Kholofelo Matlakala is determined to empower young women and, at just 21 years of age, she has already mapped out a life of service for herself.
Kholofelo is in her second year of medicine at Wits University, but when her hectic academic schedule allows, she collects feminine hygiene products to give to disadvantaged teenage girls.
This is just the initial phase of her Hope Initiative. “My vision is to empower women,” she says. “So many of my school friends are now pregnant or already mothers, having thrown away their potential. I want them to realise they can follow their dreams and become whatever they want to be.”
The eldest of four children, Kholofelo grew up in Seshego, Limpopo. Her father was in the military and her mother was a housewife. When Kholofelo was about to start school, she was sent to live with her aunt in a nearby village. “I went to the local school, where many of the kids arrived every day without shoes and with empty tummies. We all spoke and learnt in sePedi.”
At the end of Grade 2, her family moved to the North West province. This was tough for Kholofelo because she couldn’t speak the languages of tuition – English, Afrikaans and Tswana. “I felt excluded and struggled to communicate.” And her school work was suffering too. Her Grade 3 teacher suggested it might be best to for her to redo Grade 2. “I just cried and cried.” Kholofelo challenged herself to master the language and, by the end of that year, she was awarded a certificate for the most improved learner. She was in Grade 6 when the Matlakala family moved back to Seshego and she was sent back to the local school. When she met scholars from an all-girls Catholic school at a science expo soon after her return, she pleaded with her parents to move her to their school, which was among the best in the province. “My parents agreed to make the sacrifices to send me to the more expensive school because they knew it would benefit me,” she says.
There, Kholofelo proved to be an exceptional scholar. “I enjoyed all that I learnt. My mother always encouraged me to have a positive attitude to learning because it would make the difference in my life. She said that I could do anything if I believed I could.” Kholofelo would be up at 4.30am to go to school and got home around 5.30pm. “This school offered me so many opportunities. I participated in science fairs, debating teams and many sports. Although the main focus was academics, I was challenged as a person to grow in my abilities,” says Kholofelo.
In Grade 10, she was selected as one of 10 pupils from school to be a part of the Targeting Talent Program, which is run by Wits University, Goldman Sachs and Telkom. Through this program, she familiarized herself with Wits and what it had to offer. ”This planted a seed for me that my learning didn’t have to end in matric and that there was so much more in the world after that.” Kholofelo knew she wanted to be a doctor and serve others. “My dream was to go into troubled countries – like my father did as a soldier – and help those who really needed me. I wanted to serve in the United Nations or Doctors Without Borders.”
With her seven matric distinctions, she easily got into medicine at Wits and was compensated for her distinctions, which helped pay for some of her first year fees. Her parents, however, were going through a difficult time and were unable to help her financially. She had applied for scholarships and bursaries, but had no luck. Then, out of the blue, she got a message from the university’s financial department to apply for a Moshal Scholarship.
“Next thing, I was invited to a Moshal Scholarship Program workshop for first year students on handling finance. Only later was I informed that I had actually already been awarded the scholarship. I almost fainted I was so excited and relieved,” says Kholofelo.
Adjusting to life at university was tough, though. “No-one prepares you for the amount of work and being so alone and far from everyone you love. I had temporarily forgotten my mother’s advice on believing in myself and being able to do anything with the right attitude. But once I made the effort, things improved a lot."
“Being a part of the Moshal Scholarship Program gave me support I didn’t know was possible. They have invested in my life and they provide so much training to enable us to be well-rounded individuals and have the skills that set us apart from other university students. Martin Moshal is the best role model in how to pay it forward and turn people’s lives around.”
It was while reading an article about young girls not having sanitary towels in Uganda that sparked Kholofelo’s idea for the Hope Initiative. “I was appalled that not every girl had access to something so essential,” says Kholofelo. “Having a passion for helping others, I wondered what I could do to change the world I live in. I am so privileged to be able to give back and show young girls that the world doesn’t end in matric and circumstances don’t have to limit them.”
One morning in December 2014, she finished her chores and began asking those in the community for donations of sanitary towels, soaps and other toiletries for young women. “The response was amazing. People were so willing to give” she says. She found young girls in child-headed households and handed out the donations she had collected. Kholofelo has a great vision for what she wants to achieve with the Hope Initiative. “I have learnt so much, but have lots to learn and so much to give. I want it to grow and help many, many young women in South Africa and Africa.”