SEROPANE ‘ABNER’ LESOKA’S STORY

At 14, Seropane ‘Abner’ Lesoka found himself alone, orphaned and living in a freezing cold cardboard shack in one of Alexandra’s most notorious areas.  But he had a lifeline – the Alexandra Education Committee who, under the personal guidance of Director, Tom Clarke, and the particularly generous sponsorship of Charities Unlimited, recognised Abner’s drive and thirst for knowledge. The AEC then stepped in to support and guide him to where he is today – a first year medical student at Wits University.

“Some feel the rain, others get wet”, Abner Lesoka

“Becoming part of the AEC changed my life.  I always knew the importance of working hard but suddenly I had something to work towards.  A bursary that would see me leave my school in Alex and go to Highlands North Boys’ School where I stood a better chance of a good matric,” explains softly spoken Lesoka.  “In grade seven I had applied but failed to get the bursary, so when in grade eight I got accepted I knew I was going to make the most of it.”  But fate took a hand and six months into the school year Abner’s mother became sick and passed away within days.  “This was a very big blow to me.  At first I was able to stay with my uncle in Edenvale in a storeroom the company he worked for owned.  But by the end of the year he lost his job and it looked like I would have to give up my bursary and go to stay with my grandmother in Tzaneen.

“I’d worked so hard to get this far I decided I’d try and make it on my own and that was when the loneliness really struck.” Abner soon became sick staying in this cardboard shack with no protection from the winter weather.  “I was reluctant to tell the AEC about my situation and somehow I survived and carried on working as hard as I could.”

AEC – MORE THAN JUST EXTRA LESSONS…

It was only when his AEC maths teacher Kate Wong noticed that his marks were going down that she asked what was wrong.  “I didn’t really want to tell her and was embarrassed when I was called in as without any money to buy soap I was wearing a dirty shirt.  This was when I knew had no choice – I had to explain my situation.  This was really hard for me as I was used to keeping everything inside.  I still battle with this.  Even today when things become tough I don’t let people see.”

This was where AEC came to the rescue in the form of John Barrow, whose company Barrow Construction were involved in sponsoring the organisation.  “The AEC told me one of their pupils was in need of help so I organised to meet Abner at McDonalds just up the road from his school,” explains John.  I remember both of us were a little awkward at first but we made an arrangement to meet weekly and as we got to know each other our relationship went from strength to strength.”

The first thing John did in his role as mentor was to print 100 flyers which Abner delivered to houses near his school seeking accommodation.  “When we had no luck with the first 100 we tried another 50 but still nothing,” said Abner.

This was when John came up with a solution.  “I built him a small flat at my workshop in Wynberg, not too far out of his comfort zone and not too far from school.  It was then I saw he was something really special.”

HARDSHIP JUST MADE ME STRONGER

With the R500 a month stipend Abner received from AEC he managed to feed himself and travel to school and back each day.  “When my mother died I learnt to shop, cook and look after myself and I’ve always been frugal so I managed fine. I’ve always known that working hard at my studies is the only way to make my life better.  I also realised that my work ethic inspired others and I used to give extra lessons, even in English which wasn’t my best subject,” he recalls smiling.  “When I started at Highlands North Boys’ School I couldn’t speak English and my Afrikaans was non-existent.  I got zero for my first Afrikaans test but managed to get an “A’ for Matric.”

This explains Abner in a nutshell.  Set him a challenge and he knows the answer – hard work and dedication which led to him receiving five distinctions in matric and a place to study medicine at Wits.  Why medicine we asked Abner?  “My mother, whilst working as a waitress at Milky Lane and holding down a second job enrolled to study nursing.  She finally got her nursing diploma and had just started her first nursing job two weeks before she died.  In grade seven I’d also read about Dr Christian Barnard and his work which definitely influenced me.  I knew then that I’d have to work very hard to get into medicine which I did, although I know the next nine years are going to hold many challenges still.”

THE GOLDEN RULES

For Abner challenges are just hurdles to clear along the way and with his beloved grandmother’s four rules of life foremost in his mind he has no doubts about the journey ahead.  “She told me that even in the dark days you have to keep going.  And that I must always show respect and humble myself. She said if you make yourself the least you’ll be the greatest.  Next was that a man plans his ways but the Lord directs his steps.  So I plan what I want and make my request known to God, who will help me.  So although I worked hard it wasn’t me alone. The fourth rule is the most important.  I must know myself and not try to be other people.  I must be true to myself and my heart.  My mother also taught me not to be afraid to say no when I didn’t want to do something.  It’s stood me in good stead with my peers.”

FIVE LIFE CHANGING MINUTES

So how did he feel that moment when he heard his matric results?  “I was in Nylstroom with the Barrow family at their farm when I heard the news but as it was 2am I didn’t want to wake John.  I waited until the sun came up and told them.  I was so happy and he was thrilled,” recalls Abner. “When I heard my matric results I looked back thinking ‘how did I get here?’ I sensed a deep pride in me as I’m the first person in my family to go to university.”

It was also moment John Barrow will never forget.  “We’d been having signal problems and when he told me in the morning we were all so excited but double checked the message and then literally a few moments later another message came through to say he’d got into medicine at Wits.  What an amazing few minutes,” recalls John.

RUNNING THROUGH THE PAIN

It’s not all work and no play though for this spirited young man.  “I started running at primary school, mostly sprinting but today with John’s help in buying me running shoes, I now do long distance running which I look at as my therapy.  I remember when I stayed in Edenvale running from the taxi rank to home and then when my mother died I found running through the pain and loneliness helped prepare me to stay strong when things got tough.  I can run even if it’s hard and I can study even when I feel I can’t anymore.  John’s also encouraged me to take up paddling and canoeing and when I get a chance I swim at Zoo Lake.

And John Barrow, together with AEC were not the only ones who saw that special spark in Abner.  “I’ve been teaching for many years at AEC but with Abner what struck me was his persistence,” explains Abner’s maths teacher Kate Wong.  “He’d phone me at least once a week and say ‘you know question 3.1 – could we just go over that again?  How do you solve it?  I’d have to pick up my file and go through it with him.  Looking back I’m not sure if he wanted an adult to chat to or it was just the maths.  Whatever it was somehow he found the connection with me.”

“Both Abner and his friend, Nhlanhla Mphuthi, who also got into medicine at Wits together never missed a single Saturday school, even when their school friends would be having a fun day at school.  The AEC meant so much to him because he knew without it he would probably have gone to live with his grandmother in rural Limpopo and that would have been the end of his dreams,” adds Kate.

With a scholarship from Make a Difference Leadership Foundation and a bursary from Wits, covering Abner’s tuition and accommodation the future looks good.  But Abner’s fully aware of not taking his foot off the pedal just yet.  “I take it each day at a time.  I know I need to walk before I can run.  I know that more than anything I need to make myself happy – that’s the most important thing.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORS

“It’s hard to put into words what John and his family mean to me.  He’s been a mentor, counsellor, a father – my right-hand man.  His family are like my family.  I don’t know what I did to deserve them.  They are a true blessing.”

The story for Abner and John however is far from over.  For the first few weeks of varsity John has kept a close eye on Abner, who at times felt overwhelmed with the massive transition from high school to medical school.  “We’ve both been shocked at how hard he’s had to work since starting at Wits.  He was quite overawed at first but I try to reassure him.  I’ve told him not to panic – to try and relax.  His biggest challenge is not to put too much pressure on himself because we both know he’ll get there…

“Everything I’ve ever done for him has just been so rewarding.  He’s embraced and appreciated everything.  It’s so easy to help someone when they deserve the help and make the most of it.”

As his Headmaster at Highlands North Boys’ School, Meneer Mokgalaka, so rightly said: “He will be a giant one day.”