BD online spoke to a young man who has a burning desire to give back to the community by helping to develop a culture of reading. We started by asking him about his childhood and early education.
RM: I was born in 1986, July the 2nd, in a small town called Matondoni in Limpopo, SA. I am the first born of four siblings. In my childhood as the first born and one of the youngest in the family I had to help around the house. I remember I had two favourite things to do the first one was herding my late grandfather’s livestock. It was one of the important things one can do to help around the house hold, as it meant I was with a senior member of the family in the mountain and, in addition, my lunch box was guaranteed. This also meant that when one of the livestock was slaughtered as the youngest I would the get the hooves of the slaughtered animal to do as I pleased. The second thing was helping my grandmother sell ready prepared food to the employees at our local tea plantation and not forgetting the primary school learners in the village, the best part of this job was getting to eat the left overs.
BD: and school?
RM: My early education did not start off as I would have liked. I was meant to start Primary School in 1992. However this did not happen as I was informed that I should go home on the basis that I was 48 hours late to qualify for that year. The rule at the time was that I had to be six years old before the end of June. I was very disappointed as it meant I had to wait for my friends each day to come back from school and this was also one of the reasons I spent a lot my time with grandmother selling at the primary school. The painful feeling I remember having is that the others were getting ahead of me l. I felt excluded however as my parents did not do anything about it, I accepted fate and couldn’t wait for early 1993.
BD: but it was not such an easy start for you…
RM: My primary school officially started in 1993. I didn’t attend preschool. The nearest school required transport and my parents at the time viewed that as luxury and also considering that no other kid in the village attended preschool. The outcome of that is I could not write and read. This part of my life did not start off well as I struggled to write my own name, my handwriting is still poor even today. Combined with my heavy stuttering this meant I was the kid laughed at most of the time. It was painful that I was experiencing a rocky start to something I had been eagerly awaiting for a year. However my young mother was not open to any discussion to understand the situation.
BD: Did the situation improve?
RM: Light came to my life in 1996 when a new teacher came to the school, her name is Khathutshelo Ravhura. When she arrived she looked at me and said, “You have the potential to be great if you put more effort in to your work”. This was my turning point. I moved from being an average kid to a top performer in the class. The new teacher created a competitive environment by offering us prizes for doing well in her subjects. I excelled in this environment. The highlight was when I was in grade 5 and I taught a grade 7 biology class, only a year and half later since the new teacher. I went to complete my primary school in 1999 as a top learner.
BD: How was secondary school?
RM: My love for and excellence in mathematics and science was up there, and I qualified to the admission test at the best high school in town Mbilwi High School. Out of 600 applicants for a maths and science test I was number 89. If I remember correctly 175 learners were admitted to start grade 8 in 2000. The top five from my primary school did not make through the test. This meant making new friends in town. This was a difficult period for many reasons. I learned that the English I thought I had mastered was very weak compared to the kids in town. I made a lot of grammar mistakes during prepared and unprepared speech. The town kids laughed at me even more and also gave me names. I hated the school, I could not tell my parents and friends at the village that I was not the best, as they all believed I was best. Other kids also laughed at me for my lunch box that included fried eggs and pap, a normal dish in the village but not so normal in town.
BD: But once again, the situation changed?
RM: Grade 10 was my turning point. I remember promising myself that I would pass English that year and what supported this is that at that point, I was allowed to drop Afrikaans and this meant I only had one difficult subject to deal with. My grade 10 English teacher was a young teacher who also pushed us a lot, I thrived under his teaching. This year marked my dominance, I was in the top 20 in my grade, and this was a huge achievement that boasted my confidence. In grade 11 my best position for one of the quarter results was 10. My mathematics and physics performance remained top class. My mother eventually gave in and she stopped packing my lunch box giving me money instead. I went on to complete my grade 12 in 2004 with 4 As (Mathematics, Physical Science, Tshivenda and Geography), 1 B (Biology) and 1 C (English). This secured my Sasol bursary to study Chemical Engineering at Wits University.
BD: Tell us about that
RM: My tertiary education and experience was a time of discovery. I started my Chemical Engineering journey in 2005 at Wits University. Having enjoyed leadership involvement at the church back home I got involved at varsity church to get myself going. I was a serious bookworm. I was scared of failing as I knew this would mean losing the bursary and going back home, I did not want to go home empty handed. Being so books focused meant staying away from some of my new friends who were too overwhelmed by the new environment. My last 2 years I was more comfortable with the university style, my confidence was high. In 2007 I was the Vice Chairperson my campus church Reformed and in 2008 I was the Project Officer at my residence EOH. These positions were key to my leadership growth and gave more opportunities to learn to live with the stuttering. I gained more confidence during this period. I went on to complete my degree in record time and I was the only black student in my class that started in 2005 to have done that. Only 10 of us completed in record time. University was the best time as it gave me an opportunity to discover myself, to grow and to see another world beyond Venda.
BD: Entering the field of work was easier for you.
- Yes, having obtained the Sasol bursary meant I did not have to look for a job upon completion. My career started in 2009 at Sasol Sasolburg. In my 6 years in engineering project execution I have participated in projects from concept development all the way to beneficial operation. In this period I participated in projects within multi-disciplinary teams from engineering, operations and commercial. I have managed international engineering contractors in local products and I have international experience when I worked for Foster Wheeler Reading Office, I participated in projects for Brazil and Saudi Arabia in FEED and Detail Engineering respectively.
BD: You have travelled quite a journey. Is this what motivated you to start a foundation?
RM: Outside of the office, I started Takalani Foundation in 2014 and currently operating in Vhembe district, our vision is to reignite ambition in our young rural learners and create a high performance culture in SA and Africa. Our motto is Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today. With this motto we desire to positively influence the African landscape of new leaders. I started off with a team of 3 (my siblings) and now I have a team of 16 from different professional fields, including marketing, accountants. To date, the challenge has been healthy financial standing and active involvement by the community. We are addressing the challenges by building internally a product and business development team to achieve sustainable income generation and regular engagements with the community leadership to ensure alignment.
BD: It is fairly obvious but what inspired this?
RM: My inspiration for the foundation was to bridge the rural learners to be in a better position to access funding and university entrance based an excellent results. Education is our best chance to elevate our people from poverty to ensure that Africa stands head on with rest of the world competitively. My vision is for Africa to unite and find solutions internally toward socioeconomic development.
BD: How has it gone, what next?
RM: Career wise it has been great, currently Process Lead Engineer as part of Sasol Sasolburg expansion project. My next move is business development or strategy to grow my understanding on how to a keep a business afloat. This is part of my strategy which involves filling different buckets to get to corporate executive level.
BD: and the foundation?
RM: The foundation has taken learners (grade 10-12) to career day, bought extra study guides to improve problem solving skills, provided bursary forms, painted classes in the local primary school to create a better learning environment and conducted a leadership workshop for primary school prefects. We have partnered with African Flavour Books, Willmien Davis Consulting, Olela Essentials and We Can Foundation. We are looking for more strategic partners to support our work. In the next year we plan to implement our growth plans , have income generating projects up and running, a pool of mentors for our learners, have a winter training program focusing for soft skills and run events aligned with the SA and African calendar in attempt to rehabilitate our people within the communities. In support of developing leadership development, we have identified reading as our best option and we will drive the following programs,
- Learners to read a minimum of 5 books per year.
- Teachers to read a minimum of 10 books per year.
At Takalani Foundation we are confident that it is not enough to only focus on the learners, we are of the strong view that our programs must rehabilitate the overall community for long term sustainability.
BD: Congratulations on a successful life journey to date. What would you say to a young person in a village, under-privileged urban area right now?
RM: Use your current poverty situation as a fuel to your success, turn your anger from this poverty push yourself away from it. You have nothing else more to lose, you have already lost. Do not overthink your ideas because this is only a waste time. Execution is what matters, so get done with your planning. Have a mentor. Build your network. Have a vision for your life.