Claver Kwenzongo

“Most of my life story is just about taking a leap of faith.” So says Claver Kwenzongo, who’s continuously beaten the odds in his fight to get the kind of education that will enable him to build a better world.

Currently in his third year of BSc studies majoring in physics and maths, Claver is not your typical Wits student. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was forced to flee his home at the age of 12. “My father was a member of the MLC – the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, which opposed Joseph Kabila’s party the PPRD – People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy,” he explains. “After the 2004 elections there was tension between Kabila and Bemba supporters, and we were caught up in that. My dad wanted to get us out of the country so that we were safe. In 2007, we came to South Africa with my step-mom. She left us here –me, my older brother and my two older sisters. We lost contact with my dad and step-mom, but my mother joined us on this side a few years later.”

Initially Claver and his siblings continued their studies at a refugee school, but they were later forced to drop out to survive and raise money for school. They eventually raised what they needed, and Claver’s mother joined them. “I was 17 and I hadn’t been to school for three years.” Starting Grade 10 in 2013, Claver immersed himself in his school work. “I believe everyone is called on to contribute something and I feel like my calling was to contribute through academics.”

The long walk to Wits

Claver was determined to get to Wits despite not having the money for fees or transport. “Luckily, I got a partial bursary through HCI who were willing to fund asylum seekers. Because of my marks, I also got an entrance scholarship at Wits.” Yet Claver often had no money for transport. “I live in Yeoville which is 4-5kms from Wits,” he says. “Often, I had to walk, or I’d sleep in one of the buildings at Wits. In first year, I spent about 70 to 80% of my days walking from Yeoville to campus and back again.”

Claver found out about the Moshal scholarship through HCI and he sent them two emails pleading his case. “I explained my story. I mentioned my brother who sacrificed his own dreams so mine could proceed. I’m the first in the family to go to university. I lived with my mom, a security guard who also tried her best to help. Jodi at Moshal was very understanding and it was through the grace of God that I got the scholarship at the end of my first year. Because of Moshal’s emotional, financial and academic support, I’m comfortable and no longer stressed. This makes my mother very happy, which is one of the goals a child should have – to make their mother happy.”

Claver is the clear embodiment of the Moshal values, especially when it comes to perseverance. “I didn’t give up even though my financial and transport challenges. I kept going because I knew my objective in coming to this university.”

He also pays it forward. “I like helping people – I care. I’m involved with the Moshal tutoring for first years and I volunteer at Olico maths centre, teaching maths to learners in Diepsloot.”

Theory meets practice

For Claver, studying physics, maths and applied maths is the ideal way to marry theory and practice. “Coming from the DRC, I’ve seen that we have resources but only a few people have the ability to research and apply these resources extensively.”

While Claver plans to initially go into the financial industry to solve economic or engineering problems, his end goal is to work in research and academia. “My dream is to bring more young Africans into maths and science so they can apply to engineering and the sciences. It’s painful to see how behind Africa is in these subjects. I was fortunate enough to be taught by a Congolese teacher who made me fall in love with mathematics. Imagine if most of the teachers in SA were like him, pushing students like that. Our teachers need to be better equipped – if you can’t understand the concepts you’re teaching, you can’t teach them to others.”

Spreading happiness

Claver says the difficulties he’s faced have made him stronger and more determined to succeed. “When you get something that you struggle a lot for, you value it more than anything.”

“I’ve faced obstacles and pain and I think about what I’ve been through. In 2001 when the rebels invaded the DRC, we were attacked in our area and had to escape to Brazzaville. I remember being on top of someone’s shoulders crossing the river and my mom was at the back and she was crying, and I was crying too. When I remember that and I think about where I am right now, where I have a choice – I think why not just choose to be happy?” “The point of what I’m doing is to see the world and better it,” he concludes. “I want to spread my wings. I’d like to go back to the DRC to make changes, but I don’t see myself settling down in one place. I have to spread love and positivity. I realise that there’s no need for me to be the best in the world, I have to be what’s best for the world.”