‘Education was my secret weapon’

21 August 2019 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Brenton Geach. Read time 8 min.
Dr Rachael Dangarembizi, who became an instant mother to her four younger siblings after her mother and stepfather died, says education had always been her key to lifting her family out of poverty.
Dr Rachael Dangarembizi, who became an instant mother to her four younger siblings after her mother and stepfather died, says education had always been her key to lifting her family out of poverty.
 

In a sad twist of fate, Zimbabwean-born Rachael Dangarembizi had to step into the role of mother to her four young siblings at just 16 when HIV/AIDS claimed the lives of her parents. In what felt like the blink of an eye, she was the sole breadwinner and head of the household.

Her mother and stepfather died just three months apart, leaving the teen and her siblings with no one to take them in, no money, five mouths to feed and school fees to pay.

But even before Dangarembizi was orphaned, she had seen education as her secret weapon – the key to lifting her family out of poverty. The only difference was that she was then more determined than ever to make something of her life and to help her siblings do the same.

Years later and she has managed to do exactly that. In 2018 Dangarembizi graduated with her PhD in neuroscience from the University of the Witwatersrand. And as of July 2019, she’s been enrolled at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Neuroscience Institute as a postdoctoral research fellow, as she continues to build her career path.

 

“My mother’s death almost spelt the end of me. But I was determined to keep going, get that education and make something out of my life.”

Dangarembizi’s work at the institute involves researching how infections affect the brain’s functionality. She also supervises masterʼs and PhD students in the same field.

Reflecting on her life, she said it has taken blood, sweat and tears to get to where she is today. One saying rings true for her: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“I didn’t have much while growing up but I valued my education. I was always determined to do well at school and break out of the cycle of poverty. My mother believed in the importance of a good, sound education and sacrificed all she had to support me. I owe a large part of my success to her,” she said.

Courage and tenacity

“Coming to UCT was always my dream, but back then I didn’t know how to get in here. Being here today is a dream come true for me.”

It really was all unplanned, she added. A few months after graduating with her PhD, she tagged UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in a post on Twitter, and one thing led to another.

Dangarembizi explained that she responded to Phakeng’s call for graduates to share their graduation pictures on 1 December 2018 and tag her under the hashtag #MakeEducationFashionable.

“Initially I was reluctant. I already graduated in July, but after a while I jumped right in there, tweeted my story and tagged her,” she said.

Her tweet read: “Lost both parents to HIV at the age of 16 and became the head of a family of 4. Living in the township with no hope of ever making it. July 2018 graduated with a PhD in Neuroscience at Wits. Proud to have taken all my siblings to [university] too. God is good.”

In no time, Phakeng had committed to becoming one of Dangarembizi’s mentors. The Vice Chancellor also put the wheels in motion for her to meet Professor Graham Fieggen, head of surgery and neurosurgery at UCT’s Neuroscience Institute, to explore possible research opportunities at UCT.

Dangarembizi started engaging with Fieggen to establish how she could collaborate with researchers at the institute in her field of study, and in July she arrived at UCT to start her postdoctoral research.

“It all happened so fast,” she said.

Success didn’t come easy, however. Growing up in an informal settlement in Harare, life was tough. She attended most of her primary school classes under a tree because her school had limited classrooms available. Desk-time in a classroom setting was reserved for certain subjects only.

“Basically, we had to apply to use a classroom and we would do so for subjects like writing. For everything else we were under a tree for our lessons.”

 

“Regardless of the day, we’d be up at 4am to get to the field to plough the lands and then head back to sell our stuff on the road.”

Her mother, an immigrant from Mozambique, worked hard to make ends meet. Often, Dangarembizi and her younger siblings and cousins were roped in to help farm in the fields and sell fish and fruit on the side of the road to pay the bills.

“Regardless of the day, we’d be up at 4am to get to the fields to plough the land and then head back to sell our stuff on the road.

“Only thereafter could we go to school. We followed the same routine during school holidays,” she said.

Overcoming adversity

After her parents’ death, Dangarembizi’s life became even more challenging.

“Difficult is not even the word. Faith and hope are the only two things that carried us through,” she said.

“My mother’s death almost spelt the end of me. But I was determined to keep going, get that education and make something of my life. And now look. She would be so happy with the path I’ve chosen.”

Hard work came naturally and Dangarembizi accepted jobs at the local grocery store and petrol station to earn money and take care of her siblings, putting them through school and paying for their stationery, uniforms and other extras. At the same time, she enrolled for a BSc degree in biochemistry at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe.

Because she performed well in maths and science she also tutored students for extra income.

“A good academic record secured my entry into university and I even got a merit-based scholarship. But that all happened during the global financial crisis of 2008, and suddenly the organisation didn’t have the funds to pay my fees. I was on my own again,” she recalled.

 

“Faith kept me going, even when I felt like I was about to give up. Faith was my guide and faith carried me through.”

After a number of stops and starts along the way, Dangarembizi completed her undergraduate studies. She received a scholarship to complete an MSc(Med) at Wits, followed by her PhD. And as if concentrating on her own studies was not enough, once she had secured a full-time job, she put her siblings through university too.

“Faith kept me going, even when I felt like I was about to give up. Faith was my guide and faith carried me through.”

Today, Dangarembizi is proud of the direction her life has taken. When asked about her advice for youngsters facing similar challenges, she encouraged them to work hard and to believe that circumstances do not necessarily determine the outcome of your life.

“If I could do it, anyone can.”


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