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Dikakapa-Everyday Heroes: Collet Dandara, PhD (associate Professor in Genetics)

Anyone can change their circumstances for the best, through hard work

I was born on the 22nd of September 1972 at Marondera Hospital, in the small town of Marondera, Mashonaland East Province of Zimbabwe. My father was working on one for the farms as a farm labourer. When I was 1 year, he was released from his work and we relocated to our ancestral land in what was then the places reserved for Black Africans. As far as I know, my father never got any other formal job except odds contracts here and there. I am second in a family of 8 children. Our family survived by small scale farming in on piece of land that we owned. We were the epitome of poverty in our area. However, we did not give up. With my elder sister, when I was at the level of grade 4, I started helping my parents to go and work in other people’s fields . This was where we got money for our everyday living.

As I grew up, I started taking up more responsible duties like looking after other people’s cattle during summer so that they do not stray into fields. When you are poor, you are at the receiving end, for any job that we did for anyone, selling our labour, we were so disenfranchised, who ever gave us what to do, would tell us how much they would pay and it was non-negotiable. We worked hard, but got very little in return but we persevered. Ironically, drinking tea, or just eating rice, was a luxury that we worked so hard for that it was only realised during special holidays like Christmas and Easter.

We lived among families of teachers, nurses and had exposure to relatives who were working in Harare who used to visit their families regularly. If anyone wanted anything done, however, menial, the first port of call would be our family. This would include things like fetching water for a major project, repairing thatched houses, looking after cattle, etc. When time came for me to go to school, it was a coincidence. I followed one of the children in our village that was a year older than me to school. I was not initially registered because I was supposed to attend the following year. However, after weeks of attending, I was asked to enrol. Thanks to the Zimbabwe Government, primary education was subsidized. However, the schools still required what was called “building fund”. I used to come from school , assist my parents with especially weeding in other people’s fields, to raise the fees for my schooling.

I went to primary school bare-foot , until fourth grade. I had my first school uniform in grade seven when I had asked one of the families if they would rather buy me uniform than give us money. For that we had to weed their fields, a situation that took us two full weeks of working in someone’s field. I must mention that we could not afford to buy paraffin for me to read at night, so reading at night was just out of the equation. Fortunately, in Zimbabwe, there are some days that people are traditionally not allowed to be working in the fields , I used these times to study, and study very hard. My parents were ridiculed in community gatherings because of the poverty. When I look back, I am so happy that I went through all this because it made me not want to live my life like this for the rest of my life. My inspiration was the poverty of our family. Because I had to read before sunset, it happened that I started completing all my home work at school during break and study times. The minimal time I got to read I used it effectively. After completing primary, I enrolled for secondary education.

With growing up I was able to do more demanding jobs which earned the family a little bit more money. I used to wake up at 3am to assist some of our neighbours with ploughing their fields before leaving for school at 7am. This way, they would also come and plough our piece of land. In terms of lunch at school, I used to bring roasted maize. The good thing about roasted maize is that when you eat, you start requiring lots of water to drink and this keeps you full. I participated in all activities at school that were required of me but was very dedicated to my school work.

At secondary, we started to be able to buy a bit of paraffin here and there, so that I could read at night. School fees at secondary was more demanding, one had to pay by a certain date, thus, many times during the start of the term, the bursar would come and flush out all those who had not paid fees. I was regularly among them. You were not allowed to come back without the money. I used this time of absence to help my parents to look chores to do to earn money to pay for fees. However, I used to wait for my classmates, ask for their notes every day and copy them and read them whenever I was not in class. Surprisingly, I always came out with good marks at the end of each term sometimes topping the class. In order to write the final secondary examinations, my parents had to borrow from all sides of the relatives and also work harder in the community. Some people in the community advised my father to stop looking for examination fees, because he could use that money to buy himself good clothes, instead, but he refused. I wrote the secondary school examinations, passed and was accepted to Advanced Level . This involved me moving away from home to Harare . However, I needed to first find out whom I was going to stay with before accepting this day scholarship.

My mother had to prepare home-brewed beer to sell so that we could raise bus fare for my trip and initial expenses. One of my relative accepted to offer me accommodation on terms they would discuss with my father. I only joined class in the second term, but did not lose focus. I was a product of a poor family and the only way to change the situation appeared to be through education. However, the demands for fees were getting steeper. In the beginning I was telling the school authorities that I will pay soon, I will pay soon until they got fed up. When I was about to be sent-off, they looked at my marks. They asked for my family history, and were asked to bring my father. I tracked back home. My dad agreed to accompany me back to Harare but, we had to wait until mom brew some more beer, sold and then we could use the proceeds of this sale to pay for our transport to Harare. After interviewing my father, I was offered a partial bursary. Uhhhh! What a development. My bursary was conditional on my marks every term. If I fail, the bursary would stop. I could not allow this to happen. My father continued to send the other half from home. My relative accommodating me did not request any payments for food and accommodation. Some of my relatives and community contacts whom I met in the big city would give me some small change to buy “drinks”. I used to save this, and occasionally used it to pay for the remaining fees. I passed my Advanced level with good marks. In Zimbabwe, during that time, if you passed you’re a-levels with good marks that meet the requirements for University, you would go to University for free to do your undergraduate degree using a loan that you would pay back only when you started working. I got in through that scheme. I worked on my first degree, and behaved like any other university students but never forgot where I came from; the poor family and this inspired me more.

I taught high school for six months and returned to so a Master’s degree, which led straight into a PhD degree. For PhD, I did some of my work in Stockholm, Sweden. After finishing the PhD I did further training called postdoctoral fellowship. After postdoctoral training, my first job was a lecturer at Wits University where I taught Genetics. Subsequently, I applied for a post at University of Cape as a Senior Lecturer, a position that I currently hold. I am supervising students who at different levels of training such as Honours, Masters, PhD and Postdocs. Currently I have 8 in10 in total. I have travelled extensively sharing my work in countries such as USA, Canada, UK, France, Hungary, Egypt, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Whenever I am in all these places, it does not escape my mind that with hard work, I have turned my circumstances. Anyone can change their circumstances for the best, through hard work.

Dikakapa- Everyday Heroes was started by a group of postgraduate students from the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town in January 2012, who identified a gap in the education of learners
from disadvantaged areas. They thought it imperative to devise an intervention program that will close this gap and provide some motivation and mentorship to these learners, through telling their own stories.


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