Township spelling-bee winner inspires

A 15-year-old Nyanga pupil, who lives in a shack and goes to school in a dangerous area, has been named the best speller in the Western Cape – and the sixth best in Africa. 

A 15-year-old Liwa Primary School pupil from Nyanga in Cape Town is the pride of the community and the province after she represented the country in a spelling competition in Uganda.

Not only has Unamandla Nontswabu lived up to her name, which means “you have power”, but she has also overcame the odds stacked against her when this intelligent, quiet teenager won the competition.

She outspelled pupils from 150 primary schools in the Western Cape. Unamandla entered the Growsmart spelling competition through Liwa Primary in 2018. 

Growsmart is an interschool literacy, maths, science, story writing and debating competition for learners in Grade 4, 5 and 6. It is a Growthpoint Properties corporate social responsibility initiative and is supported by the Western Cape Education Department.

Each school was represented by three learners from these grades. The competition rounds began on 6 May 2019 and ran over a number of months, culminating in a grand finale in September. 

Unamandla, who started her schooling later than most pupils because of circumstances at home, came out on top in all four rounds of the spelling bee. She won the school a whopping R350 000 in cash.

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In October this year, the organisers of the fourth African Spelling Bee Competition in Uganda invited learners from South Africa. Unamandla was the only learner from the Western Cape among five others from different provinces.

“She became the obvious choice,” boasts her mentor Andrew Gumindoga. “She excelled in the Growsmart competition from the beginning. She was always number one from round one to the final round. And that has made her the best speller in the Western Cape in 2018. That is how she got to Uganda.”

There were 18 countries from Africa invited to the African Spelling Bee. She came out number six.

“We are very proud of her. She is determined, focused and a hard worker. She knows what to do and when to do it. She likes the challenge,” says Gumindoga. “She is very quiet. Her books speak for her. You can not notice her prowess from a distance. You need to sit her down. Then you will notice that this child is clever. She enjoys writing.”

25 November 2019: Unamandla Nontswabo, who is putting her community into the international spotlight with her spelling skills, and her mother Nomsa Mqaleni.
25 November 2019: Unamandla Nontswabo, who is putting her community into the international spotlight with her spelling skills, and her mother Nomsa Mqaleni.

Unamandla, who is raised by a single parent in a shack rented in Philippi, could not contain her excitement when asked about her trip. “Wow! I really enjoyed it. It was my first time outside the borders of South Africa.”

Although she has not decided on a career yet, she would like to become an engineer, a doctor or a therapist. Her dream is to have an education, so that she can improve her family’s situation. “I’m from a struggling single parent who depends on a grant. I would like to buy my family a house when I finish studying,” says Unamandla.

Unamandla earned her trip to Uganda. “I practice every day. I always make sure I don’t go to bed without practising.”

Liwa Primary School principal Mlungisi Fani says Unamandla’s achievement is a testimony that with hard work and dedication anyone can succeed. “Our school is deprived of those resources that well-off schools possess. But in spite of those odds, she went to represent the country.”

A role model

Liwa Primary is situated in the middle of Nyanga. It is close to the taxi rank and bus terminus. The area is known for being the country’s murder capital. The school is used to hearing gunshots when taxi wars break out.

In October 2017, criminals broke into the school and stole computers. According to the school’s governing body chairperson, Nozipho Mboniswa, 25 computers have been stolen since 2014.

The school’s principal at the time, Fundiswa Nodlela, said the break-ins had a negative effect on results as the school was not among the top achievers. The school was broken into 12 times in 2015 alone.

“Just imagine children learning from that environment. How do they concentrate? The school’s fence is broken. When gangsters fight they run to this yard and hide here. When a taxi war breaks drivers pass here carrying guns. Imagine exposing children to that kind of environment. What does it do their psyche. This is a hostile environment for the learners,” says the current principal, Fani.

They were stunned when Unamandla won the spelling competition because of the environment in which his pupils learn. 

“We did not expect it at all. She beat other learners from quiet and affluent areas. This has proven that the input was equal to the challenge.”

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Fani says for years the learners endured conditions that posed a health risk. 

“There was a pile of rubbish just adjacent to the school. We were used to flies flying around the yard. It was really stinking. That was reported to the department on many occasions but to no avail. It took an article from a newspaper until the rubbish was removed. Then the dumping site was fenced. Conditions around this school are not conducive for learning. We are all excited about this child’s achievement,” he says.

Nyanga Community Police Forum executive member Lulama Bhaqo says if children in the area see Unamandla as a role model, the area will become safer.

“This child’s achievement must be hanged in all the posts, ranks, malls and in schools where every child will be able to see it. I am sure every child would like to follow in her footsteps. The children here want to carry guns because that is what they see in their daily lives. We must [have] children like Unamandla to inspire others her age,” he says. 

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