Boy from Limpopo now a prof at US university

By Drum Digital
12 January 2010

NO SOONER had darkness fallen over his rural village than he slipped quietly outside and spent the night studying by the light of the full moon. And if the candles ran out and there was no money for more, the young Mulalo Doyoyo lit small fires indoors to continue his swotting. By the time he reached matric he’d become a top student, ending his school career with five distinctions...and the world at his feet.

Now, 22 years later, that eager young man is known as Professor Doyoyo, a leading international academic who got his post-doctoral degree in applied mechanics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This American centre is the world’s premier engineering institution and it couldn’t be further from the remote Mbilwi Secondary School, near Thohoyandou in Limpopo, where he first fell in love with learning.

“Yes, I suppose being awarded a Graduate Fellowship by MIT is quite an achievement for a country boy,” he says, clearly uncomfortable with all the praise we heap on him. He may be one of South Africa’s top academic achievers but the humble man, who still doesn’t speak with an American twang after 15 years abroad, dismisses the accolades with a wave of his hand. “Any child from an impoverished place”, he says, “can make it in life if they are given a chance.”

“As I have come to see, people can do amazing things if they are inspired,” he says when we catch him at the Emperors Palace hotel in Kempton Park, Gauteng, before he departs for his home in Atlanta, USA.

The 40-year-old is now a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the city of Atlanta. His comfortable life there, where he has two young children with his American exwife, is a far cry from his tough upbringing. Today he lives in the slick high-rise city that hosted the 1996 Olympics and is famed for its sidewalk cafés, jazz bars and multicultural population, but his childhood home had no electricity or running water.

“My father was a migrant labourer and always told us that he was working long hours, bending his back and earning peanuts,” he says. “He saved the little money he earned to send his children to school. There was a huge financial sacrifice on my parents’ part and I owe this life of mine to them.”

He also had some inspiring teachers at Mbilwi Secondary, he says. The rural school has long been the pride of the province and once again this year remained in the elite Club 100 with more than 100 matric pupils passing maths and science on the higher grade.

Read the full article in DRUM of 20 January 2011

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