Few would suspect the gumboot dancer with a social message and a twinkle in his eye is actually en route to becoming a doctor.
Alex Menu doesn’t dwell on hardships but rather strives to get the most out of life. Along the way, he is determined to help as many people as possible before ultimately opening his own primary school. This 21-year-old from Pretoria is in his third year of medicine at Stellenbosch University and mentors five younger students.
As a child, he grew up living with 14 people in his mother’s four-roomed house. He slept on the floor in the dining room with his brother and a cousin. His mother, a single mom and post office administrator, sent him to a model C primary school where he did very well with little effort.
At the end of primary school, she applied to the Student Sponsorship Program (SSP) as it offers a top education to financially disadvantaged youngsters. He was selected, which meant a year-long bridging programme every Saturday throughout Grade 7.
Although she set the stage for his education, his mother died soon after Alex started Grade 7 and his bridging programme. While he had decided when he was little more than a toddler that he wanted to become a doctor, his mother’s sudden death made him even more determined. “She was sick for two weeks and passed away. There was no diagnosis or explanation – we were just told it was ‘death by natural causes’. I still have her X-rays and scans and will check them again when I know more.”
In Grade 8, the SSP sent him to Pretoria Boys High, a top government school, where he was one of very few black pupils. “I was used to being around mostly black kids, speaking mostly Pedi and Nguni languages. Now almost everyone was white and spoke English, which I was not great at, and Afrikaans, which I didn’t know at all.
“I was lonely at the beginning and I would go to school without food but was surrounded by mostly rich kids. I had only two shirts and they had different ones for each day of the week. I had only played soccer at primary school and now it was the only sport they didn’t have. But I was up to the challenge and ready for the risks … I was certainly not going to show my vulnerability.”
While Alex was undoubtedly one of the brightest in his class, his earliest marks were around 40%, which horrified him. Before long he was academically in the top 10% in the school and playing all the sports, including rugby, rock climbing and hockey. He got the waterpolo coach to teach him to swim so he could play, and then made the team.
After keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’ for so long, the pressure got to Alex in matric. He was juggling being a prefect and head of societies, desperately wanted to qualify for medicine and having tough family is-sues. His headmaster guided him through it. “He is an amazing man and he helped me get back on the straight and narrow and made me realise that suppressing emotion and not talking through tough issues was not good for anyone,” Alex says.
He was also inspired by his mentor, Dr Wiebren Duim, a top Pretoria neurologist he was matched with as part of the FSP programme. Duim became a father figure to Alex, who has over the years become very close to the Duim family. “He taught me so much, including how to use a knife and fork properly. He introduced me to life-changing concepts and we would go hiking together.
“Every time he talks, he says something worthwhile. He is such a wise man and is still so good to me.”
Duim helped Alex apply to universities and, with his 87% average, he got into all of them. Duim recommended Stellenbosch, which had a recruitment bursary for black students. He also helped him apply for many bursaries and scholarships.
Alex had only just moved to the Western Cape, into res, and started studying when he was notified that he had been awarded a Moshal Scholarship. “All they asked of me was to work hard and do as well as I could, which is what I was going to do anyway.”
He found the number of lectures in Afrikaans “a bit hectic” and decided to study directly from the textbooks and YouTube.
Now, in third year, he has sought out two second- and four first-year students to mentor.
In addition to studying and mentoring, Alex goes ice skating every weekend, learns French and is a gumboot-dancing performer. He has a duo that dances and does skits with social messages at events. “We have a website, are on YouTube and are trying to grow our business. We hope to one day perform for Bafana Bafana.”
Alex hasn’t decided what field of medicine he will practise in, but knows he is doing what is right for him. And he envisages building a primary school at which talented but financially disadvantaged youngsters can be nurtured from the age of five. “I have been blessed with people guiding and helping me through my life and – more than anything – I want to be able to do the same for other youngsters,” he says.