The road to people’s destinations may be long and winding, and 40-year-old Naomi Msusa knows better than to despise small beginnings.
When she started the work that would lead her to her current role as test administrator for the Centre for Higher Education at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she actually hated it.
“I felt it was too menial and beneath me. I had grown up believing I was meant to do far greater things, so, doing these menial tasks after I had obtained all my qualifications greatly frustrated me because for years, I held on to what I believed was a prophecy.
“It underlined the fact that my life would touch that of thousands. I held on dearly to this concept of reaching out to thousands and I was impatient and desperate for this great platform that would supposedly come my way to fulfil my destiny,” says Msusa.
Her job at the time involved packing boxes for testing sessions. The defining moment came one day while she worked overtime alone, knee-deep in cartons that had to be despatched urgently.
Msusa was tired and fed up, wanting to give up and go home, but at that point, a very clear voice spoke up in her head—that if she did not finish packing and send the stuff off that night, thousands of students in Pretoria would not write their examinations on time.
“The repetition of ‘thousands’ in my head suddenly reminded me of the prophecy from long ago. It was like a light bulb coming on. I realised that God hadn’t lied at all. I had just been too full of my own self-important thoughts to see how He was using me,” she says.
She had been packing boxes for close to a year and her packing had helped facilitate university access for thousands of students.
“Just by packing a box, I touched on the lives of thousands; not from a lecture room, not from a stage, not through a book I had written, not from behind a majestic desk, but through each box I had carefully packed and sealed. At that moment, I was able to see exactly what God had been teaching me,” she narrates.
Msusa continues: “I was a hard worker. I had dreams, plans and goals, but my motivation was all wrong. I had to do all these menial jobs, but because I still thought they were ‘beneath me’, I never really invested myself in them. Deep down, I despised these jobs and hated the fact that I had to do this year after year, despite my qualifications”.
After that day, Msusa says she began to accept her job more as being Heaven-sent. Even her attitude changed a lot after that and she became more cheerful, taking her box packing seriously. She completely revamped the dispatch system, coming up with new and better ways of shipping the tests.
“I even went as far as designing colourful labels for the boxes and fancy forms to go with them; that is how seriously I took it! It was this new-found enthusiasm that made my superiors notice me and begin to give me more serious work,” says Msusa, adding that when the opportunity came, they did not hesitate to give her the position of test administrator, making her the first black and youngest person to hold that position at UCT.
Msusa was faced with a number of challenges when she started out in her role. She confesses that being a foreign black woman made it harder to ‘break through’ as evidenced by the fact that she literally had to start at the bottom.
In hindsight, she believes it was good to start that way as it helped her learn the processes of the project from start to finish.
Having to prove herself, especially across racial lines was another big struggle. She recalls often having to use her title to be taken seriously or pepper conversations with grand sounding words to prove to her audience that she was one of them.
“I don’t need to do that anymore, I let my work speak for itself. Additionally, I had not grasped the significance of the racial struggles of this country [South Africa] prior to my coming here and because of that, I would often ‘forget my place’ in the scheme of things. Someone [often of another race] would then take it upon themselves to remind me of my place, that I was female, black and foreign, basically inferior and those lessons were quite painful,” Msusa adds.
She admits it is never easy trying to change the opinion of those who consider others inferior, but notes that it is possible to decide to rise above it all and manage one-self instead.
Married to Ausbert Msusa, a Malawi College of Medicine lecturer, she is the first-born of five in the Soko family. She attained her General Certificate of Secondary education (GCSE) in Swaziland and later pursued her Bachelor of Arts, Humanities at Chancellor College.
She left for the University of Paris 13 in 2000 to pursue a postgraduate Diploma and Masters qualifications in French Language and Literature.
“French was really my father’s choice. He has been teaching French for several decades. I always wanted to do Law. But, eventually, I fell in love with it, especially as it also opened quite a few doors for me,” she says.
In 2002, Msusa registered for a PhD in French at the same university, but dropped out due to financial reasons. Lucky for her, she was able to take the same PhD up again at the UCT in 2008 and graduated in 2010.
Now, she is about to complete a second Masters at UCT in Higher Education Studies to compliment her job at the Centre for Educational Testing for Access and Placement, which is a unit within the Centre for Higher Education at UCT.
The Centre for Higher Education develops educational tests for UCT and over a dozen other universities, private colleges and bursaries across South Africa.
The test results are used to identify potential that the National School Certificate, for instance, would not be able to identify.
The information is then used to offer alternative means of access to higher education for deserving students and placement in appropriate curricular routes.
They have test centres in Malawi as well, for students aspiring to study in South Africa, such as St Andrew’s and Bishop Mackenzie schools.
For her, family is everything and she is motivated by the desire to improve life for her two biological sons, and a third whose mother entrusted to her care a few months ago, as well as her husband.
She counts it a blessing to work with senior people who have been parents before and recognise the need to let her be a mother and a wife, but admits that if she had to do it over, she would do as much school as possible before marriage and children.