Interview with Bongai Munguni

Mozambique PhD candidate explains how she overcame extreme poverty, bereavement and daily beatings to study in the UK

February 17, 2022
Bongai Munguni
Source: Lerato Maduna/UCT News

Bongai Munguni is studying for a PhD in economics at the University of Cape Town and the University of Bristol, funded by a cotutelle scholarship. A graduate of the University of Zimbabwe, she is part of the inaugural UCT-Bristol Researchers without Borders programme.

When and where were you born?
August 1990 in Zimbabwe, a few miles from the Mozambique border.

How has this shaped you?
My parents had fled the civil war in Mozambique, but if I’d been born there, things may have been very different for me. Education is highly valued in Zimbabwe and most villages have a school – unlike in Mozambique, going through the school system all the way into university was seen as possible. One day I was watching TV and saw someone I knew at a graduation ceremony; he was shaking hands with the [former Zimbabwean] president, Robert Mugabe – maybe this notion of university stayed with me.

Why did your family move back to Mozambique?
My father was a miner in South Africa, and because he had a permanent job, he was the richest man in our village, always buying people food, even cows. But he died in a road accident when I was five and everything changed overnight. He had four wives – three of whom lived together – and 14 children, and we weren’t able to sustain a living in Zimbabwe. My mothers would leave for work on a lorry at 3am and return at 11pm while my siblings looked after each other, so in 2000 we moved back to Mozambique, where we had some land to farm.

Did life get easier?
Not really. There wasn’t a school in our village, so we had to leave home before sunrise and walk about four hours to get to class. There wasn’t time to eat or make a fire in the morning – we would often sleep in our clothes to avoid changing in the dark. Every day I was beaten by my teacher for being late, or for sneaking out early in the afternoon as I didn’t want to walk through the forest in the dark – I was tiny and scared of ghosts. I didn’t feel I could speak to my teacher about my situation – for me, a teacher seemed impossibly grand, like a god.

You left school aged 12 but were persuaded to return by your teacher. How did you meet again?
I ended up selling bananas near my old school and met the teacher who’d beaten me. When I told him about my journey to school, he understood and we became friends. He said he admired my determination and he paid for my exam fees and textbooks. We later moved to a plantation where we picked tea for six hours in the morning and then went to school in the afternoon until 7pm.

You scored top grades in your exams and were offered a place at the University of Zimbabwe. How did you manage that transition?
I moved to Harare for university after my family raised money for me, but I was still really hungry. I offered to clean the floors or help serve food in the halls until I was awarded a scholarship, though I was always helping other students who didn’t have that support. When I graduated, I still didn’t have enough for a gown or graduation fees, so took a job as a house girl earning $60 [£44] a month. Things changed when I was offered a job teaching in the university – my income went up to $1,500 a month, the first time I ever saw a payslip. That blew my mind, and I loved the teaching, which helped me to study for my master’s degree.

How did you end up in Cape Town and then Bristol?
A friend of mine asked me if I could help them to fill out their application for Cape Town and I began to think seriously if I should also apply. I’m now looking at the economics of poverty and how it particularly affects women. I had always dreamed about going to the US or UK for a PhD, so arriving in Bristol has been amazing. It has really boosted my confidence to meet the economists whose theories I’ve read about in books and discuss my own research with them.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Dora Moono Nyambe is a TikToker from Zambia. She was teaching in China but left to found a school in a very poor rural community, and does amazing videos that help to raise money. More controversially, she has also intervened to get girls out of arranged marriages.

What do you do for fun?
If I’m not studying, I’m busy with community projects. While in England we’ve been raising money for a water borehole and we’re now building a playground in my village. Most of my family cannot read or write, so we use WhatsApp to arrange these things, and I’m now looking to create social enterprises to improve the lives of my family and others back home.

If you were education minister of Zimbabwe or Mozambique for a day, what policy would you introduce?
Free accommodation, food and water for students and staff members. I was lucky to win a scholarship but some of my friends had to sleep under bridges because their homes were so far away and they could not travel so far every day. Maybe those who have more money could pay to help people they sit alongside in the classroom.


2014: BSc, University of Zimbabwe

2016: MSc, University of Zimbabwe

2017 to present: PhD student in economics, University of Cape Town and University of Bristol

Scholarships from Zimbabwe’s government and revenue authority, and South Africa’s National Research Foundation, as well as from UCT’s department of demography, and from Bristol-UCT’s cotutelle dual doctorate programme.


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