How to Spread It: Vuyane Mhlomi

2013-10-28 08:00

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Vuyane Mhlomi, at only 25, proves you are never too young to start making a big difference.

He started his MH Foundation with other young professionals as soon as he graduated as a doctor, as he wanted bright schoolchildren to have every chance of the same success he achieved.

He calls himself the foundation’s “chief dreamer”, as he believes dreams are what allow people to overcome enormous odds. But he’s also completely practical and works tirelessly.

Mhlomi’s story is one of beating the odds. One of four brothers raised by his mother in a household of 10 children in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, he was accepted into medical school at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Surviving on scholarships and student loans, he graduated third in a class of 171 students. This despite having to look after his mother after she suffered a stroke. He was awarded the Dr Helen Brown Prize for being the second-best final-year student in clinical medicine and was on the dean’s merit list and medicine honours list.

He now works at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto and will enrol for further specialisation next year at Oxford University.

Q: What made you want to start this foundation?

A: I have always had the dream of starting a foundation to help underprivileged scholars from my township and others like me who show academic promise and have dreams to attain success despite their circumstances. The African Scholars Fund assisted me during my high school years. Although it only covered my school fees, it relieved a huge financial burden and allowed me to focus on my academic work. It was then that the dream of the MH Foundation was born.

Q: How does the foundation work?

A: We provide scholars with the basic necessities to equip them to meet the day-to-day challenge of schooling – their school uniform, stationery, textbooks and school fees. We offer them specialised coaching and mentoring, additional tuition, career counselling, coping skills, life skills and exposure to the corporate sector. It’s everything I wish I’d had when I was at school.

Q: How many scholars have you had on your programme this year?

A: We’ve started with 10 and will be adding more each year. Qualifying high school scholars hail from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are selected on their scholastic performance, determination, drive and latent leadership qualities. Successful applicants aren’t necessarily top achievers, but they must display the potential of becoming top achievers. That’s why we interview them so carefully and use clinical psychological profiles to assess their character and potential.

Q: What do the scholars do while being supported?

A: They must attend additional tuition, which we provide. This allows them to flourish academically and interact with like-minded individuals. They are encouraged to sign up at the local library and are expected to read a book, other than their prescribed curriculum material, every month, after which they write reports or review on these books. This encourages the culture of reading, self-study and being able to formulate their own opinion on material they read and the world around them.

They must identify three careers of interest and the foundation facilitates meetings for them with professionals working in these fields. This helps to make their dreams more tangible. Professionals provide mentorship and guidance to these scholars. In grades 10, 11 and 12 they are expected to attend open days at institutions of higher learning and from Grade 9 onwards they are expected to “adopt” a fellow pupil in their school and assist them academically. This not only reinforces their knowledge but fosters the culture of helping someone else.

Q: Why do you describe yourself as a “chief dreamer”?

A: It’s my fervent belief that one of the greatest crises facing the country is not, as most would believe, HIV/Aids or crime, but rather the lack of dreams by the youth. The reality in Khayelitsha is that very few will be able to complete a secondary education, let alone complete a tertiary degree. Many have resigned themselves to living a life which is substandard – one they do not want – because of the simple fact that they do not know better.

Going home every holiday became harder for me each year, because I was forced to see the light being snuffed from yet another set of eyes as dreams gave way to the need to “just get by”. The tragedy is these are not physically or intellectually challenged individuals. It is my belief these are people who have simply lost the ability to dream.

In a country so great and teeming with potential and possibility, this should not be allowed.

Q: How important is it that successful township role models are celebrated?

A: At UCT, I arrived as a young boy in orange board shorts and a blue Adidas vest and matured into a man with a burning desire to expose other people from a similar background to the same surreal world I am now living in.

One of the greatest misconceptions I have heard, and have fought to abolish, is that nothing good can ever come from a township such as mine. Starting this foundation allows me to continue fighting this misconception by helping underprivileged scholars with potential within communities similar to that of my own.

The support and assistance provided by this foundation will hopefully empower these individuals, not only to progress academically, but also to encourage them to become mentors themselves. My hope is that with this cycle of reciprocity a new era begins in which dreams can be attained, regardless of circumstances. The shame that accompanies the statement “I am from Khayelitsha” will disappear.

Q: Do you find it hard for people to take you seriously, as you are still so young?

A: Not really. I am truly grateful for the immense support and the opportunities I have received throughout my short lifespan. This empowered me to be in a position where I can share some of my good fortune with others. The earlier you start sharing, the better. You are never too young or too old. Any measure of success is only meaningful in its ability to affect others positively. My ultimate hope is that we are able to groom socially responsible leaders who will join in the initiative of uplifting their immediate surroundings. Communities are eventually bringing about change on a global level.

»?This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.

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