Eyes set for the future

2012-07-09 00:00

SIX-YEAR-OLD Sithembiso Gwala arrived at Project Gateway, holding the hand of his only relative, his gogo’s sister. His mother had HIV and died from TB complications, and the forlorn image of the old lady and the young skinny boy struck a chord with Helen Sutherland, who was running the Care Ministries of the Gateway Project.

“He was dreadfully skinny and he had received no education, but there was something intriguing in his eyes,” she recalls. “I held up my hand with two fingers in the air, and I asked him how many fingers I was holding up. He said: ‘Two’. I took him over the road to one of the teachers in the primary section of the Gateway Christian School, and asked her to assess him.”

The teacher had her doubts, but said he “might” be retrievable. From that day forward, Sithembiso Gwala became one of the kids at the Gateway Christian School. He lived with his great aunt and was sponsored by “Auntie Helen”, and funders from overseas and members of the Kings Community Church.

Helen Sutherland is one of those no-nonsense women, who lead with a combination of strictness and great compassion and humour. Her attitude has been the salvation for kids like Gwala, who had no parents and who were dealing with their own internal struggles.

Thirteen years later, he is no longer the sad waif-like creature he was. The boy has become a bright young man, on the brink of a life full of possibilities. Doing his first year of an engineering degree at Wits University, Gwala says his mentorship at Project Gateway has made all the difference.

Auntie Helen admits that, at times, the young Sithembiso nearly drove her “round the bend”, but she told The Witness: “We are so very proud of him. He has overcome many hardships, and he has always striven to be the best he can be. We know he will be a great role model for other kids who were orphaned by HIV.”

Sutherland recalls that she only ever disciplined him once, when she gave him money to go for a haircut and he returned with his hair still long. She said: “I asked him where the money was, and he looked at me shyly and with that look of guilt. He told me he had bought a tennis ball.

“Then he said some other boys had stolen it. So I reprimanded him for lying, not having his hair cut and then allowing the ball to be stolen. He always had his hair cut after that.”

Gwala took to school like a duck to water, and did very well. Sutherland managed to source sponsors, who paid for him to go to Alexandra High School.

Last year, he passed matric with flying colours, and was chosen as the school dux. Since Grade 8, he has almost always been the top of the grade in his school. But the modest boy also participated in sports, and played basketball, soccer, rugby and squash.

It was on a school basketball tour to Johannesburg that he saw the University of Witwatersrand. and had a dream to go there to study.

Sutherland said: “Sithembiso is not one to boast about his accomplishments, but he works hard to achieve what he wants.”

She says she has never, for one second, regretted her decision to bring him on board. “All children deserve a chance. but some children make all the work worthwhile.”

Gwala says his “Mom” is one of the role models who has shaped his life. “She is a special person. She took the decision to make me her responsibility, and not many people would do that. She and her friend, Lorne Wray, have taught me a lot about how to think and act, and they have always made me feel as good as anyone else.

He says that she has taught him to respect women and the work they do.

Gwala’s attitude is mature, way beyond his years. He said: “I remember when I was in primary school, I was not the favourite kid because I was naughty. I was very angry inside, and although I channelled a lot of my energy into school work, I was quite aggressive and I acted up.

“People at the school were very kind to me, and allowed me to work through my feelings and to talk, and I believe that is very important. I can go into adulthood without baggage, and focus on achieving my dreams. A lot of guys bury their pain in drinking and drugs, but that anger just haunts you.”

A challenge this year has been dealing with the peer pressure of going to university and mixing with a bigger social group. Gwala says he has lots of friends and some that his “Mom” might not approve of, but he copes.

Gwala is doing an electrical-engineering degree and has a big interest in information technology, but he makes sure he works even during the vacations, so that he will qualify for a second-year bursary. “I was always different from other kids. Even at school, some friends would invite me home and I couldn’t go because I couldn’t reciprocate. If you are an Aids orphan, you are on your own and you have to make things work. You don’t have a parent or a family as a safety net.

“I hope that I can inspire other orphans to believe in themselves. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I think it’s okay to stand out and be different because that’s when you have permission to unlock your potential. I believe that if you treat yourself with respect, then you have the right to be treated with respect — whether you are an orphan or a president.”

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