She was orphaned at 16, now has a PhD in neuroscience
After her parents died of Aids she beat the odds to put herself and her sisters through school
“Dare to dream, decide to be bold.”
Rachael Dangarembizi, 32, lives by these words, and she is proof that dreams can become reality.
At 16 she lost both parents to HIV, and with no family nearby she suddenly became the head of the family with her four younger siblings.
But she never let her circumstances determine her future, and this year she beat the odds to graduate with a PhD in neuroscience from Wits University in Johannesburg. Not only did she educate herself, she managed to put her sisters, Ellen, 25, Foliana, 22, and Novidade, 19, through school and send them to university.
Dangarembizi’s courageous story begins in Kuwadzana Extension, a township in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she and her siblings lived with her mother Christina Fernando Taela and stepfather Roberto Tennessee Chimuchenga, both originally from Mozambique. She never knew her father. “Because my parents were immigrants, they couldn’t get formal employment so we lived in a three-roomed house in the township and life was hard.
“We had to wake up before dawn to go to the small maize field and in the afternoon go out to sell dried fish by the roadside.”
She said that although their life was hard she and her siblings were very happy.
“My mother was my pillar of strength. She was a strong believer in education and strove and sacrificed all she had, and all she didn’t have too, to get me into a good school.”
Her mother’s sacrifice was not in vain. Dangarembizi was a brilliant student, coming top of her class in primary, secondary, high school and through to university. She received prizes for academic excellence in almost all her subjects.
But tragedy struck 16 years ago when her parents died within months of each other.
“During the time that my parents got sick ... there was so much stigma surrounding Aids, and families could not openly discuss it.
“First my stepfather [got ill] ... [then] my mother ... was bedridden and could not do much for herself.
“We only got to know they were HIV-positive after they had passed.”
Her little brother, Simbarashe, died tragically at around the same time, having been a sickly baby.
Dangarembizi said after her parents died life became even more difficult.
“I remember nights where I only scraped a meal for the youngest children because there was absolutely nothing in the home.
“I remember having to sell my own uniforms to raise money for my young sister to start primary school.”
She said there were many occasions when they were turned away from school because they had outstanding school fees. “Unfortunately, there was no one to take us in.” Determined to carry on with her schooling, Dangarembizi worked as a tutor and a shop assistant and also sold food and clothing to survive.
“I lived a life in which there was no security as to where your next meal, fees and other basic needs, like sanitary towels, etc, would come from. Worse still with the responsibility of siblings; their food, fees, clothes, accommodation. Bills were all my responsibility.”
She said people’s kindness helped her through the toughest time.
“I owe my gratitude to the so many people who helped me with material things, accommodation, opportunities and even psychological support to help me carry on.
“Twice during my first degree I could have dropped out due to lack of funds but through the university I got a merit-based scholarship to pay my tuition until I completed.”
“She graduated first in her class at the National University of Science and Technology in Harare and got a scholarship to Wits, where she completed her MSc and PhD.
She now lectures in neurophysiology at Mpilo Hospital Complex, a teaching hospital in Bulawayo, and lectures part time at the University of Johannesburg and Wits.
She is also involved in community service, and her passion is improving access to science education for students in low-resource settings, particularly rural students. “I believe that a student is as good as the opportunities given them.”
Dangarembizi said she had always known she wanted to be a scientist and was proud to have realised her dream.
Lois Harden spoke highly of Dangarembizi.
“Rachael was my PhD student in the Brain Function Research Group (2014-17), and she took up a doctoral research project focusing on the characterisation of the neuroinflammatory responses to fungal infection.
“Rachael was a self-motivated and hardworking student with a pleasant personality. During her PhD studies Rachael won various prizes and grants at both local and international conferences where she presented her work.
“With a positive attitude coupled with a great work ethic, I believe Rachael is well-positioned for a good future in scientific research,” Harden said.
Dangarembizi said what really defined her success was having put all her sisters through school and watching them excel in university. Ellen is currently studying human resources management at Midlands State University (MSU), Foliana is studying tourism and hospitality management at MSU, and Novidade is studying biotechnology at the National University of Science and Technology.
Dangarembizi’s dreams did not stop at university.
“I want to be a full professor by 40 and by then to have my own research lab doing cutting-edge research and consultancy on brain function matters.
“I am motivated by being a part of the solutions to Africa’s current and future problems. I believe that it is possible for us Africans to develop good healthcare systems and to alleviate the burden of disease and poverty on the quality of life; the possibility of it all is what keeps me going.
“I live by this saying by Goethe: ‘Boldness has genius, power and magic to it.’
“Provision follows decision. Whatever you decide to do, begin it and providence will move in your favour.”