As the only boy growing up among the many women in his family, Avuyonke Balfour learned most of life’s lessons from his mother, grandmother and aunts. “They were the ones who taught me respect and manners and they disciplined me when they had to. I have always loved and respected them for that,” says the 23-year-old medical researcher.
Born and raised in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape, he saw less of his mother as she had to seek work, often going as far away as Johannesburg. “My father passed away in 2012 – he had a heart condition - and my mother now works as a shift manager at McDonald's just outside East London. She is my idol, a really humble person who did everything in her power to make sure me and my younger sister (13) and I never felt inadequate,” says Avuyonke.
Today, he is studying towards a Masters degree in biotechnology at the University of Cape Town, having completed his honours in the subject at Rhodes University last year. His journey has been a potted one and Avuyonke is not sure he’d have made it this far without the Moshal Scholarship he was awarded at the end of first year.
“I cannot describe the excitement and joy that it brought me, aside from the huge relief for my family because, God knows, the financial burden might’ve been too much. It allowed me to study without any worries over whether or not I would continue to get the NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) that I received in my first year,” he says.
Avuyonke went to a rural school as his mother couldn’t afford a Model C school like most of his friends' parents. Nonetheless, he always loved learning and did well academically. “I was one of those kids who would attend school until the very last day when teachers were handing out reports, and most students wouldn’t go that day because there were no lessons. But I would be there …
“I really enjoyed my time there because, even though the school didn’t have the best of resources and facilities, the teachers were very supportive and encouraging. They always made us feel like we would go somewhere in life,” he says.
Two teachers from high school stand out especially for Avuyonke – Mrs Zuka who taught physical sciences, and Ms Zitumane who taught tourism. “I had received a letter from Rhodes requesting an acceptance-of-offer fee, but I never gave it to my mother because I felt it was an unnecessary expense. Mrs Zuka and Ms Zitumane got me back on track and tried very hard to find me another university, but eventually my mom and aunt paid the acceptance fee for Rhodes,” he recalls.
Avuyonke has long been passionate about the social sciences and life sciences (biology). “I never had much interest in maths and physics until Grade 12, and then I had to push myself to get good marks. In the process I started to enjoy the subjects.” By high school he knew he wanted to study the sciences and later chose to embark on a BSc in microbiology and biochemistry.
He recalls his first year at Rhodes being very challenging on the social front. “I was in black schools my entire life and then all of a sudden I was with people from different races, from different backgrounds … It was a continual adjustment because I am a conservative person and I struggled to fit in while not compromising on my beliefs,” he says.
His introduction to the Moshal Scholarship Programme was via an e-mail and he decided to apply. “About two weeks later I received confirmation that I’d got the scholarship. It was, and still is, one of the most life-changing and surreal moments of my life.”
Avuyonke says he’s asked Moshal team members Inez Woods and Debra Cairns for assistance and advice a number of times, and each time “they have been helpful and very encouraging”. “I’ve stopped seeing Moshal as financial support but as family, and I want to make Mr Moshal and the team proud, by showing them that they were not wrong to put their faith in me.”
When he completes his Masters in 2018, Avuyonke’s plan is to look for employment in the medical sciences field. “My dream is to be one of the leading medical researchers, finding healthcare solutions for the African continent,” he says.
To “pay it forward”, Avuyonke says he’d ideally like to contribute in whatever way he can to “getting more high schoolers into university by providing them with the knowledge and resources that they need”. “I would ultimately like to see more people from where I come from go to university, because even though the number is growing, it is not growing fast enough,” he says.