For too many years Congolese doctor Ilunga Mutonkole did not know whether he would ever be able to put the letters D and R before his name. From war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo to Zambia and then South Africa, it has been a tough journey.
Ilunga – one of six siblings – spent his first 11 years on a military barracks in the DRC with his dentist father and nurse mother. Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by war. “When the shooting started, we had to run indoors, lie in corridors and hide until it stopped,” he says of the years before the family moved to Lubumbashi.
But even in the big city there were a lot of civilian casualties. Realising that war and economic stress were not going to subside, his parents moved the family to Zambia, where Ilunga, then 15, started matric at a top government boarding school.
This was a rude awakening for the French-speaking boy: he was expected to know English and Nyanja, the predominant local language.
“I desperately wanted to leave from day one. Every time I would open my mouth, people would laugh at me and pass comment in their local language. I was very lonely,” he says. “Every teacher spoke way too fast for me to understand what she was teaching.”
He went all out to learn the languages and within six months felt confident in both. “I was finally interacting with the other learners and understanding the jokes. At the end of the second term I was in the top five in the school. I was working much harder than anyone else … when everyone else relaxed or slept, I worked until midnight every day, even on weekends,” says Ilunga.
He matriculated that year, coming second in his school, with six distinctions.
He hoped his marks would help him get into medical school. “Becoming a doctor was my childhood dream. My main motivation was what was happening in my country. I wanted to become a gynaecologist and help the women, who were the worst victims. So many needed gynaecological intervention and I wanted to make a difference for those who would otherwise be forever handicapped.”
Ilunga’s mother moved to South Africa to find work and Ilunga followed, but soon discovered its universities accepted only a limited number of foreign students. Some universities simply turned him down, others said to try again the next year.
Stellenbosch University gave him the option of enrolling for a BSc and, if he achieved an A-class pass in the first year, changing to medicine. “University was a culture shock, and Cape Town was like Europe not Africa. There were so few black people.”
Ilunga was surprised also to be told that, as a foreigner, he had to pay upfront for the whole year’s tuition. He persuaded the director of finance to let him pay it off over a few months. His father took loans and they eventually paid by November, in time to see whether he had qualified for medical school. With eight distinctions for 10 subjects, and being in the top 10 of those who applied for medical studies, he was in.
The fees were far higher than for a BSc. He needed R50000, with residence fees. His merit bursaries covered registration and his father again managed to pay the rest off.
The following year was more difficult and by the end of the year, Ilunga still owed R40 000. Because his marks were exceptional, the university allowed him to continue studying. But as a foreigner he was not eligible for a bursary or funding. By the beginning of his fourth year, he needed to cough up R200 000. “My future was bleak. I had managed to get to that point by the kindness of the university, but this amount was massive. I was now studying as an unregistered student and if I haven’t paid by March, they would exclude me from the system.”
In March, Ilunga’s father fell ill and within the month died. Devastated, the student decided to put all thoughts of medicine out of his head and find a job. “As the first male in the family, it was traditionally my responsibility to take over from my dad. I now had to support the family.” His mother, though, insisted he give university one last try.
A woman from academic support, “a Mrs Bawadien”, took on the exhausted Ilunga’s plight, bought him food and necessities and made it her mission to secure funding for him. “She was literally keeping me alive,” says Ilunga.
His luck started to change. A professor sponsored R700 a month, then LinkSA gave him R18000. He was brought to the attention of the Moshal Scholarship Program, which didn’t exempt foreigners. He was stunned when he was given a full scholarship. “Not only were they going to pay for my fees, they were going to backdate the scholarship to cover all that I owed and help me with my permanent residence papers. I was going to be able to focus on my studies and not worry about anything else.”
“My life had been leading to an exit door but now I could see a future,” he says.
On 9 December 2014, he graduated and is now an intern at Durban’s King Edward Hospital. “After such a rocky journey, I am finally there. Such a relief!”
The 29-year-old has become the “father figure” in his family, paying for his younger siblings’ education and helping his mother. He helps friends who are struggling financially, too. “I need to help others. I can live on a little less and help someone else survive.”
Ilunga says he will drop anything to help the Moshal Scholarship Program. He is already committed to tutoring third-year students in 2016. “They didn’t just give me a means to get an education, they gave me a family support system and friendship. They changed my life forever.”