By: Adrienne Carlisle
Physically disabled Rhodes University graduate Thembelihle Ngcai won the admiration and awe of a packed auditorium at a weekend graduation when she resolutely attempted to walk across the stage to be capped.
The 21-year-old, whose strength and mobility are severely limited and fast deteriorating due to spinal muscular dystrophy, was determined not to use a wheelchair to cross the intimidating length of the auditorium stage at the 1820 Settlers National Monument.
Against the odds and for four long years, the young East London woman negotiated the difficult Rhodes campus – known for its uneven pavements, cobbled quads and quaint old buildings – in a motorised wheelchair provided by the university. She was determined to walk the final stretch.
“It’s been a long, difficult journey. I just wanted to brave it out and walk at my own graduation. The university was game and determined to make it happen for me,” she said.
But Ngcai didn’t quite make it. In a heart-stopping moment, she faltered after being capped by Rhodes chancellor Lex Mpati. An impossible five metres yawned between the chancellor and anxious waiting registrar Dr Stephen Fourie.
But graduation usher Alex Kawondera, who had accompanied Ngcai across the stage, was ready and waiting.
“I told him my legs were going to give in,” Ngcai said.
To tumultuous applause, Kawondera gently picked her up and carried her the rest of the way.
The soft-spoken Zimbabwean born Kawondera, is in the final year of his second degree at Rhodes. He said his act was not heroic and anyone in his shoes would have done the same thing.
“I was supposed to hold her hand and walk with her across the stage. When she indicated to me she was going to fall I naturally just picked her up and carried her to the registrar. It was really nice to help.”
Ngcai said just a year ago she would likely have been able to negotiate the distance across the stage. But the progressive hereditary disease is taking its toll and she has been told paralysis is the likely prognosis within the next nine years.
“I put a message out on social media for everyone to pray that I would have the strength to walk across the stage at my own graduation. It felt so good having the strength to walk, even if it was just for a little way.”
She described Kawondera as a champion.
“He is such a gentleman and had really committed himself to the job of looking after me. He was so careful not to hurt me…It was a pleasure to have him by my side helping me.”
Ngcai leaves behind something of a legacy at Rhodes for her activism to make the institution more accessible to the disabled.
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