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A life-lesson in courage

Unisa graduate Tinevimbo Matambanadzo has written a book about her struggles with endometriosis.

When one hears the story of Tinevimbo Matambanadzo and the challenges she had to overcome in order to graduate, one will then truly understand the strength of a Unisa student. Having recently graduated with her BA degree in Community and Health Psychology offered by the College of Human Sciences, Matambanadzo, who has stage-four endometriosis, graduated with 24 out of a possible 30 distinctions. She also managed to write a book about her struggles while writing her final-year modules and leading two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Zimbabwe.

The 26-year-old Zimbabwean, who is the eldest of five children, says she thoroughly enjoyed studying through Unisa and is currently doing a postgrad programme in Psychology. She runs two NGOs, namely, the As I Am Foundation and Sexual Abuse Anonymous Zimbabwe, as well as Zimbabwe Endometriosis Support, and says she is a lover of life and of people. “My mantra in life is that we cannot help everyone but everyone can help someone. I get my fulfilment from helping others and truly love what I do. There is a saying that goes there is no exercise better for the heart than reaching out and helping others.”

She considers herself the girl next door who loves food, fashion and listening to music with a positive message. “But there is something a lot of people do not know about me. When you see me you may not believe my story. You see a glowing face and a smile, but I fight a battle many people do not know about. I have endometriosis and fibroids. I am one in ten.”

She shares her story with us with the hopes that will help inspire others.

Please tell us about endometriosis. What is it and how does it affect one’s life?

Endometriosis is a gynaecological condition that affects 176 million women—1 in 10 women. Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to that of the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus. It can grow anywhere, like on the appendix, the lungs, and the bladder. The symptoms include abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain, severe period pain, back pain, leg pain, amongst other symptoms.

The thing about endometriosis is that it is mistaken with just “being period pain”. In most cases where a woman is experiencing period pain that stops her from doing daily activities, it could be endometriosis, or another menstrual-related condition. Pain is not normal.

Endometriosis has no cure so a woman can experience symptoms for most of her life. It also takes an average of seven years for a woman to be diagnosed with this disease. Some women who have endometriosis only get pain when they are on their periods but others, like me, are in pain every day, regardless of being on a period or not. It can affect a woman’s fertility, her career, her finances, her relationships and her self-esteem. Imagine being in constant pain, all the time. That is endometriosis. It is a rather common ailment, but too few people know about it.

You have what is known as the most severe case of endometriosis, stage four. How have you managed to overcome the challenges that come with it?

Many women have really severe cases of endometriosis and, unfortunately, I got that bad end of the stick. I have had endometriosis for 10 years now. It has been very stubborn and I have not had any relief in the past years. I have stage four endometriosis. It has stages one up to four. When they refer to stage four endometriosis, they are referring to the disease being really aggressive because not only do you have endo on other parts of your body, it begins to fuse your organs together and there is the presence of endometriomas / cysts on the ovaries/ chocolate cysts. They are extremely painful. It has been so bad for me that I had to be put on a really strong hormone/ drug called lucrin, which is also a cancer drug used for prostate and breast cancer. I have also bled for long periods, as long as two years. It’s really terrible.

It has not been easy for me, but I have found peace and purpose in the pain I endure. Being an endometriosis advocate, along with doing the work I do helping others, has helped me realise that sometimes the mountains we are faced with are only meant to be used as ladders and not meant to be carried. I look at the bigger picture such as finishing my degree and that’s what has helped me.

Believing in myself has also helped. I have to constantly speak to myself and encourage myself on the hard days and to remain focused. Focus is key. There are days and nights where I wanted to give up, where I was in the emergency room and had an assignment or an exam the next day, but I told myself I had to remain focused on the end goal. If I gave up, that would mean endometriosis would have taken yet another thing from me.

I also managed by being organised and working hard and doing a lot when I have the energy, and resting when my body really couldn’t take it. There are days I can’t get out of bed because of pain but I remind myself that this too shall pass.

While Unisa may have evolved over the past 145 years from an examining body to a fully-fledged teaching university, graduations have always been a highlight on the academic calendar. From the first ceremony awarding seven degrees in 1874 to the many graduations held across the country each autumn and spring these days, they have served to allow students to mark the completion of their studies and to celebrate their success with family, friends, and the Unisa community.

For the 2018 autumn graduations, the total number of qualifications awarded is 33 976, which makes the university an epicentre of South African and African knowledge production. Included in this figure are 139 doctoral, 603 master’s, and 3 647 honours degrees. Bachelor’s degrees numbered 12 018, while there were 6 621 postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

These statistics are still provisional.

You are graduating with a BA degree in Community and Health Psychology. Well done! I see you will also be getting 24 distinctions. How long did your degree take to complete? What motivated you to keep going?

Thank you. It is an amazing accomplishment to have been able to do this degree well. I never thought I would do so well and get 24 distinctions in my state. In my last year the disease really became so bad, I bled for a whole year non-stop and I was also writing my book but I received distinctions in all the final-year modules. It got so bad I had to start injecting myself with pain medication in order to function. It’s really just amazing and still surreal to me that I am graduating with a distinction despite it all.

It took me three-and-a-half years to complete my degree. I took five modules each semester. What kept me going was God and my passion. My degree correlates with the work I am doing, so my degree has been fun, and I can use what I am learning practically. The fact that the completion of my degree will help me be a professional in my field and equip me to help more people is what motivates me. You have to be brave

How have your studies helped you in processing what you have been going through?

Because I am studying Psychology, it has really helped me to even counsel myself when I am having a hard time. Moreover, my studies have helped me to understand the importance of talking and sharing what’s going on with me with others. I also have amazing Unisa Psychology buddies who I am able to talk to when I feel low or overwhelmed.

Tell us about the two NGOs you run. What do they do and how have you balanced it all? What advice can you give other students?

Lol, they actually may be three. These organisations are the As I Am Foundation, Sexual Abuse Anonymous Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe Endometriosis Support.

The first is a community-based non-profit organisation that assists underprivileged peoples to become financially emancipated and empowered by making vocational skills like craft making, beauty therapy courses, jewellery making and agriculture available to them. They also advocate against sexual violence and create awareness for sexual reproductive health.

Zimbabwe Endometriosis Support is a growing support group with 40 women at present. Women contact me if they have endometriosis or think they may have it. I then advise them on the next steps to take, such as which doctors to see or treatment plans. I also write newspaper articles about my own experiences and about endometriosis at large in order to create awareness. Most of all I provide support to my endosisters in Zimbabwe. Talking to someone going through what you are really helps. We also have ladies in Botswana, the UK and South Africa who are in the group. I thank God that I can use my pain to be a voice for other women.

Congratulations on the publication of Turning pain into power: The journey of an endometriosis warrior. Why did you write it?

I published my first book on 24 March 2018 as it was World Endometriosis Day. My book is about my journey with endometriosis, how it changed my life, and changed me; first in a really bad and ugly way, then about now, how it’s made me a warrior. It entails the story of the last 10 years of my life; from not knowing what was wrong with me, to getting a diagnosis, the operations, the pain and then the VICTORY. It’s the story of how I managed to change pain into power.

I wrote this book because I needed to tell our truth as women who live with endometriosis. We are seen sometimes to be lazy or to be attention seekers but the pain is real. I wrote this book to create awareness. I also wrote this book because I wanted to prove that pain can be turned into power when one puts their mind to it. So many people live with pain and never realise that there’s purpose in their pain. If my story can help other people out there, then I will be well pleased.

It is available here on Amazon. My publisher was a publishing company based in Zimbabwe and in the UK, Birmingham, called RM Publishers.

What is your advice for students?

My advice to other students is to keep going. Be brave. Nobody else can be brave for you. There are many times I cried whilst work was in front of me. I felt like I couldn’t do it. I could have used the excuse of being sick to not finish but I couldn’t allow it to win.

You also really need to be disciplined and prioritise the important things. Think about what may be threatening your studies; is it worth it? Does it serve you? If not, then get rid of it. Be organised. Plan. Plan. Plan. Be in charge of your studies, not vice versa.

In life we come across many challenges; they may be stress, sickness, or limitations, but never give up. I should have finished my first degree in 2014, but prior to that I was too sick and quite frankly I believed I couldn’t do it. I was embarrassed that my peers were ahead of me but I have learned that in this thing called life, we all have our own races to run.

So what am I saying? Be okay with where you are at. Focus on you and your unique path. Embrace your path, because it is uniquely yours. You are only in competition with yourself. The path will not be easy, but never give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Most of all, take care of your mind, your soul. A healthy soul will carry you through.

Where to for you from here?

Well, hopefully you will read more about me! I have already started my postgrad programme in Psychology with Unisa so I will continue to study. I am also going to continue with my work. Our communities need us. I am also going to continue to use my voice until we see concrete change in the reproductive health sector for women. I also plan to write more books. Basically to continue the fight and to continue to be brave and make this pain worth it.

*By Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester