Many of life’s hardships did not deter OnkarabileTiro from getting to university, but she almost lost it all when she fell into a depression during the second year of her BSc studies at Wits University. She has since learnt she can deal with her triggers - insomnia and stress - by running.
Now, in her final year, when sleeplessness or anxiety hits her, she puts on her trainers and runs. “I know Braamfontein quite well by now,” she smiles.
Anxiety and sleep deprivation have been constant companions since Onkarabile was in Grade 11, a difficult year.
“My mother had a bad fall that year and was in and out of hospital for five months. When she came home, she could not care for herself, never mind my younger sister and me.
“We couldn’t pay rent, but thankfully the landlord let us off for three months. I became the primary caregiver. I couldn’t sleep, so I started studying late into the night,” she says.
Burning the midnight oil, Onkarabile found a passion for learning, and despite the extraordinary pressures at home, she did well in Grade 11. “It was the first time I got good grades at school, and I realised I had to change my life,” she says.
Through matric, she was determined to achieve university entrance results. But when she applied for financial aid through Wits, her application was turned down because “they couldn’t trace my younger sister’s birth certificate”.
“I couldn’t accept this,” she says. “I went back to the funding office every day, and eventually I received a letter saying I could register while other funding was sourced,” she says.
In February that year, her first year studying a BSc in physics, chemistry and maths, Onkarabile received a call from the Moshal Scholarship Program to say she’d been awarded a scholarship. “I couldn’t quite believe it. When I was asked to go in to fill in a motivational letter, I thought it was just the application. I was amazed when they told me the scholarship was guaranteed, and I couldn’t wait to tell my mom,” she says.
Onkarabile grew up in Zeerust in North West province until she was eight, when her grandmother passed away. Until then, she’d been schooled in her mother tongue, Setswana.
“I had to move to Dobsonville in Soweto to live with my mother. When I started school, kids would stare at me when I spoke because I sounded different with my ‘deep Tswana’ accent. I stopped talking to people. I also struggled to learn in English. My mom took me to the library, but I would do numbers rather than literature subjects,” she recalls.
Even though home was a rented back room, Onkarabile felt settled living there. “I was learning about different types of cakes and pancakes as my mom was working in a cake store,” she recalls.
When the shop closed and her mother lost her job, her uncle helped with rent and food. “I was happy during that time,” she says.
Then her uncle lost his job, her mother was earning little as a street sweeper, and food became scarce. “I became socially isolated because I couldn’t converse about our home situation and what we ate, which was the same every day. To this day I don’t like pap, fish, milk and chicken,” says Onkarabile.
When her mother started working at a retail store, their lives improved. Through it all, Onkarabile’s mother would tell her, ‘it is God’s plan and we should always walk with a smile’.”
Doing well in maths, Onkarabile was chosen in Grade 10 to be part of Kutlwanong Centre for Maths, Science and Technology, and she attended maths workshops on weekends.
“This is where I heard about university, but I had no idea what I wanted to study. I remember saying I want to be the finance minister. My uncle said the minister calculates the country’s money. When I heard ‘calculate’, I wanted to be that,” she laughs.
The family was on track again by the time Onkarabile was in matric. Her mom had healed and gone back to work, and she was powering ahead in maths. “I was close to my maths teacher. He encouraged me to work hard.,” she laughs.
Since she started at Wits, Onkarabile has travelled a rocky road, and had to repeat her second year after changing her BSc subjects to applied maths and economics.
“During my repeat year in 2015 I went into depression. I passed out from exhaustion one day, after many nights of not sleeping. I went for counselling and was prescribed pills. It was only when I realised, with the help of the Moshal program, that I needed to put myself first that I felt my burden was lifted.
“The Moshal scholarship is about financial aid and helping you cope through the bad times,” says Onkarabile.