Nowadays, Elizabeth Kanani is a contented wife, mother to three children and loves her job as an academic at MANCOSA, a private higher education institution.
She has come a long way since she worked as a car guard on Durban’s Victoria Embankment and plaited hair at salons to eke out a living.
However, she is still haunted by the gruesome atrocities that played out in her motherland, Rwanda, during the genocide and subsequent civil wars that left an estimated one million people dead and forced more than two million Rwandans to flee the country.
Kanani, 52, was born in Gisenyi province in Rwanda and was raised by her father from the age of four after her mother died of illness. The eighth in a family of 10 children, she matriculated in Rwanda and thereafter obtained a diploma in statistics. She then worked as a financial administrator.
When she was 27 years old and married with one child, the massacre of men, women and children in Rwanda began to escalate. Her father-in-law and two of her brothers were killed by soldiers. Several relatives and friends were slaughtered. Thousands of women were raped by soldiers and armed groups.
Kanani’s husband fled Rwanda in 1997. A month later, with a young child and carrying only a tiny plastic bag so as not to raise any suspicion, she left her country of birth, crossing borders without knowing where she was headed.
She landed in South Africa and walked the streets of Durban job-hunting. She did odd jobs to put food on the table, but soon realised she was destined for greater things.
She enrolled for a BCom degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on a university loan.
“I initially enrolled for a degree in computer science but dropped off as I did not have a computer for practical work. I then studied for the BCom degree with majors in economics, finance and supply chain management,” she said.
Kanani recalls that the university journey was not easy as she came from a French-speaking country and did not possess the necessary English literacy skills.
She then tackled a BCom Honours and a Master’s degree with a thesis titled “Cost implications of emissions caps on maritime transport costs in Southern African seaborne commerce”.
She worked as a lecturer at the University of Zululand before joining MANCOSA in January 2018 and today is an academic in the of Business Management.
She is also involved with the MANCOSA Centre for Women Leadership which aims to contribute to the growth and development of African female leaders by creating an enabling environment.
With the welfare of refugees close to her heart, Kanani has played a significant role in the establishment of the Union of Refugee Women which started an affordable child-care centre in Durban so that parents may be able to go out and seek employment.
She believes it is important to impart leadership skills, particularly to refugee women and those in historically disadvantaged communities, to prepare them to participate in the economy of South Africa.
She says while much needs to be done to level the gender playing field, there are many opportunities for women in South Africa to advance themselves. Women need to be encouraged to take advantage of these prospects.
Kanani said one of the biggest challenges she encountered as a professional was having small children while building a career.
Her short-term goal is to learn a new set of skills. She also wants to become more active in helping MANCOSA stand apart from the competition.
When asked what she found most rewarding about her work, she said: “I love my job because nobody is an island at MANCOSA. Everyone is willing to collaborate for the common good.”
“Also appealing for me is that MANCOSA programmes promote high levels of independence through innovative learning. Students can expect a carefully integrated mix of lectures, access to well-designed self-study materials and online learning resources.”
Kanani is also proud that MANCOSA belongs to Honoris United Universities, the first and largest pan-African network of private higher education institutions.
Her motto in life is: “Even a rose tree has thorns. So never give up in life. Keep going, no matter what the difficulties.”