Ingwavuma is a forgotten piece of land at the northerly end of KwaZulu-Natal where resources are limited and life for the rural inhabitants is harsh.
In this desolate area, one of the most innovative, heart-warming projects in SA is unfolding, bringing dignity and hope to the challenged community.
It was here that Dumisani Gumede found himself, along with most of the other pupils in the area, hamstrung by inadequate teaching and a lack of resources. He struggled to pass exams.
“Anything from three percent to 20 percent was about where most of us were,” he says. “It wasn’t for lack of trying. We just didn’t get enough teaching input. The failure rate was dismal.”
Andrew Ross, former superintendent of Mosvold Hospital in Ingwavuma, says such marginalised children are often thought of as “no-hopers” and have proved that difficult situations not only require a new way of thinking, but can be turned around.
“Going back a bit, we realised that if something dramatic didn’t happen in that part of the province to improve health services, we would face a humanitarian tragedy,” says Ross, who now runs a student mentorship programme at UKZN.
“We needed new ways to address the chronic shortage of health-care providers. We were well aware that trained staff were reluctant to go to such a rural area and foreign doctors who were willing to come were often unable to obtain work permits.”
The answer, he believed, was to first identify local school-going children with potential to follow a career in health sciences and support them through their studies.
But that, admits Ross, was easier said than done.
Performance surveys showed that the standard of education in far-flung regions was low. Schools were often overcrowded and lacked resources, with the matric pass rate among the lowest in the country and few of the students achieving in science and maths.
In 1998, against this backdrop, Ross initiated a group called the Friends of Mosvold Scholarship Scheme (now known as the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation).
“We believed that if we could harness the local potential, we could address the chronic shortage of trained health professionals and promote the idea of local people bringing high-quality health services to their communities in In-gwavuma, Ubombo and Hlabisa.”
Its beginnings were modest.
“We first had to make sure that the project worked and was sustainable. It was a gamble because it hadn’t been done in South Africa. Most of the children we identified would normally have no chance whatsoever of being accepted at a university.”
To get the ball rolling, schools and the communities chose their best students, the ones averaging 25 percent in maths and science, to attend day workshops at Mosvold, where they were introduced to the workings of a hospital.
From these initial groups, they selected three matric students who had been accepted at university, through their intervention, to study a health science course even though their marks were shocking by normal standards.
“Once we had overcome those hurdles, the pressing issue was to find sustainable funding.”
Initially the doctors themselves supported the project. Later, a partnership was forged by the local community, Department of Education, Department of Health, Medical Education for SA Blacks (Mesab) and private funders.
Further funding has come from trust funds, international donors and businesses.
“People said we were mad,” Ross recalls. “They said it would never work and that the scheme was doomed to failure.”
Dumisani Gumede, one of the first graduates, was proof that “amazing things” could happen.
Not only did he have overcome his low marks, but he spent the first three weeks of his university career in the intensive care unit of King Edward VIII Hospital suffering from malaria.
“We suggested he wait a year to recover. He was adamant that he wanted to continue at university and said that he wasn’t going to let go of the biggest chance in his life,” says Ross.
Dumisani qualified as a physiotherapist, worked at Mosvold and Hlabisa hospitals and was responsible for establishing a therapy department at Hlabisa Hospital – where there was none.
He now works for the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation and is currently mentoring 182 students.
Says Dumisani: “I always say to my students, ‘Look at me. If I can do it, so can you.’ We haven’t had the best school education, but that doesn’t mean we are failures. Give us the opportunity and we will show you what we can achieve.”
Ross says a key element of the scheme is to promote a sense of responsibility among students.
“It is not about being handed things on a plate. It’s about hard work, identifying weaknesses, and fixing those.”
Last year, he says, the students involved in the scheme achieved a 90 percent pass rate.
“If potential is overlooked, particularly in areas where education is poor, we are denying people the chance of becoming valued citizens. Our scheme certainly beats poverty and unemployment.”
The mentorship programme focuses on Ingwavuma, Ubombo and Hlabisa.
The region has three “chronically understaffed” hospitals – Mosvold, Bethesda and Hlabisa – and one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, accounting for 57 percent of deaths.
It also has one of the highest numbers of Aids orphans and child-headed households.
In the past five years more than 800 local pupils have attended the hospital open days, 400 people have applied for financial support, 55 young people have trained as Peer Aids educators, 182 students are being supported at university or technical college doing a wide variety of health science courses (including medicine, physiotherapy, pharmacology, occupational therapy, optometry, dentistry and speech therapy) and 116 have graduated as health care professionals.
This year, the number of students involved in the programme has risen to 182. - Sunday Tribune