LONDON: Graduating from university is a major milestone for students across the UK. For some it symbolises the opening of a new chapter and for others it’s the realisation of a dream come true .
And for one great grandmother, gaining her Masters degree at the age of 79 after fighting racism and discrimination, was something she always wanted to achieve.
While living in her retirement home an hour and a half outside of London, Florence Zengeni saved up her weekly allowance in order to graduate with a Masters in Business Administration.
Only weeks shy of her 80th birthday, the mum-of-five with 11 grandchildren and six great grandchildren says she hopes to inspire her whole family and to use her degree to start a charity and help those in poverty.
Many years before graduating, Zimbabwean-born Florence worked as a nurse earning £14 a month. She used her salary to pay for her six siblings’ educations as her father only earned £22 a month. The healthcare worker then became an accidental activist after seeing the ill treatment of babies at her hospital in the capital of Zimbabwe – Harare.
Florence said: “There was a lot of racism towards the patients. Because it was a Black hospital, and the [white] nursing sisters were mistreating the patients. Beating young children, young babies that were not well.
“One day, there was a small baby who was very ill and the baby was just crying and crying. I was giving medication in the ward and the nursing sister came, lifted the small baby and started beating the baby and threw the baby into the cot.
“I was so angry, I didn’t know what to do. I was so angry then when I left I took the baby and put the baby in my hands and calmed the small baby and put the baby back in the cot.”
After that incident, Florence and her fellow nurses organised a strike and marched in their nursing uniforms to the Ministry of Health to state their grievances. But soon after the protest, she was expelled from the hospital.
The former nurse thought her “career was over” after she got “blacklisted” from working in the industry. But an opportunity came up and the mum-of-five was able to move to Zambia and work as a private secretary. She then convinced her boss to allow her husband to go to university and they both travelled to America.
Afterwards, she returned to Zimbabwe and found a job working on a four month temporary contract for an electrical company. But due to unfair hiring practices, she says she was let go after one month because a staff member feared she would take her job.
Florence said: “Unfortunately, I worked there for one month. The secretary who was working there thought there were no African secretaries who could do her job.
“When I was leaving that organisation, one of the directors who was very nice to me – they were all white and he said to me, ‘you know what Florence, I want to tell you the truth’.
“He told me, ‘it’s because this woman is scared you’re going to take her job if you continue working here so she’s coming back’. I was so angry and I left.”
Florence says she went on to work for a mining company which led to working for the Ministry of Mines until she saw an opportunity to attend university in Canada. Afterwards, she worked as a lecturer – teaching and empowering students. She even went on to set up a night school which still stands today in Zimbabwe.
Several years later, the former nurse moved to the UK and graduated from Liverpool University after saving her weekly allowance to complete the online course.
She said: “I was thrilled when I graduated. I have always wanted to do that to encourage my children, my grandchildren especially.”
Her granddaughter Yvonne who studied at Kingston University in London says that her grandmother has inspired her to further her education and pursue a PhD.
“I wasn’t going to do it but now I’m starting to rethink that because obviously if she has a masters we now have to take the baton further.”
Florence says that some of the people at her retirement home doubted she could finish her Masters because of her age, as well as the department of Student Finance who she says refused to grant her a loan.
She said: “When I was doing it, some of the [people in my retirement home] were like, ‘you are too old’, and I said, ‘no, I’ll finish this.’ When I went to Student Finance, they said, ‘you’re too old’, so I said, ‘I will come back and tell you that I’ve completed my degree’. So I still need to go back and tell Student Finance I finished my degree.”
The mum-of-five who grows onions and Covo in her garden and cleans her own flat, decided to save money by having meals at her grandchildren’s homes while using her retirement allowance to pay for her university tuition of £19,500 through a weekly arrangement.
Florence said: “I paid for myself. I don’t owe anybody. I was not working so we are just given an allowance every month and I used it for that. I struggled and I saved it. I used to go and eat at my children’s houses and [my granddaughter Yvonne] used to buy me food, I hope she will come and buy food again this month.”
Yvonne says that she could barely get a hold of her grandmother while she was studying and that she would wake up at 2am to study and that many under estimate how difficult it was for the 79-year-old.
She said: “Every time we used to call her, you know you call your gran for a chat, she would be like, ‘I don’t have time to talk’, it was hardcore. People think, ‘oh she did her Masters’, but you don’t factor everything that happens with Masters. Factoring in that when she started she had to learn how to use the computer, in terms of saving files, even when editing – which programs to use. How to use the university software and all of that stuff.
“So that alone, besides even just doing the course – it was a major learning curve for her. I’m just awed by what she did.”
Nowadays, the 79-year-old organises events at her retirement home where she says her friends have experienced a different side of life because of her.
She said: “Every year I organise a function for them here, just to get together and just enjoy themselves. They have seen a different side of life from me.”
The 79-year-old says she believes that education can empower people and hopes to continue her work through setting up a charity.