For as long she can remember, Nthabiseng Mokgoabone has taken an interest in affording others her time.
She would volunteer for various projects, sacrificing her time and energy for the benefit of others.
It is a passion that was instilled in her at high school.
Mokgoabone and a friend were so moved by the story of a young girl in need of funds to undergo an operation that they formed a club in a bid to help.
“We were just happy to help and the coverage we received had many more wanting to play a part. What’s amazing to me is the club still exists to this day, well over a decade later! At the time we had no idea that we could start something that could outlive our time a high school,” she remembers, unable to suppress a proud smile.
Sadly, the smile fades almost instantly as Mokgoabone reveals her efforts were not enough to save the young girl.
“It was devastating that the young girl didn’t survive the operation. However, the memory of our efforts to assist lives on. I don’t think at the time I realised that it was possibly the beginning of something – always seeing a need and getting involved.”
Mokgoabone’s commitment to volunteerism intensified when she left for Monash University in Malaysia to study Economics and International Business.
“As a student, I was exposed to the many different clubs that took part in different causes hence I intentionally started dedicating my time to voluntary work. It was also helpful to take the ease off school and the various challenges we faced in a new environment.”
The then-teenager found the move to Malaysia difficult and struggled to adapt. Feeling isolated and increasingly homesick, Mokgoabone’s solace was her volunteering work. Indeed, it was to prove her salvation.
“At one point I wanted to come back home. I was fed up, angry and felt utterly alone. Dealing with racism, cultural shock and sexual harassment was all too much!”
However, a week before her intended return home, Mokgoabone would go on a trip that changed the course of her life.
“An Islamic Student Group had organised a community building project in a rural village. The experience as a whole broke down so many racial and religious barriers and opened my eyes to the true essence of humanity. The city life and the Kampung (village) life were incredibly contrasted. Over the stay I was blown away by the hospitality of not just the family but the whole village.
“The experience helped me heal from the negative experiences I had encountered in Malaysia, to the point where I decided to stay and continue my studies. I had the privilege of staying with the village Chief, who was also the Imam (Muslim religious leader). Astounding to me because I was Christian and Malaysia, being an Islamic country, the religious differences are very pronounced. In addition, the fact that I am African and racism there is so bad that being called a Negro is socially acceptable!” narrates the feisty Motswana, her eyes glowing indignantly at the memory.
The project taught Mokgabone humility and acceptance, ultimately providing her with a new perspective on life.
“When we were not cleaning and building projects, we would pick indigenous fruit, ride bikes in paddy fields, go canoeing and even caught, cooked and ate eel! We were even invited to an Islamic wedding which broke down a lot of racial barriers.”
For the rest of her days at Monash, Mokgoabone dedicated much of her time to similar projects.
“Once again the experiences left a mark on me. When I went to University I was driven. I thought I knew exactly where I wanted to work, the position, salary scale; I even had a plan of how I was going to get there. But truth be told, I honestly had no idea who I was: my identity, passion, gifts and my purpose so I didn’t do well.”
Mokgoabone’s volunteerism was to the detriment of her studies. She failed to graduate, returning to Botswana worldly-wise but with little prospects of securing employment.
“Lack of a degree made my job hunt harder. I then decided to continue with volunteer work through the three years I was unemployed.”
Although there is a hint of sadness in her voice, Mokgoabone is upbeat as she says, “Having something to do through unemployment helps as it keeps you active and involved. You learn discipline, soft skills and without the experience I am sure being unemployed would have left me hopeless and depressed. It was through every volunteering experience that I started to discover who I was and what gifts I have and ultimately found my purpose!”
“Volunteering requires one to be selfless, if you’re in it for what you can get you will lose out because it’s far from comfortable and it requires grit and humility,” she warns.
Pausing for barely a second when asked how volunteering has shaped her life, Mokgoabone replies, “Volunteering dealt with my insecurities because I was stripped of the things I had wanted and found security in – a degree, a steady income, a job title. I was constantly under pressure to prove myself, that what I was doing mattered as much as someone who was sitting in an office, being paid for their work and having a job title.
“One of my biggest challenges was when it came to my CV and I felt like having my voluntary experience rather than a ‘real job’ left me at a disadvantage. Not all voluntary work comes with a certificate, at most a recommendation! However, looking at the disciplines I had grown in I was more than capable and qualified for any job.”
Mokgoabone is adamant volunteering could be the catalyst for improving Botswana’s problems.
“I would go as far as saying volunteering is what could help us as a nation in three of our biggest problems of high unemployment in the youth, poor work ethics and attitude in the services sector and bad leadership.
“There may be lack of jobs but there is never a lack of opportunity. A lot of young people want to take managerial positions, start their own companies without going through the process of learning the disciplines necessary. What sets someone with volunteering experience apart is their passion, ability to lead themselves, initiative, loyalty and possibly above all their attitude towards people and work, which I think will take us far as a people,” ends Mokgoabone, who is living proof of her words.