19-year-old Aviwe Somgelwa is dedication personified. At his tender age he has already proven to himself that he has the resilience to take a challenging situation and find alternatives that will help him achieve his goals.
Aviwe grew up in Khayelitsha as the second born. At the age of two, his parents welcomed his younger twin siblings into the world, and a few years later his youngest sibling. The five children were supported by his father who works as a wheel alignment technician and by his mother, who is a domestic worker.
Aviwe describes his early years as difficult as his father was an alcoholic, whose drinking problem drove a wedge into the family home.
“My father would drink over weekends and he would argue and fight with my mother. I would always tell myself that I didn’t want to be like him – I wanted to be a better person. Being a better person meant being educated, improving my life, having a proper house and being able to take care of my family and treat them with respect. Growing up I always had that in mind because I saw the way my father treated my mom.”
His father’s behaviour eventually led to the family splitting up, and the two older brothers were sent to live with relatives.
“I can’t remember much, but I do recall going with my family to the Eastern Cape to visit my aunty. When my parents were leaving they just told us that we couldn’t return with them and that we were going to live there. I remember feeling angry and confused.”
Aviwe and his brother lived with his aunt for two years. “The time I spent with my aunt was good, but I missed my mom.”
When Aviwe was old enough to begin primary school, he returned to Cape Town.
Aviwe says that he was excited to return home to his family, despite not knowing if his father had changed his ways, and the fact that his brother had stayed behind in the Eastern Cape.
“The best part of returning home was going to school. I loved every minute of learning and discovering new things.”
Aviwe’s teachers picked up on his enthusiasm to learn and would often call on him to assist in class.
“Teachers would often give me responsibilities, such as fetching things from other teachers. I would be like a teacher’s aid. When I was around teachers I felt like they cared for me. Money was tight at home and sometimes I would come to school hungry. Many times my teachers would share their lunch with me.”
Unfortunately, Aviwe’s home life didn’t improve much, but he says that he would find solace at school.
“Sometimes arguments at home would start because of really insignificant incidents. I would feel frustrated and hurt. My mom always tried to make things better. She would take me to church – this helped me to see good people trying to do good deeds.”
Beginning high school, Aviwe faced a challenge that he says began moulding his tenacious “can do” attitude in life.
“My mom decided to send me to a school outside Khayelitsha as she believed the educational standards would be better. My primary school was a Xhosa speaking school and all our lessons were taught in Xhosa, so I didn’t speak any other language. But when I started high school it was an English medium school and we didn’t even have Xhosa classes. We only had Afrikaans and English - two languages I didn’t speak.”
“I remember failing my first March exam because of my difficulty with the language. My mom encouraged me, saying that if I worked hard I would do better, so I took her advice.”
Aviwe said it was a difficult time because he felt like an outcast, academically and socially: “Kids would make fun of me when I pronounced words wrong. My behaviour was also different, for example in primary school they would teach us to stand and ask questions, and when I did that in high school I was laughed at.”
But Aviwe would not let this get him down.
“I taught myself how to converse in English. I would hear a word on television and would look it up in the dictionary as nobody could assist me at home. I passed Grade 8 that year, I felt so good and proud of myself.”
The following years in High School, Aviwe was dedicated and did well at school. He says that his love for Life Science grew in high school and sparked his interest in becoming a doctor.
“I enjoyed Life Science so much, learning about the human body and what was happening internally - and my teachers made it so interesting.”
In Grade 12 Aviwe was assigned a mentor. “We spoke about my ambition to become a doctor, but after some conversation about what I’m really passionate about, my mentor suggested that I also look at pharmacy as another option. I had never thought about it, but I researched it and the idea grew on me. I still wanted to study medicine but decided to apply to study pharmacy as well.”
Aviwe applied at various universities and got accepted to study pharmacy at the University of the Western Cape, but sadly he was not accepted to study medicine.
“For me, even though I didn’t get in to study medicine, I knew pharmacy was a good option. I had applied for a bursary and luckily I was granted enough to cover my studies, but not my residence. UWC does not grant students residency that live within a 60km radius of the university.”
Aviwe’s first year at university excited and overwhelmed him.
“Living at home and not on campus was difficult. I needed to leave home by 06:00 to get to a class that started at 08:30. It was not safe to travel home to Khayelitsha very late, so I had to leave varsity by at least 17:30. I have a travelling time of 1 hour 30 minutes each way, so I spent three hours of my day in public transport. Sometimes, when I wrote tests I’d get home after 22:00. It also proved challenging when we had to do practicals because they would mainly begin after our lectures and I would not be able to make them because I needed to travel home before dark.”
“I am lucky enough that I have an old computer at home, but no internet or printer, so all my research needed to be done at university. One night I was so immersed in my studies that I slept at the library because it was my only option.”
Aviwe says that even though that first night was not planned, it made him aware that sleeping in the library was an option that could work for him.
“What began on that first night continued for many nights thereafter. Although it wasn’t comfortable and I was getting less sleep than at home, I was able to get my work done. I would tell my mom and she was worried about me, but she then began packing extra sandwiches because she knew I would sleep in the library.”
“I would put my head on my hands, no blankets, and just sleep for as long as I could – it was never long enough though. It was not comfortable, but it was necessary. In my bag I would have a towel and a toothbrush; and I would freshen up in the bathroom, then go to lectures.”
“I did it because I had to, if I wanted to finish my studies. I preferred to be in the library than at home, as it was easier to study. Some days I would feel tired and hungry, but I knew I would eat the following day when I got home.”
Over the year Aviwe met other youth who were also sleeping in the library because they needed to study. “Not getting residency on campus is one of the greatest challenges, because there is so much work to do. Students stay in the library for different reasons: their home environment is not conducive to study; they don’t own computers; they don’t have transport money; they live too far and it takes too long to travel after classes in an unsafe environment.”
Aviwe passed his first year of university, and felt proud of his achievements. “That experience taught me that if there is anything you really want in life, you need to put in the effort. I didn’t mind sacrificing sleep, eating and comfort, in order to achieve a university degree.”
Today, there are many youth, like Aviwe, who find themselves filled with euphoria as they begin their journey at university, but who are faced with challenges that they are ill-prepared for. For those students, Aviwe concluded by saying, “Keep focused, do not forget that to be at university is a privilege for few. In South Africa, few learners from the township manage to finish their studies. When given this opportunity, grab it with both hands, no matter how much you need to sacrifice. I am convinced that the sweet taste of achievement, in the end, will erase any bitter taste along the way.”
Aviwe is a Leaders’ Quest Alumni