Many lives touched by visually impaired graduate's journey of resilience

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Dr Stones Chindipha (right) helps visually-impaired Mbongeni Shabangu to cross the stage at his graduation
Dr Stones Chindipha (right) helps visually-impaired Mbongeni Shabangu to cross the stage at his graduation

By Phillip Quinton Ndagurwa


Resilience is a theme in Mbongeni Shabangu's story. As a person living with a visual impairment, he had to constantly perform the arduous task of not allowing himself to be the product of his circumstances. At this year's March graduation ceremonies, Shabangu graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Computer Sciences and Economics) degree from Rhodes University.

The 36-year-old graduate was raised in Mbabane, Eswatini. While at the University of Swaziland, his studies came to an unfortunate halt when he lost his vision due to acute demyelination in his third year. He had been studying towards a Bachelor of Science focusing on Computer Sciences and Mathematics.

Before attending Rhodes University, his exposure to computers influenced his decision to continue with Computer Sciences. "Through technology, even the disabled are capable of interacting with the world around them productively and efficiently," he said.

Once at Rhodes University, Shabangu had to wait a few months for a tailored teaching programme to be implemented, resulting in him having to stagger his majors.

The graduate faced a lot of challenges throughout his degree journey. One of his tutors mentioned that Shabangu had to endure excruciating pain and serious surgeries. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns would be yet another stumbling block in his path.

Thankfully, Shabangu was able to progress in his studies with screen reading software, which can speak feedback or verbal descriptions of what is being displayed on the screen to a blind computer user. However, there were some practicals he was unable to complete due to software compatibility issues.

One of Shabangu's tutors, Dr Stones Chindipha, was greatly inspired by their journey together. "As a student, he gave his all to get what he wanted - without cutting corners. He is a man of commitment and focus," he stated.

Dr Chindipha, who spent much time with Shabangu during his studies, was in constant awe of him. "Despite being differently-abled, he still wanted to do things that are normally challenging to people with full sight," Dr Chindipha said.

As his tutor, Dr Chindipha had to come up with creative ways to help Shabangu achieve his dreams. "I had to alter how the same information could be conveyed to a person with full sight. This compelled me to consider his capacity to perceive the world and to devise new means of communicating with him so that he would understand the concepts being covered." The collaboration between the two scientists would prove to be the ignition to Dr Chindipha's journey as a lecturer at Rhodes University.

In a heart-warming conclusion of their time together, Dr Chindipha, who received his PhD at the same ceremony, helped Shabangu walk across the stage for his capping and hooding.

Marc Marais, another proud tutor who worked with Shabangu, said: "He has overcome many challenges to get to where he is today, which speaks volumes to his character and determination to succeed in life. His story proves that if we are determined enough, our limitations are only hurdles to overcome."

Shabangu's sacrifices and perseverance under challenging circumstances make him an excellent source of advice and encouragement to others. "All that matters is what you want your life to be," Shabangu said. "Reach for the stars and understand that it will never be easy."

Shabangu is aware that such a mindset enables one to handle anything that comes their way. "While it is easy to become disheartened, one must remember why they embarked on a path in the first place," he added.

Now seeking employment, the degree holder plans to continue his education part-time. Shabangu aspires to have a fruitful career by becoming an expert in a specialised area, such as cybersecurity.