversial writing, very provocative,” Delta said.

“[It] attracted a considerable following, won me a few awards, fellowships and other opportunities. It helped me appreciate the transformative power of the media. I never looked back.”

She eventually received a permanent appointment at the paper but found herself assigned to the ‘soft beat’ of entertainment news.


“I would summarise the story of my career by saying: I blogged (and micro-blogged) my way out of oblivion.”

“I was dissatisfied with this assignment because the beat system within a newsroom creates a paddock for reporters, which they often struggle to breach,” she said.

Requests to be moved to hard news were declined by her editor who felt that her English was “too flowery”. Frustrated by these limitations, Delta took to blogging to write about the developmental, gender and social justice issues that she was so passionate about. Among other incredible opportunities, it eventually led to her setting up Zimbabwe’s first gender desk at a mainstream publication in 2010.

“I would summarise the story of my career by saying: I blogged (and micro-blogged) my way out of oblivion,” she said.

In pursuit of a PhD

It took Delta four years to get back on the academic journey, as she eventually left the newsroom to pursue a Master’s in Gender and Media at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, having secured two merit-based scholarships.

After attaining her MA, it would be three more years before she enrolled for a PhD at UCT.

“There were many stumbling blocks and detours that I took. Family commitments, career-related pressures and so many responsibilities made it seem as though pursuing a PhD was impractical, but I always knew I would do a PhD, one way or another,” she said.

Under the supervision of Associate Professor Wallace Chuma, her PhD looked at the influence of social media on political reporting within Zimbabwe’s mainstream media. In her thesis, she explores how four of Zimbabwe’s mainstream media publications – The Herald, The Chronicle, Newsday and  Daily News – use social media as a news source for political reporting.

Even though she relished immersing herself in this study, it was a period not devoid of major challenges.

Juggling motherhood with academic excellence

For the first two-and-a-half years of her PhD, she was still employed full-time and had all the resources to meet her son’s needs from afar. Later, when she decided to resign to focus more closely on her PhD, things changed.

“Choosing the PhD over full-time employment was a huge sacrifice because I had a really good job, but I was determined to finish what I had started,” Delta said.

“Had it not been for my brother [who provided financial support for my son] I would have abandoned the PhD dream because not being able to sufficiently provide for my child was devastating and embarrassing.”


“I always knew I would do a PhD, one way or another.”

During this difficult time, she also learned the importance of being able to swallow your pride and ask for help. With the assistance of friends and family members, Delta’s son was given everything he needed to go to high school, and she was able to focus on completing her PhD.

“Along the way I suffered from bouts of depression, self-doubt and I grew demotivated. I was tempted to just abandon the whole endeavour,” she said.

“I have to acknowledge the pivotal role that my supervisor played in getting me to the finish line because he wouldn’t let me quit.”

Delta also credits Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng with being a constant source of inspiration. She recommends that any other women who find themselves in a similar situation follow Phakeng on Twitter.

“[I learned that] life isn’t always smooth sailing, so its turbulence will affect how much progress you can make in your PhD journey,” she said.

“In the end, what made me go for broke was a quote I read on Twitter posted by the UCT VC. It said: ‘If you want to take the island, you must burn your boat.’”

A reward for the sacrifices

As Delta prepares to receive her PhD, she can’t help but look back with gratitude on the gruelling, but empowering academic journey she embarked on in honour of her late father.

Her son, who is now 15 years old, will be attending her graduation ceremony.

“I need him to understand what all the sacrifice was for because he [bore] the brunt of my absence,” she said.

“I hope he is inspired to pursue his own dreams as relentlessly as I have pursued mine – and I hope he has the courage to live as he believes because that is the only way to be free.”

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