Joseph Maisels


It is often said that it takes a major life event to make you evaluate yourself, where you are going, and to take your life more seriously. This was true for Joseph Maisels. Sickness was his wake up call to turn his life around and reach the potential he always had.

Joseph, 22, from Elsies River, grew up in an area where many young people don’t complete their studies, where unemployment is high and where it’s believed that having goals is only for dreamers. Joseph was on the brink of falling into that pattern.

‘At a young age I often played in the streets with kids who were naughty. I knew they were, but I joined them anyway. Fortunately, when they started trying alcohol and hanging around the gangsters, my parents could see that it was not healthy for me, at the age of eight, to be with this group. They made sure that I started to distance myself from them.’

Despite the distance, Joseph still found himself getting into trouble at school. ‘I was the school clown. While I didn’t want to follow the gang life, I still wanted to fit in and for many years I did not take school seriously. If there were fights I would get involved and even encourage them to happen.’

In grade 10, Joseph received his final warning from the principal for once again being part of a group of learners who often made trouble in the school. He was warned that if he continued to mix with the group, he would end up being expelled.

This proved to be a turning point for Joseph. ‘I took my studies more seriously and became involved in the positive elements of school life,’ he says. ‘I also turned to music and used my skills as a rapper to deal with my frustrations in a more positive manner. I was frustrated by having to live in a dangerous community; I was frustrated by the financial constraints at home and I was frustrated because I longed to fit in. My music group took the opportunity to make music about overcoming challenges and to motivate other learners not to give up. Teachers and students began to trust me and I started to do much better.’

Joseph matriculated and was granted a full scholarship to TSiBA Education in 2010 to do a degree in Business Administration in Entrepreneurial Leadership. But despite this achievement, he was not reaching his potential, and his lecturer saw this. ‘At the end of my first year, I got an average of 72%,’ he says. ‘This was good, but I was told that, with a bit more work, I could achieve a Cum Laude for my degree meaning “with honours”. For the first time, someone had seen my true potential, even if I didn’t believe in it.’

However, Joseph began to fall ill at the end of that year. By the time he started his second year in 2011, he was taking more and more time off from studies. ‘I knew I was sick,’ he says. ‘Many people didn’t believe me; they thought I was just using illness as an excuse. I was reluctant to approach my parents as I knew they couldn’t afford medial treatment. I felt stuck and I was getting worse each day, not knowing what was wrong with me.’

Joseph was experiencing severe digestive problems and intense abdominal pain. The then student counselor Dorothea Hendricks, known as Mama D, noticed his dramatic weight loss and absence from class and was able to arrange for Joseph to see a doctor. ‘After the consultation I was referred to a hospital where they ran many tests. I had never been ill like this before; I felt helpless and out of control.’

Joseph had to stop studying, as he was unable to attend classes due to his illness. He was finally diagnosed after six months. ‘I found a doctor who had a child who suffered from similar symptoms. He suggested that I might have Celiac Disease, a digestive and autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the lining of the small intestine when foods containing gluten are eaten. I was relieved to finally know what was wrong with me.’

The discovery was bittersweet for Joseph, who loves to cook for his family and at first was not aware of all the options. ‘My diet became extremely bland. Even a grain of gluten was enough to make me severely sick. I went through a phase of still feeling depressed and at times excluded. Sharing food is a big part of my family’s culture and now I wasn’t able to be part of it.’

Joseph became more and more despondent, questioning whether he would be able to complete his degree. Then he remembered some advice that the doctor’s daughter had given him: take some time off from life. And this is exactly what Joseph did. He borrowed some money and went to visit relatives in Namibia.

‘I took three months off,’ he says. ‘I enjoy being on the road and this break gave me time to assess my life, what I was doing, where I was going and how to not let this disease ruin my chances. One person who inspired me a lot was my aunt. She was one of the first in the family to get a degree and a good job. She told me I needed to go back and finish what I had started and do well.’

By the end of 2011, Joseph had learned to manage his condition and was feeling well enough to return to his studies. ‘I came back in 2012 with a new lease on life and a determination to achieve. The words ‘Cum Laude’ became my goal, making me strive to do the best I can. In the past two years I have been in the top 2% of my class with an average of 81% each year. Finally, I am reaching my true potential. I’ve set clear goals: I want to make a success of my life so that I can support my family. One day, I want to be a lecturer and an activist to achieve equal education in South Africa.’

Joseph is a student at TSiBA

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