Ishmael Chikoo

A master of diligence

When Ishmael Chikoo was a child he would walk 13km to school every morning from his village in Chipinge in Manicaland, Zimbabwe, and 13km back in the evening.

Despite these hardships, he was a focused pupil and always at the top of his class. “My dad used to buy me a wrist watch at the end of every term after I passed so well. We knew in our home that poor performance was not accepted, and the worst was if there was a teacher’s comment that you could do better,” recalls Ishmael, now completing his Master’s in Commerce (Information Systems major) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Ishmael loved his parents for their constant encouragement and support. “Our relationship was the best. They always did their best to provide and make us all feel loved. I was pushed to excel. So even though I would play with friends in my village, I never forgot my books,” he says.

Ishmael especially credits his mother, a retired domestic worker, for “sacrificing everything to make us happy. If it wasn’t for her I couldn’t be where I am today.”

As a boy, Ishmael dreamed of being a soldier, then thought about being a teacher. When he reached high school, it was clear he had an aptitude for science and technology, even though he had no access to computers. Ishmael found a natural mentor in a teacher called Mr J Hlahla. “I never forget his words ‘Are you going to end up where your sibling ended up in his career? You can go further Chikoo.’ He made me believe I could make it,” he says.

Ishmael did his A levels at Mount Selinda high school in Manicaland province, then immediately faced a dilemma as he had no fees to go to university. “I decided to come to South Africa to find work to finance my studies, but finding a job was difficult without a profession, so I applied to study at UCT without any source of finance. I prayed to God to make a way, while doing all that was necessary from the application to a visa application,” he says.

His prayers were answered on the last day of registration. “I received confirmation from LinkSA that they would sponsor my tuition fees and accommodation. I was so glad I was tongue-tied. It was like a miracle,”

He knew nobody at UCT, but slowly made friends doing the same courses. He struggled academically. “I had not studied for two years before starting at UCT and I had sleepless nights as I adapted to the demands of student life. It was also the first time in my life I was using a computer, so I really had to work hard and discipline myself. I watched YouTube videos to better understand the content of my computer science course,” he says.

As his LinkSA bursary didn’t extend to a food allowance, he worked during vacations to make money so he could eat during the semester.

When he received a Moshal scholarship at the end of his first year, to cover all expenses until his honours, Ishmael was thrilled. “I was working during my first-year vacation when I got the call from Jodi Bailey, the Moshal Scholarship Program’s country manager. I will forever be grateful to Moshal. I feel humbled and inspired to live a significant life, a life that will enable me to leave a legacy,” he says.

Ishmael graduated with a BSc Computer Science and Business Computing in 2015, and an honours in Information Systems last year.  He is working on his Master’s thesis, due for submission early next year, then wants to work as a business analyst or IT consultant.

To relax, Ishmael reads books about leadership and plays soccer and basketball with friends and colleagues.

His family are amazed at his ambition and his spirit, Ishmael says. “They know how I am thriving against the odds, and are always amazed when I explain my goals because they’re always beyond my reality. They know I am a firm believer,” he says.

The Moshal Scholarship Program has helped him with everything from visa processing to educational support. “The Moshal people are not just a scholarship programme but a family away from home,” he says.

Through the Moshal workshops, he has learnt whole brain study skills that have helped him remember and understand his course work. “I have learnt to speak confidently in public, allowing me to address a crowd with confidence. I have learnt to work well in teams and budget through financial management workshops.”

Ishmael himself sometimes feels amazed at how far he’s come.

 “I don’t know how God made a way for me to graduate and pursue a Master’s at UCT from a difficult educational setup like the one I came from. It’s like a miracle, and I got here with faith and determination. I believe there is something bigger than what I see and that everything significant is possible with faith, hope and love. I believe every challenge is made to birth something bigger and better, not to destroy me. I rely on God,” he says.