The encouragement of just one person can give you the self-confidence and belief that you are capable of doing what others can’t. That was the case for pharmacy intern Phumzile Shusha.
A teacher at her school – who never actually taught Phumzile – became her mentor.
The woman, whom Phumzile still calls Miss Khoza, was drawn to the Grade 9 pupil when she heard her speech about “how she would change her world if she could”.
“I don’t know why but from then on Miss Khoza would make sure to meet me, give me food and encourage me in my studies. She would tell me what she thought I was capable of, that I needed to work hard and make sure to go to university so I could change my situation at home.”
Nobody in Phumzile’s family had attended university and it wasn’t the norm in her community. “I had never thought it was possible for someone like me,” says Phumzile. “Miss Khoza encouraged me to apply and, when I was accepted, she bought me everything I needed to take to res and even took me there the day before lectures started. I wouldn’t have gone without her!”
Phumzile, one of six siblings, grew up in the sugarcane-growing town of Tongaat in KwaZulu-Natal. In 2000, the family was evicted when her father neglected to pay rent. Phumzile was only eight years old. The family built a shack in someone else’s yard and lived there for more than 10 years.
Phumzile says her father “would spend all of his money on alcohol” and get only maize, cabbage and some meat for the family to eat, which was never enough. “He drank so much that he damaged his liver, which is why he passed away in 2011 [in her matric year],” she says.
Although Phumzile was a dedicated, well-performing scholar, her peers weren't interested and toed the line only under threat of corporal punishment. In high school, she recalls, the principal would give a “number of strokes with the pipe” to all those who had achieved less than 50% the previous term.
In Grade 10, she was selected for Protec’s weekend and vacation school, which gives extra tuition in maths and science subjects to talented disadvantaged pupils. It was through Protec that she was exposed to different careers and was drawn to health sciences.
“During Grade 11 we went to a hospital for a week for work experience and I couldn’t stand what the doctors had to do, but I liked the pharmacy aspect of medicine. I wanted to help, but not in such a direct way, and I liked the idea of mixing the medicine that would be the essence of a person’s healing.”
Although her father's death when she was in matric was a terrible shock, and Phumzile worried about her mother, she managed to get four distinctions and three Bs.
She had no problem securing a place to study pharmacy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but almost couldn’t go. “I had to pay R500 to accept the offer. My mom had to borrow the money and got it together only five days later. When we went to pay and get financial aid forms, they told us the forms went to the first 15 who had accepted the offer and there were no more,” recalls Phumzile. “I cried because I knew that without financial aid I couldn’t afford to study.”
Just a week before the university term began she found out that one of the 15 was no longer going to study pharmacy. Phumzile was able to get a National Students Financial Aid Scheme loan.
The jump from school to university was tough, she says. “I battled to take notes and would have to borrow the lecturers’ slides and make notes from them after each class. It was exhausting.”
With time and a strong group of varsity friends, Phumzile settled down. “We helped each other out, sharing notes and studying together,” she says.
Within the first two months she found out that she had been awarded a Moshal Scholarship.
But, with her mother not working, she would send much of her scholarship money home so her family could eat. “I felt so guilty, but when I did that there were days I would eat phuthu and egg for the day.”
On April 14 2016 she graduated with her BPharm degree and her mother, sister and Miss Khoza were there to witness it.
She is now doing her internship at King Edward Hospital in Durban and will be doing community service in 2017 in the Eastern Cape.
Ultimately, she plans to work in pharmacy manufacture. But whatever she does, and however she does it, she will have her champion, Miss Khoza, on her side.