There were times as a child she just wanted to disappear, but now Simphiwe Hlongwane is in fourth-year medicine and wants only “to save lives - the thought of it puts a smile on my face”, she says.
The 22-year-old’s life has done a 360% turn. She spent much of her school career as a top student but friendless and bullied. From early on she saw education as the way out of her sadness and into a life where she could make a real difference. “I told myself that they could bully me, but I would defeat them when it came to school work. I would excel beyond expectation.”
And she has, now surrounded by friends at the University of Kwazulu-Natal and well on her way to becoming a doctor.
But when she was growing up and people suggested she would make a great doctor, Simphiwe wasn’t interested. She wanted to become a fighter pilot - partly because she would have to be a soldier first and learn to defend herself - or a pharmacist.
Simphiwe grew up in a traditional Zulu kraal in Bergville, Kwazulu-Natal. She lived with her grandmother and more than 20 aunts, uncles and cousins. “My granny was like my mother and I am still so close to her.” But they had no electricity or running water and had to walk long distances to get wood for warmth and water to drink. “I would study by either candle light or a paraffin lamp.”
While her primary school was fairly close by, it had few resources. Six pupils had to share one textbook, but they got a hearty meal at school every day.
Wherever Simphiwe went, she took an exercise book and pen with her and would write poetry and draw. “Mostly, I didn’t have friends, I kept my head in my book. The bullying was hard to deal with and in high school, I started to isolate myself, even at home. I would get back after school and disappear into my room. It gave me a lot of time to study,” she says.
“I made a vow to myself that when I got to university, I would be a different person.”
Her school teachers, she says, encouraged her, giving her extra work to get ahead. She recalls her Grade 10 science teacher telling the class that she would stop teaching when one of her pupils became a doctor. “There were two in my class who wanted to be doctors, but I wasn’t one of them. But the teacher was sure I would be that person.”
In matric Simphiwe applied for several fields of study at university. It was only when she didn’t get into medical school -- despite five marks above 80% and two above 75% --that she realised she really wanted to be a doctor.
She was accepted to study pharmacy in 2012, though, and with a struggle managed to secure a National Student Financial Aid Scheme loan to get started at university.
And before her first day was over she had made friends. From then on she has “socialised like nobody’s business” and become “really talkative”.
In February of her first year she was informed she had been chosen for a Moshal Scholarship. “It was a miracle … from that day I was financially cleared — my money worries were gone. I just cried with joy because I could now concentrate on making my future happen.”
Her dream of studying medicine only got stronger and in March, she applied to transfer to medical school, with the full support of the Moshal Scholarship Program.
In January 2013, she was doing holiday work at a pharmacy back home when she received a text message saying she hadn’t been accepted for medical school. “I cried and cried, but eventually pulled myself together and decided I would reapply when I finished my pharmacy degree,” Simphiwe recalls. “Just then I got a call from the university apologising for their mistake as I had actually been accepted for medicine …”
Even though medicine is a tough degree – she calls it her own Kilimanjaro -- she finds time to help younger medical students and matriculants back home.
Simphiwe dreams of starting an organisation to encourage high school pupils to be leaders of change. “It tears me apart when I go home and see the majority of people drop out of school and never make their dreams come true. My dream is to see more rural teenagers make it to university so they can do something good for their community.
“I also want to be a great doctor, wife and mother, and I want to spoil my grandmother, who took care of me for all those years. I want to put a permanent smile on her face.”