Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
This week’s #ZikokoWhatSheSaid subject is @lethabohuma, a 23-year-old South African woman. She spills on how she flunked out of university without a plan for her future, turning passion into a career and managing imposter syndrome without a degree.
What’s something you could’ve sworn would never happen to you?
Getting asked to leave varsity in my final year. In high school, I was the kid who was always top of the class, so I could’ve never imagined that 21-year-old me would be appealing to a school board for a chance to get her grades up in uni.
That sounds tough
Yeah. It wasn’t great being stuck at home while my friends were off graduating. But the most unexpected part of that transition was somehow building my career as a digital artist and ending up in Time Magazine barely two years after.
Let’s backtrack a little. What led up to you getting sent out of uni?
Girl, my first year in varsity was chaotic. Towards the end of high school, I got really good at maths and thought studying computer science was a good idea. I also loved drawing, so I assumed I’d learn how to use certain applications to draw. It made sense to me. But my faculty made me doubt the logical side of my brain.
LOL. Isn’t school supposed to do the opposite?
LOL. That wasn’t my reality. I didn’t expect to be doing so many different modules in both computer science and maths. I had such a hard time balancing both. I still get goosebumps thinking about those classes. There was absolutely no time for me to draw.
Why was that important to you?
Drawing made me feel less anxious. I can’t explain why I had anxiety as a kid, I just did. Especially in social settings like school. I got knots in my tummy from being around so many people.
Maybe it had to do with having a single mum who had to work most of the time. And being left alone with my grandma after school from when I was six. In between her cups of tea and insulin shots, she mostly took naps. I got comfortable with being quiet. And drawing made it easier.
So how did you handle not having time for something that made you feel so zen?
I tried to make friends. Varsity was the first time I actually wasn’t comfortable being alone. I was 18 and in a different city for the first time. I had a roommate I got along with, but I really needed to know if anyone else in my class was struggling as much as I was.
But I didn’t make my first friend until after two months of classes. He was a weird guy.
LOL. But you wanted to be friends?
Everyone else in our class had formed cliques. We were basically the only people who didn’t quite fit into any. So we didn’t really have much of a choice by month two of the semester.
Basically, two weirdos. Gotcha!
And we liked the same kind of music. But he left school because he couldn’t afford the fees for our next semester. I hated going back to being alone. But then, I got a boyfriend and that’s when my marks started to slip.
All these issues have included men.
LOL. Yeah, I spent way too much time with him. I practically followed him everywhere. During my lunch breaks, we’d be in my dorm room practising yoga or meditation. Of course, that always ended up cutting into my class time.
But then, we broke up that same year and my grades got worse. It didn’t help that we were in the same class. I needed some kind of escape, so I went back to drawing in my second year.
Wait. All that drama happened in just your first year?
Girl, yes! LOL. 18 was a crazy and chaotic age for me.
LOL. So what led up to the suspension?
Mehn, my mental health went down. I’m careful about how I talk about mental illness, but I think I was borderline depressed. I suddenly had such a negative view of my future. All I’d do was draw or sleep. Like, I was happy being a sad girl and turned it into a whole aesthetic.
No one noticed?
A couple of friends did, but I didn’t know how to explain things. When I started skipping classes, I had a few sessions with our campus therapist, but I didn’t feel better. In my final year, I stopped going. The only thing I attended were the digital art classes. I was basically self-sabotaging. And my final marks were terrible. I only took the option to appeal because I couldn’t imagine not finishing my degree.
And that didn’t work out
Yeah. They asked me to stay home to reflect, and then, apply for a digital art degree instead. I knew it was their way of saying, “Bye, girl”.
How did your mum and grandma take it?
They both thought I needed the year off. To me, I was like “Hell no”. I was turning 21 and didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But I didn’t have a choice. I’d completely lost hope in my future.
How did you get through that phase?
Mostly sleeping and listening to depressing music. I practically spent the first three months stuck at home doing nothing. Partly because it was 2020 and there was a pandemic. But I also didn’t have any friends because we lived in a new neighbourhood that was predominantly white and extremely quiet. Plus, there was nothing to watch on TV.
I eventually got sick of my own bullshit and started to draw more often. Getting into it as a routine helped. It was the only thing that made me feel good.
So things got better?
Yeah. Since I didn’t have anyone to share my drawings with, I posted everything online. People picked up on it in about four months and started asking for my commission rates. By 2021, brands were reaching out as well. And that was my “Oh my gosh” moment.
And your degree?
I decided to take a six-month course on digital art at a college close by. I didn’t need another four years of varsity.
You went from completely losing hope in your future to getting paid for your passion. How did that feel?
It was good creating something I actually cared about. With every piece I drew, I felt more like myself again. The hard part was my social anxiety evolving into imposter syndrome. Like when Time Magazine reached out to feature one of my pieces in 2021. It was one of my proudest moments.
I felt out of my league. I’d been drawing professionally for barely two years. In my mind, getting featured in a global magazine was an achievement I didn’t think would happen until I was 60, not 23.
So you felt too young?
Yeah. But somehow, I also felt like I was running out of time. Time Magazine featured a 12-year-old artist the same year. So in my head, I was too old and behind on what I should’ve achieved at 23. It’s crazy.
How do you manage these feelings of “imposter syndrome”?
I never had a solid plan for my life, so I’m fully aware that getting these opportunities after everything that happened means I’m doing something right. And while I understand that I need help as I grow, I’ve watched my mum and grandma figure everything out on their own. I know I’ll be okay too.
None. I only wish I focused on art much sooner. Getting asked to leave school was exactly what I needed to leave my comfort zone. I would’ve continued to play it safe if I hadn’t.