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From village girl to doctor: a journey of struggles, blessings, determination

Dr Kwanele Kunene. | Supplied

Dr Kwanele Kunene. | Supplied

Published Jul 26, 2022

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Sometimes, it takes one act of kindness to change a person’s life. The gift of R200 from a stranger was exactly what Dr Kwanele Kunene - who recently graduated from Durban University of Technology with a Doctorate degree - needed to catapult her dream of becoming a doctor into reality.

This tenacious doctor, born and raised in rural Jan Farm, outside Danhauser, had the odds against her from the start, but she pushed on and achieved more than she imagined was possible.

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Like any young girl, she grew up with dreams and the ambition to see them through. But she did not know what lay ahead.

The role of teachers is often undermined in society, but they shape, inspire, and forge young minds. However, while a teacher's confidence in a pupil can do wonders for their self-esteem and self-belief, the opposite is also true.

“He did not believe in me when I said I wanted to be a doctor, and kept on saying I would not be one because of my maths and physics marks. He did not even give me the CAO handbook and forms to apply to different institutions because of his lack of belief in me,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, after matric, Kunene had to take a gap year because she had not applied to any higher learning institutions. Not prepared to give up on her dreams, she applied the following year but was not accepted for any of her choice courses.

She came across Berea Technical College and elected to study an N3-N4 in chemical engineering, but this was also not without its challenges.

Kunene spent weeks trying to gather enough money to register. Discouraged, on the last day of registration she headed to the shops and sat down near the cashiers, waiting for her mother to send money.

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“It turns out that my mother sent my father to town to deposit the money for me, but he missed the bus that was going there. I could not help but cry non-stop. While I was waiting for him, an old lady came by.”

The kind stranger introduced herself as Miss Mathonsi and asked Kunene why she was crying hysterically. After hearing about her ordeal, she gave the young woman the R200 she needed to register and even bought her food.

With renewed hope, she started her academic career at the private institution. Her marks were stellar and she said this was because of the assistance of her mentor, Yusuf Mia.

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After completing this qualification, she registered at DUT to study for a National Diploma in analytical chemistry, then a BTech.

During this period at DUT, Kunene’s twin sister, who held a national diploma in engineering, was already working and so paid for her to pursue her BTech. The ambitious Kunene then graduated and went on to get her Master’s degree.

After then being awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Latvia, Kunene paid in kind to her twin and financed the fees for her to do a BTech in mechanical engineering at Walter Sisulu University.

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“While I was doing my PhD, I was awarded the French Embassy Scholarship to study at the Institute of Membranes Montpellier,” said Kunene.

Kunene said being so knowledgeable in such a male-dominated field makes her feel empowered, and she is eager to get as many students to learn about it as possible.

Her doctoral research was based on fabricating electrochemical aptasensor for detection of mycotoxins in food products.

“The journey was not an easy task at all. I almost quit when my mother was sick so that I could take care of her, but I kept on pushing. I also did not want to disappoint my friends because they started calling me Dr before I was registering for the PhD,” she said.

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