Opinionista Kalim Rajab 4 April 2018

Gaza and Thohoyandou – stories of hardship and inspiration

Last week, Gaza was once again in the news as the site of unarmed Palestinians being massacred by Israeli policemen yielding live ammunition during peaceful demonstrations demanding the right of exiled Palestinians to return. This piece was written the same day, and sadly, while it is one of hope and optimism for the future, recent events show how far away justice remains for Palestinians.

How many people could describe what an actuary does? We all know what an engineer does (or is supposed to do) and at a push a sufficient number of us could probably distinguish between a mechanical one and a chemical one. But for all the lure surrounding actuarial science as a profession (or more accurately, the lure around its remuneration benefits), surprisingly little is known ab0ut it. Even I, who work in the industry which most employs them (and who occasionally hires them) would struggle to make a layman understand the arcane nature of their intricate work. Actuaries are integral to the smooth running of the global economy – but like fibre is to the internet, their workings are unseen, their tangible benefits intangibly understood.

I recently met Salama Abu Salim, who would be able to tell you what an actuary does, since she happens to be one. I came across Salama when the Institute of Actuaries in London recently published their annual list of actuaries who’d qualified, or had been ‘admitted’ as a Fellow. To be a Fellow is to belong to an insanely small club. A qualified actuary is like gold dust, one of the most highly trained professionals in the world. To qualify requires as much a mastery over yourself as the subject. You typically first do an undergraduate degree, then a masters level one, then have to be mentored by an actuary while you work in the industry and simultaneously you have to pass an entirely new body of exams by an accredited institution. The dropout rates at each stage are high, the numbers who finally qualify acutely small. The Institute, the largest body which regulates actuarial qualifications worldwide and one of a handful, listed only 29,000 members in 2016. In South Africa, there are fewer than 1,500.

But Salama abu Salim isn’t from South Africa, which is what peaked my interest in her. She is from Gaza City.

How on earth does someone study to become an actuary in Gaza City, a place of grim realities and located in a place often described, for its inhabitants, as the world’s largest prison? The question confounded me until I was able to get in touch with Salama and hear her life story, which is an astonishing one of sacrifice, dedication and courage under fire. It is also a tale which reaffirms the belief in the human spirit in the face of extreme hardship.

Salama has lived with war almost her entire life. She was born a year before the first intifada began in 1987. During the second intifada a decade and a half later, she remembers Israeli tanks outside her school and bulldozers razing settlements to the ground near where she lived. As a result, the Abu Salim family were forced to become part of the dispersed body that now constitutes the Palestinian diaspora today – half of her six siblings were forced to leave Gaza and now probably cannot return. Yet the Abu Salim offspring are a remarkable lot – one is an academic in America, one qualified as a doctor and works in Germany, and others work in Jordon professionally. As one of the youngest, though, Salama stayed. After finishing school, a sister in Jordan sent her literature about university courses there, which is where she first heard about actuarial science. But why choose it? “Well, I don’t like hospitals” is her unprepossessing reply. As someone who has witnessed blood and death firsthand, it’s an understandable reaction.

When I ask her about role models, she graciously tries to hide the absurdity of the question. “Not so much role models,” she ventures, “it’s really such a challenge to run our daily lives, where every small thing needs a solution, that we don’t really try to think beyond that. The day-to-day situation doesn’t allow for it.”

Given the stress of everyday life, it’s something of a miracle that her undergraduate studies were completed with distinction and with a modicum of normalcy. Even then, the last stages of her final actuarial exam required help from the British Council, which through its office in Gaza coordinated with the Institute of Actuaries to send out materials by post to her (no mean feat in a location where even the most basic postal services cannot be taken for granted and where water and electrical services, rather than a basic human right, are sporadic at best and often wantonly curtailed by the Israeli government). The two organisations also arranged for her to write the exams in British Council offices. Getting to the offices would mean going through several checkpoints on a daily basis.

An advanced masters course could not be tackled in Gaza or neighbouring Jordan, and after several fits and starts (not least another war which resulted in Israel closing the border and the British Council offices being shut down) she was finally awarded a Chevenning Scholarship to study in Edinburgh. Even then, the vicissitudes of everyday Gaza life still intruded. With yet another Israeli incursion into Gaza imminent, an Israeli permit to travel out of Gaza was again not forthcoming. “Up until the last minute I didn’t know if they would grant me one. For months I was stuck in Gaza. The course had already started in Edinburgh.”

In such circumstances, where the entire system seems against you, a survivor scrambles for whatever means is available to succeed. Salama heard that while the border with Israel had been closed, the western border with Egypt was open for a short window of a few days. Without quite knowing how it would turn out, and as the area was being pounded by Israeli mortar during Operation Protective Edge, she managed to leave through that route and then to Jordan, reuniting with family who arranged a flight to Edinburgh.

Jordanian society is not so difficult to adjust to, because of course there is an entire Palestinian exiled community there. But the United Kingdom was very foreign.” In her years there, she lived with other foreign students and hunkered down to concentrate on her studies, aware that she probably only had one shot at this. And even then, there was the uniquely Palestinian dilemma which attends all Palestinians who go – if I leave, will I ever be able to return?

As Salama recounts this, tears well up as she remembers the anxiety of those times. It’s a dilemma which has echoes for us in the excruciating choice faced by black South Africans like Nat Nakasa in the 1960s when they were offered chances to study abroad – but leaving meant a lifetime of exile because they knew they wouldn’t be allowed back in. Nakasa would later commit suicide.

Yet my simple mind, which equates Gaza with only despair and nothingness, struggles to comprehend the full extent of the dilemma. Given this chance of freedom, I ask, even if you were allowed to return by the Israeli government, why would you?

Yes, there was a conflict inside me throughout that year. There was a conflict about whether I should leave what I had been studying, because of the demands placed upon me. There were doubts about whether I’d be able to secure a mentorship. There was a conflict in me about whether I should return. There is little actuarial profession to speak of in Gaza and life is so difficult.

But even in war, I prefer to be with my family than to be away from them. It’s harder not being with them during such times because if you are with them, at least you know how they are. How could I not return?”

There was another reason which made family so important. When yet more study was required, on the strength of her performance she’d been accepted for another masters’ program in Edinburgh. Yet with all the uncertainty about the region, she was unable to find funding forthcoming; her study, accommodation costs and living expenses had to be almost entirely funded by her parents and professional siblings. As someone also from the developing world who understands how prohibitively expensive postgraduate study in the West is, an astonishing story becomes even more astonishing with this insight.

Perhaps understandably, Salama is reticent to talk more about this. What she offers is, “we all realise the importance of education in lifting us up.”

Today, Salama finds herself with the dream still deferred. She graduated from Edinburgh, was able to secure her return to Gaza after much uncertainty, and worked for the Palestinian Pension Authority. But the actuarial demand for professional supervision, a key requirement to qualify as an actuary, meant that she had to seek work in Jordan where great actuarial opportunities existed and where she now works in a pan-Arab actuarial consultancy firm. Neighbouring Jordan is at least closer to her parents than being in the West, and she maintains regular contact. But the pain is still evident in her voice about what is missing from her life.

For Salama to be able to return, normalcy first needs to return to Gaza, which seems unlikely at present. Ultimately, while Salama’s story is one of inspiration in the face of hopelessness, it also reflects the circumscribed nature of Palestinian life.

Here in South Africa, we perhaps don’t face such directly traumatic circumstances on a daily basis but in the most unequal country in the world, we do have a unique perspective on hardship and lack of opportunity. Which is what makes the story of Dakalo and Rendani Mbuvha so remarkable.

Dakalo and Rendani are two siblings from rural Limpopo who have both qualified as actuaries. Anywhere in the world, this would be worthy of comment. In South Africa, it is startling.

Thohoyandou is a small town with few distractions,” says Dakalo, “it promotes hard work because in a way there’s nothing else to do.” Dakalo is the elder of the two and was the first to follow the long and hard road to becoming an actuary. The siblings modestly ascribe most of the credit of their rise to two factors. Firstly, there was Mbilwi, “a proud school with great teachers which promoted excellence in science and engineering.” And secondly there were their parents, who instilled an unyielding work ethic and humility as the cornerstones of a successful life. As Rendani puts it, “they instilled in us the value of education. The expectation was always that this is what was important, rather than material possessions or relative differences in wealth.”

Yet Mbilwi is, after all, a rural government school; and their parents, while both educationalists, had limited resources. Dakalo was the first person at the school to study Actuarial Science, beginning in 2002. “The top two girls in my school received a Carnegie scholarship to study at Wits, and I was one of them. My mother had heard about actuarial science but didn’t know what it was. That is how I enrolled.” With modesty she casts off the acclamation that she showed remarkable grit coming to the big city, a world away from her own, and succeeding where it would have been so easy to capitulate. In her telling of it, she simply knuckled down and worked, because that is what her parents would have expected her to do. “I never felt I was getting lost [as an undergraduate at Wits] because I never thought about it like that. I pretty much lived in the library over many years. The scholarship people were kind in checking in from time to time to see how I was getting on and if there was anything I needed. I probably should have had a better work-life balance, but with such a difficult subject to master, I had little choice.”

Meanwhile back home, Rendani, four years younger, was finishing matric, and he too, filled with the discipline of his parents, decided to embark on the actuarial journey. More philosophical than his sister, he had similarly excelled academically, and was awarded a scholarship by Discovery. While fully understanding the profession’s power to materially change one’s life, what also concerned him was its power to impact lives other than his own. “I remember having many conversations during my university days with my engineering friends about the value-add to society of our respective future professions.”

Dakalo is the quieter of the two. Like Salama, when she speaks one gets a sense of their deep shared feeling that they are where they are because of their support structures, and that by doing what they are doing, they are repaying a debt, whether in Gaza or in Limpopo, to their parents and to the community. What links all three is that there is no sense of victimhood about where they come from; no desire for approbation for what they’ve been able to achieve. Both Dakalo and Rendani’s speech is peppered with references to understanding a bigger picture in which individualism and exceptionalism play little part. Both are thoughtful of their achievements, and like Salama, they exhibit a quiet power over themselves.

Today, Rendani works as an academic at Wits, while Dakalo utilises her skills in the corporate sector. They are a continuation of Salama; the power of quiet steel in winning the battle as much over themselves as over their individual circumstances. DM

This is an updated version of an earlier published version correcting some factual errors.

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