Saturday, September 3, 2011

118: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ntsiki Biyela

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to a true trail-blazing Empowered Woman. Ntsiki (pronounced n-SEE-kee) Biyela is South Africa's first-ever fully-fledged female African winemaker. And what makes her story even more amazing is that until her first year at university she neither knew what wine was, nor had she ever tasted it!

Now 33 years old, Ms. Biyela was born and raised in the rural village of Ulundi/Kwa Nondlovu in Zululand. Her mother worked as a maid in Durban, only saw her daughter once a year, and Ntsiki was raised by her grandmother (1: No Paternal Safety Net). During her childhood, life was primitive. The village had no electricity until 2004, and as a girl she had to walk seven miles to a forest to gather firewood. She fetched water each day from a river (12: Hard Times).

Ms. Biyela attended Mahlabathini High School, excelled in science, and hoped to become an engineer even though she had no money for college tuition. Her big break came when her uncle introduced her to winemaker Jabulani Ntshangase, who helped her apply for a scholarship (4: Supportive Someone). She was one of ten black students to apply for a South African Airlines scholarship to study winemaking at the University of Stellenbosch. To attend the winemaking course in college, she had to move 1,000 miles away from her home and her much-loved grandmother. Everything from the geography, to the language, to the subject of wine was unfamiliar to her (14: Selective Disassociation).

Her classes were mostly filled with white, male students who spoke Afrikaans, which she did not understand, but was the language of the area and of her instructors (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). Luckily, the Biology, Botany, Mathematics and Physics classes were also taught to forestry students in English, so she attended classes with them. For four years, however, the language barrier remained a problem. A black Zimbabwean student (who also did not speak Afrikaans) had already been trained in winemaking and became a great ally. A part-time job at Delheim, a large winery, also helped her learn more about Oenology.

After graduation, she was hired as a winemaker at a boutique winery in Stellenbosch (8:Turning No Into Yes). Even though she was inexperienced, her very first red blend (2004 Cape Cross) won a gold medal; it was the first gold metal won by a black winemaker in South Africa. In 2009, Biyela was named South African Woman Winemaker of the Year (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Not surprisingly, Biyela demands a great deal of herself. In her words, "It is a lot of pressure. I feel I have a responsibility. I have people looking up to me, and I don't want to be responsible for their future not going right" (10: The Critic Within).

Looking forward to your comments...

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