When Sibusiso Notwala started his BSc at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University on February 7 2016, he had no idea that by the time he returned home that day, his life would change.
“When I came back, my family broke the news that my father, who I lived with, had passed away. He was my mentor, the one who pushed me to go to university. The night before we chatted for an unusually long time about my studies and my future,” says Sibusiso.
Sibusiso thinks this “close talking” was his dad’s way of saying goodbye. He remembers how proud his father was when he heard Sibusiso had been accepted to university.
“Every year through school, he was very involved and would motivate me. When I passed matric with a university exemption, he would cry when he talked about me, telling his friends that I’d passed,” he says.
The funeral followed – “it was hectic, but my relatives helped me through it” – and Sibusiso had to immediately move out of home and find university residential accommodation in Port Elizabeth.
He decided to plunge himself into his BSc biology and chemistry studies. “That’s what my father would have wanted. In any case, when I work I feel less stressed,” he says.
Sibusiso is now in his second year, majoring in biochemistry and physiology. When he finishes his third year next year, he plans to do his post graduate degree at Rhodes or UCT.
His dream is to go into one of the specialised medical disciplines, like pathology, medical research or pharmacy. “I believe my country needs qualified people from the inside, not the outside, and I want to make my contribution,” he says.
Sibusiso grew up in Port Elizabeth’s Kwadwesi extension. When he was five, his mother passed away and he went to live with his father and paternal grandparents, attending Emsengeni Primary in New Brighton, then Lungisa High School in Kwadwesi.
“I was good at maths, science and English. My literacy was good. My best subject was physical sciences,” he says. In matric, Sibusiso scored a distinction in life sciences.
“I’ve always wanted to go to university, and I had a dream of being a doctor. After career counselling, I decided on chemistry and biology as my BSc subjects. It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.
Sibusiso jokes that there’s no such thing as too big a workload. “It’s just another opportunity to stretch your mind,” he says.
His reality today may never have happened without a Moshal scholarship.
He had applied for funding through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, but was rejected. In January 2016, he received a call from the Moshal Scholarship Program to say he’d been accepted as a scholar. “I was ecstatic. I was so emotional that I needed time to celebrate before I could concentrate on getting details about the program,” he recalls.
Everything is paid - his accommodation, books and food - and he receivess counselling support, so he has no stress about finance, he says.
Nevertheless, integrating into the university environment during his first year was a challenge.
“I was 18 and came straight out of initiation school in the mountains. My isiXhosa culture is strict, and not very open to others, so I learnt a lot in my first year about different cultures. I still stick with my traditional values, but I have learnt to be open and respectful of other ways of life,” he says.
Sibusiso is shy when he talks about his girlfriend, who is in college. He says when he marries, he will have a traditional Xhosa wedding and a white wedding. “But marriage is very far from my mind right now,” he says.
At home in Kwadwesi, Sibusiso is seen as a bright star. He is the first of his family to go to university, and he believes his cousin draws inspiration from him.
“I believe the chats I had with my cousin, Cebolihle Gumede, last year when he was in high school motivated him. I saw he was interested in studying, and now he also has a Moshal scholarship. He is at Rhodes studying pharmacy,” says Sibusiso.
When he thinks of home, he remembers his grandmother, who died in February this year, another blow at the start of his study year. Despite this, he went on to write and pass two exams the next week, before attending her funeral that weekend.
After he completes his honours, he’ll do Masters, he says, and will pay his blessings forward by contributing to the critically important medical science sector. “There are viruses killing our people, and we need good medical research to combat these, for example. This is one of the fields I am thinking about,” he says.
With each academic achievement, Sibusiso feels his father spurring him on. “I am not really religious, but I feel my father in spirit, and I believe the creator wants us to succeed,” says Sibusiso.