Near-tragic fire incident sparks student's rise

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Near-tragic fire incident sparks student's rise
Near-tragic fire incident sparks student's rise

Top scholarship for Rhodes's Lumumba

A TALENTED university graduate who was wasting away in a dead-end job when he nearly died in a life-changing shack fire has been awarded a prestigious Mandela Rhodes scholarship.

"I spent four months recovering and immediately quit my job when I was back on my feet to pursue my dream to write," English Masters student Lumumba Mthembu explained. One of a record six Rhodes University students to be awarded the scholarship, the 28-year-old was a rebellious youngster who grew up in less than ideal circumstances and only turned his life round after the fire.

"The fire simply showed me that my life was not my own and there was no time to waste being mediocre.

"It is the single best and worst thing that has ever happened to me.

"It changed me at a fundamental level."

This year's acclaimed Mandela Rhodes scholarship was awarded to 40 outstanding young South Africans who have the potential to make a difference in society. Rhodes University came out tops with six scholarships followed by the University of Cape Town with five.

After graduating with a BA (Hons) in English distinction in 2009, Mthembu spent three years "wasting my life" doing odd jobs in Johannesburg before returning to Rhodes University this year.

His life took a new direction after he suffered second degree burns during a backroom drinking session with his friend, KG. "We didn't know what was going on due to smoke inhalation, we were rescued when KG's family smelt smoke from the main house and broke the door down."

Mthembu's English Masters degree thesis focuses on four contemporary South African authors - Sifiso Mzobe, Kgebetli Moele, Niq Mhlongo and K. Sello Duiker - and the depiction of post-apartheid black identities in their novels.

Growing up in a broken home shuttled between parents - Mthembu and his sister, Khwezi, however excelled academically and got scholarships to study at top private schools.

"Academic achievement is all my father cared about, my parents couldn't afford exorbitant private school fees so Khwezi and I always had to go for scholarships.

"I was always a poor boy in a rich man's school and this gave me an inferiority complex for a long time."

When he was 19, his mother Nokuthula died of alcohol poisoning and he quit journalism to study English. After self-funding his studies, Mthembu is grateful for the scholarship and has set his sights on being an academic and a writer. "I never used to believe in myself, but now there is nothing I believe in more."

Five other Rhodes students - Aviwe May, Amiel Harikishun, Abigail Branford, Kyla Hazell and Selokwane Morake - all received scholarships in disciplines including law, marine biology and biotechnology.

May, who always wanted to be a medical doctor, changed his mind after his love for chemistry was "revitalised" during career exhibitions in his Grade 11 year at Toise High School in King William's Town. He now wants to pursue medicinal chemistry.

By David Macgregor

Source: Daily Dispatch

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