Jeppe High School for Boys Matriculant Graduation Ceremony
I was honoured to be a guest speaker during the matriculation validation at Jeppe High School for Boys on Friday late afternoon and truly humble to be a VIP speaker. The boys were amazing and truly education is the only equalizer for a better generation.
Dr Taban’s message to the boys: ‘Life is A Journey’
‘Failure is to triumph’….. Not in the next step you take but in the many steps ahead.
You probably didn’t expect failure to be the first words I spoke and initially neither did I, especially not to a group of matriculating students
I actually don’t think that there’s anyone in this world that hates failing more than me. But it was all my failures that took me from that street child to one of the top 100 most influential people in Africa for 2020. It is in the determination to prove the statistics wrong, the dream to be a success and the desire to get what you want that makes failure so powerful.
Like Thomas Edison I just found all the ways that didn’t work before I found the one that did.
Right now you will walk out of here feeling like you conquered the world and you have definitely conquered something but your personal journey in the world has just begun. Through the years you have shown determination and consistency in the pursuit of education. For that I congratulate you.
You are probably so excited about the thought of ‘freedom’ that you have already started making plans with your friends about all the things you are going to do. This can be both a daunting and exciting task and both feelings are essential in your journey.
Often as I sit at my desk at corner office at Mediclinic Midstream, I think back to the time in my life when I was destitute. A boy who spent many days and nights alone on the road, in prisons, sleeping on pavements without any idea where my next meal would come from. Even to me, the life I have lived and the challenges that I have overcome, compared to the life I live today, sometimes feels unreal and to many of you it may even seem exaggerated. What was driving me? What was I trying to escape from? And why flee my home country? I hope that the answer to these questions can also inspire you
Freedom is the word that most students use at the end of Grade 12. ‘The freedom to do whatever you want’. I’m not sure if it was my fortunate or unfortunate life circumstance that made me realise very quickly that you are far from free. Life out there is tough, and the ‘dream of freedom’ quickly becomes close to impossible when you are responsible for the financial costs of all those wants.
Suddenly that newly launched dream car you planned on buying with the Harman Kardon surround sound and AMG kits turns into a second-hand basic structure on wheels that takes you to that very unfancy behind the counter, sometimes menial task employment that you definitely didn’t picture in your dream. But it is that very job that pays those car instalments, rent for that barely furnished lack of sea view apartment and possible student fees that will one day get you out of that employment and 1 step closer to that dream car. The one thing that you do have complete freedom about is your next move on the chess board of life.
It’s hard to believe that as I stand in front of you today as a father, a husband married to my beautiful wife, and as one of the leading pulmonologists in the country– that I was once a South Sudanese refugee street child. That I, the very same person who you see here today once had no shelter, no food, no family, and no future.
But what has my achievements and success got to do with you and your future? ……. You are probably right – It has nothing to do with you but everything to do with what you take from my words and the direction you choose to follow.
I started employment as a gardener without the confines of 4 walls in order to get me to where I stand today. And if I can make that happen with hard work and persistence and realising that no task is too menial to get you where you want to go then so can you. The road from A to B is not always smooth especially on our famous South African pothole decorated highways. In my life I hit many potholes and burst many tyres.
One day after leaving work, as a doctor with my very own private medical practice I called the most important man in my life, my father figure guardian, saying that I was ready to quit the place I was working at. It was the colleague rivalry, racial associated differences in beliefs, feelings of not being welcomed and feeling like an outcast that drove me to the idea of wanting to quit. The next few words that came out of my guardian’s mouth were ones that not only changed my life but will remain with me forever. He sat me down and made me watch a horse race and by the time I watched the winning horse cross the finish line, with such finesse and agility, I had forgot about our discussion. It was then that he turned to me and said “Did you notice how the winning horse always looked straight ahead and never looked to the side. Even when there is a collision with the adjacent horses the winning horse always looks straight ahead. You are like a horse in a race. When you look around you will get distracted, lose focus and your pace with its trajectory will change taking you of course from the finish line. You run your own race, no one around you matters because they are running their own race.” It was this statement that made me realise that I need to overcome my issues and keep on my track, focus on looking forward no matter what surrounds me and be responsible for all my actions without blaming the world around me. Unfortunately, we live in an unfair discriminatory world and that should only make us stronger to fight for the truth and justice, not give up like I almost did.
Before I reached the age of 18, I had been jailed 5 times, I had been beaten by strangers and I had been tortured by soldiers. I was even rejected by those that I thought I could rely on including members of my own family. I had spent more days and nights than I can remember on the streets, without food or a roof over my head. Before I turned 18, I had walked close to 6000 kilometres from my home country in South Sudan to Eritrea, onto Tanzania and then to Mozambique until I finally landed up in South Africa a month before I turned 18. You might wonder why after surviving all of that I was ready to quit a thriving private practice. The answer is easy – sometimes in life you get so tired of fighting that you eventually feel weak and tired. Like a boxer on the 12th round of a fight. He is bruised, beaten and exhausted but if he gives up now it would have made all that effort and time useless.
In the last 2 years COVID has become a huge pothole in all our lives and completely changed the way we live. Africa had the fortune of a low mortality rate compared to European countries which is associated with our younger generation however the effects on our economy have been far more devastating as compared to Europe. The youth in the rest of the developed world are a source of development, inspiration, innovation and stability. They are fathered by the wise older generation resulting in the future of good leaders. At the time of my birth my father had divorced my mother leaving me to grow up with a single parent. As much as I will forever be grateful for the role my mum played in my life there was always something missing. There’s something special about growing up in a home with 2 parents – maybe it’s the different roles that a man and woman play in a child’s growth, maybe it’s the stability of a family unit or maybe just the feeling of completeness but whatever it is I know that’s it’s definitely comforting to not have to feel like you were abandoned because you were not good enough. 60 % of our black South African population entered into this world fatherless. We as the men of our country need to change the cycle of accepted social standards. We need to create that warm, loving, safe and dependable environment teaching and guiding our children to become strong and independent adults based on merit. Training them to see that hard work and justice is much more rewarding than the repetitive cycle of crime and injustice. To not blame each other but work together as one rainbow nation striving to be a 1st world country. We need to be ever present fathers building a nation that we can be proud of.
When I arrived in South Africa at the age of 18, I had no documentation and a total of five years of formal schooling and education. I realized that I needed to further my education to unlock my potential. In 1997, I completed my matric with quite low marks and I was unable to do the course of my choice at university. By that time, I was already 20 years old with an inadequate matric certificate. I decided to repeat grade 12 to improve my marks so that I would be able to complete the degree of my choice and fulfil MY potential.
In January 1998 I approached Jeppe high school for boys in hopes that they could accommodate me and allow me to repeat my matric. The odds were against me for many reasons including my age as well as the fact that I had no money, I had already completed matric once before and I was an undocumented refugee. At this moment the door was closed on my future, but I refused to accept that, so I decided to look through the keyhole of life’s door to find any opportunity to accomplish that dream.
I went to the deputy headmaster Mr Peter Ross and surprisingly, he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. How many people in this room have had a door close on their future and gave up without fighting for themselves and what they wanted just because the road ahead looked difficult or because it seemed impossible to find a way around the door that had just closed. How many people have given up on certain ideas because they feel like the system is working against them because of their race?
Let me tell you today, when you are young, you are capable of doing anything if you never think of a door as locked, even if it is closed. Sometimes the door seems locked at first glance but before you turn away push it gently and you might be surprised to learn that you don’t even need a key to open it.
You alone hold the key to your own future. This key can unlock more doors than you might think, provided you persevere. You all have a fighting spirit within you, and you are all capable of achieving something great.
When I was 16 years old, I was penniless, and had just been released from prison in Eretria. I was handed over to the United Nations to be put in a refugee camp. I would have gone five years without education or skills development, while waiting for resettlement in one of the first world countries, probably as a future labourer. Basically, I was going to become a statistic for the United Nations. At that time, I had to decide whether I wanted to be dependant like the rest of Africans on the United
Nations or to take matters into my own hands and make something out of my own life.
Today, as an 18-year-old who is finishing matric, you have to start making difficult decisions about your future. The difference is that you are better equipped than I was at your age. I only had five years of schooling, but you are sitting here about to obtain your matric certificate.
The decision lies with you to change your circumstance, your future and become something in this world, a leader. You get to decide if you become an agent of change, an innovator, a developmental agent, OR do you want to be dependant or fall victim to the justice system. You have a choice to become an Invictus rather than a victim. A builder rather than a destructor. To choose diversity over segregation. To build this country to become the best in the world or to isolate yourself on your own island. The power is in your hands. South Africa needs you. Africa needs you. The world needs you.
But do not think that South Africa, Africa, or the world owes you anything because they do not. Rather, you owe South Africa, Africa, and the world everything that you can give it.
It takes all the different skills and talents combined, no matter how big or small, to make a better world. We all have a different potential and purpose in our lives. Some may rise to be famous and financially successful and others with their quiet and private personalities perform amazing things behind the scenes. Success is achieving YOUR ultimate goal.
During my journey from South Sudan to South Africa, I found myself in Mozambique and those who know geography well, the nearest border to cross into South Africa is at Komatipoort, which was 200km away from where I was. However, there were countless foreigners who, like me, were trying to cross over into South Africa without documentation at this border.
Another border that I knew of was Beitbridge which lies between Zimbabwe and South Africa. It was 1 667km away from where I was and to be honest, I didn’t know if the border was less busy, but I decided to make a snap decision to follow the uncharted road of long distance and unpromised rewards. For me, it happened to be the right choice and I crossed the border without problems. Despite it taking much longer it was worthwhile.
I chose long distance over short, discomfort over comfort, unknown over known. How many people here today are trying to find the fastest route to success instead of investing in yourself to build a future over time? How many of you would stray into corruption just because it led to money in the short run? How many of you want to do shorter courses in hopes of making money faster? I urge you today to reconsider your decisions in terms of finding a career that can improve your life and help you to move forward. Perhaps you need to invest in skills that are unpopular.
Regardless of what it is, you should never choose a career to satisfy your parents or your peers. Choose a career for yourself and one that will most importantly bring the best out of you.
In 1995, I attempted to go to Kenya for the first time which went horribly wrong, and I ultimately failed. The most important thing is that failure is not final until you make it so. I refused to fail that time and through the correction of those mistakes, my second attempt was a success. Rather try and fail than fail to try.
During my first attempt I was robbed by a police officer of all of my belongings and money. I was humiliated and thrown back in Ethiopia with nothing. No money, no food and no shelter. At only 17 years old I had to once again make an important choice about my priorities. I decided to work at a local restaurant to get food and a place to rest my head. As a young man that is finishing matric today, you might have to make a lot of difficult choices in your life, but make sure to prioritise your basic needs whenever these decisions arise. These basic needs are dependent on your situation and are ever-changing. The ability to know what your basic needs are and to always prioritise them is a skill that is irreplaceable.
As an adult, you need to be independent, which may mean developing skills such as painting, building, or plumbing to support yourself and maintain your basic needs while in pursuit of something else that you are passionate about.
After being rejected by my family who I thought had my best interests at heart at the young age of 17, I felt alone. A can of Coco Cola with the label “Manufactured in South Africa” gave me fresh hope and is what inspired me to start my new journey to South Africa. I have learned that as a young person the signs for success are all out there, it is up to you to interpret them and allow them to lead you to your destination.
If you are rejected from the degree or job of your choice maybe it was never meant to be your destiny, at least not for the time being. Never take rejection as a dead end, always a redirection. Use it to propel yourself forward on a new path to success. None of us see things the same way and we all have different journeys, so learn to trust your instincts and never compare your journey to someone else’s. Our journeys are never meant to be the same as our parents or peers. You are special and you are meant to do great things. My journey from South Sudan to South Africa was all in the pursuit of education and to escape the crime and atrocity in Juba.
My motto in Life that has kept me reaching for the stars is Passion, Determination, and Consistency. May your journey take you through paths uncharted and may you be truly happy at its end … with all the joys, failures and losses that go in between.
May the individuality that makes you alone in this world be the driving force to your own success. Aristotle said, “you are what you repeatedly do therefore excellence ought to be a habit not an act”.
Always Dream that impossible dream – sometimes it might be the longest keyhole you might look through and it might not come easy but if you never lose focus, expect some failure and always have determination you might just make that dream a reality. True success is the ability to go beyond those borders you feel confined to, to go one step further than expectations, To prove that you have the potential to be the best, To perform every action with all your heart, To never lose your moral values, and most importantly to Never lose sight of that finish line. Like Albert Einstein once said – “You never fail until you stop trying”
One bitter cold winters night whilst lying on the side of the street minimally clothed, without the comfort of a bed, the warmth of a blanket or any nourishment in my stomach I realised that this was not going to be my destiny. My destiny was going to be made by me and not the world. So never give up on your journey of purpose and make yours happen