Just three months before graduation season was due to begin, the University of Cape Town (UCT) community received an In Remembrance notice with devastating news: 42-year-old Mike Abia, who was studying towards a PhD in information systems, had passed away after being ill for some time.
His wife, Shuvai Abia, will accept the degree, which is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream, on his behalf.
“Graduation would have meant a mission accomplished, a dream come true … Each time he would see someone in that red gown, he would say, ‘It’s only one day I will wear that gown,’ ” said Shuvai.
Before his passing, Mike received the positive examiners’ report about his thesis, the focus of which was identifying the main concern with e-recruitment among job seekers and recruitment agents, and to account for how they continually resolve that concern.
“To be called Dr Abia was his highest and most valued academic achievement.”
Elated, he immediately began planning for his graduation, calling up friends and family and even the naysayers who thought he wouldn’t make it at UCT.
“To be called Dr Abia was his highest and most valued academic achievement,” said Shuvai.
“Dying after getting his results and knowing that he was a true Dr Abia just put a smile on his face. Even if he is not going to wear the red gown, we are going to get it for him [and] it will serve as a reminder to his children that their father was passionate about education.”
Mike was born and raised in rural Zimbabwe, in Triangle, a small sugarcane town. He attended Kamba Primary School, Zimuto High School and Thornhill High School.
He began his academic journey at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Zimbabwe, graduating in 1999 with a BSc in applied mathematics. In 2003 he returned to NUST and graduated with a BSc in computer science in 2006.
While pursuing his honours at NUST, Mike met the woman who would become his wife. At the time, Shuvai was completing her national diploma in chemical technology at Bulawayo Polytechnic.
In 2008 Mike continued his studies, this time towards an MSc in computer science at the University of Zimbabwe, which he completed in 2009. A year later, with the encouragement of her husband, and the assurance that he would take care of the expenses, Shuvai enrolled for a degree in applied chemistry at her husband’s alma mater, NUST.
The two married in the same year and welcomed their son, Nicky Akanaka, in 2012 and their daughter, Laura Kukunda, three years later.
In the same year that their son was born, Mike enrolled at UCT, the fulfilment of a lifelong dream and a source of immense pride for him and his family.
“He used to tell me that if you are accepted to study at UCT then you are one of the best,” recalled Shuvai. “So, when he was given a provisional offer to do his PhD at UCT, he was over the moon.”
Shuvai was as excited about her husband’s acceptance to UCT and drew confidence from it, often unable to contain the excitement and pride around friends and family.
“If you graduate from UCT, you will be counted among the best. It may take long, but I will get it.”
Sometimes, a friend would express concern to the couple, saying that UCT would be “impossible”, that it would take an eternity for Mike to obtain his PhD. But he was steadfast, as Shuvai recalled: “His response was always, ‘If you graduate from UCT, you will be counted among the best. It may take long, but I will get it.’ ”
Separated in distance from his family while studying, Mike made sure to keep Shuvai updated on his progress and the happenings at the university. He’d tell his wife how much he appreciated the administrative staff at UCT and how communication from the university was always “straight and to the point”.
He also told Shuvai of his gratitude for his supervisor, Professor Irwin Brown, and how Professor Brown was “a no-nonsense man”, always honest and pushing him to do his best.
Brown, the head of the Department of Information Systems in the Faculty of Commerce, became Mike’s supervisor in 2013. Reflecting on his time with Mike, he described him as “a jovial character”.
“Supervisory meetings were always pleasant. Discussions around the collected data and its interpretation were always interesting and insightful when [relayed] from his perspective,” said Brown.
At the time of his passing, Mike was employed as an academic at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, and Shuvai ran the home as a full-time mother. She is currently searching for employment while continuing to look after the children.
Shuvai and the children are still in Namibia but are considering a move back to Zimbabwe soon. The three – mother, son and daughter – were a constant source of support for Mike throughout his academic journey.
“For Mike, education was the key to an open mind and to many opportunities.”
His children had the special ability to relieve all their father’s stress from work and academic deadlines. Now, Shuvai hopes Mike’s passion for education will be the legacy for their children.
“For Mike, education was the key to an open mind and to many opportunities. I hope that the children will be inspired by their father’s commitment to education so that they can also see success through education,” she said.
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