DO NOT TAKE YOUR BLESSINGS FOR GRANTED
Vuyani Kunelisi has learnt that every decision counts in the bigger scheme of things and that taking the time to carefully think about the choices one makes, is a big part of designing the life you desire.
Vuyani (21) was born in Cape Town and grew up in Nyanga. Over the years he has moved a few times.
“I have four siblings, an older brother who is 26 years old, a younger brother after me who is 18 and twin sisters who are 17 years old. I am the second born. At first, we lived in a shack* from my birth until I was four or five. After that, we moved to a house where we were renting. Then we acquired a plot of land on which we put up a shack before starting to build our house which is where we live now.”
“When I was in Grade 1 my little sisters and younger brother moved to the Eastern Cape to stay with my grandmother. They came back after two years, to start Primary school. I’m not sure why they went but I think it was because of our living situation and because my parents couldn’t support all of us. Both of my parents worked, my father as a driver and my mother as a tea lady.”
Vuyani recalls that his formative years were happy days spent playing with his friends and doing chores.
“We had to walk a distance to get water. Me and my brother had to fetch the water before everyone went to sleep so that in the morning everyone could wash. Sometimes we used a supermarket trolley and we would put a lot of buckets in there which we would fill at the water point. But we didn’t always have the trolley. So we would each take a five-litre bucket, fill those up and go home and empty them into a 40-litre bucket which we had inside the shack. We would do several trips like this until the 40-litre bucket was full.”
“When it rained in the shack we had to put buckets out to catch the water where it leaked. When we moved to the house none of that happened. It was quite an improvement. Since both of my parents were working at the time we even had a nanny. The food we ate was different, my father even baked for us sometimes. We stayed in the house for one and a half years. But then we moved back into a shack when my parents got a plot of land.”
His parents were on the housing list and that is how they acquired the plot of land.
“I didn’t resist the move and accepted it. The living conditions were way worse. It was one step forward and two steps back. We were sharing toilets with neighbours. For example, we would go next door to use the bucket system*. It was five houses using the same system. We didn’t have showers and had to use a ‘waskom’*. Every morning when you wake up you have to wait for the others to finish washing before it’s your turn. I was so used to that life. I never questioned our standard of living because that was the only reality I knew.”
“My parents began building the family house soon after they got the land. My father left his job as a driver and started up a paving business. We were renting the shack where we stayed behind a church member’s house. However, the cost of building our home and paying rent at the same time proved too costly. My family then moved to another church member’s home where we could stay for free but my parents’ pride meant we didn’t stay long and they made the decision to move into the unfinished house that they were building.”
“There was no ceiling, only the roof. The doors and the windows were there but you could see things were not complete. My parents finished the house piece by piece over the years.”
During the first winter, the family discovered that the roof was not levelled properly and the house flooded, forcing the entire family to sleep in the only room which was not leaking.
“We were not complaining. It was fun. My younger brother is funny and we would sit and talk and laugh. My parents were stressed. I could see that.”
“Our house is now completed, we have a garage, lounge, kitchen, my parent’s room, a room I share with my big brother and another room will be for my little sisters and younger brother.”
The area was not safe and Vuyani recalls that crime was a regular occurrence.
“The area itself is quite dangerous. They would break into houses often. There were ongoing gang fights. You would be sleeping and you would be woken by gunshots, even today that still happens. But at the end of the day, it is our home. My parents were strict about us going outside.”
Vuyani recalls growing up happy in a stable family which celebrated the small milestones together.
“Once we went out when it was my mother’s birthday. It was my first time at the Spur*. I was seven years old at the time! Every night before I go to sleep my mom and I would be chatting or I would rub her back. We were so close. My father likes making jokes. As a couple, my parents looked very in love. On Saturdays, they would play music and dance together, and they were always like that.”
Academically, Vuyani always excelled.
“School for me, well, I got a pass there! I was one of the best. Things were easy for me. My grades were good. I made friends easily though people would tease me about my weight because I was obese. But I was fine with it. I guess I was fine with it because most teachers loved me because I was so bright.”
The Church played a huge role in Vuyani’s life. He would attend every day. His father was a pastor at the Church.
“On different days you go for different things. I was in the choir and now I’m not that shy person because I’m used to standing in front of a group of people. I find it easy to interact with new people. We were encouraged to bring someone new to church so I was used to seeing new faces all the time. It groomed me with people skills.”
In Grade 8, Vuyani suffered a health setback.
“I was obese. I was always the chubby guy growing up. One of my legs was not straight and as time went by it was getting worse. My mom took me to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital to check what was happening and the doctor said it needed to be fixed because it would get worse. I had to have an operation to straighten the leg. I stayed in hospital for four months. During that time, I wasn’t allowed to get out of bed. It was quite hard. Missing school drained me. The surgery was done at Maitland Cottage home and that’s where I recovered.”
“Teachers would come to the hospital to teach kids but the teachers were teaching Grade seven and below, so for me, it did not help as I was in an upper grade. We were all kids there so we would play around and laugh. There were also those long nights when my leg would be paining. After the four months I spent in bed, I was allowed to walk around with crutches and I had sessions with the physiotherapist. I had to practice walking with the crutches and sometimes I would use the wheelchair. After a few weeks, I was released with crutches. I didn’t like it at all. I was able to walk but it was hard for me.”
The road to recovery after the surgery was challenging for Vuyani.
“Every time I would put my leg down it would hurt. As soon as I got home I made sure that I went to school with crutches. I spent two months learning to walk with crutches. There were nights I couldn’t sleep and it got to the point where I was taken back to the day hospital because I was in a lot of pain. All they did was put a dressing on and give me painkillers. They thought I had an infection. So every two days they needed to refresh the dressing. That’s what I did until they took the metal out of my leg a month after I had been released from hospital. It took me back to square one, I had to learn to walk again because it was still sore after they removed the metal.”
Despite Vuyani’s lengthy stay in hospital he passed the September exams.
“When it came to my final exams that year, I was no longer using my crutches anymore. I wasn’t walking perfectly, I was still dragging my feet. I didn’t do any sports. But I don’t like sports. I’m all about academics. My marks were low but at least I passed. At the time, my aunt’s friend’s daughter attended the Cape Academy of Maths, Science and Technology in Constantia and she applied for me to get in. At the interview, they review your marks and the principal was not impressed but then my aunt explained what I had endured during the year and that I had still passed. He was quite impressed. We brought the doctors notes to show him. After that, he said; ‘Go back home and fetch your clothes. You can move into the hostel.’
Boarding school was new for Vuyani and he had to adapt. Every weekend he would visit home.
“There were five in the room I was in. We got along fine. Most of the kids were from Cape Town. The houses around the school were mansions. It was different for me seeing it and the trees were all over. Even the wind was different. At some point, I thought I was crazy because I would think of myself living in one of those houses. My mind would go to the future where I lived in a house like that with a car.”
“I could see how beautiful Cape Town was before, but I’d never been that close. At my high school, all I was exposed to were black kids but at the new school, there was so much diversity. When I got there my English was not that good and I made sure to improve. I remember the first morning I woke up there, I was confused! I woke up and took a shower. We went to eat breakfast and you had to stand in a line. At home, I’m used to having breakfast that is pap* and that’s it, breakfast done. At the boarding school, there were choices like Weetabix, cornflakes and then you make some tea and have some fruit. I thought; ‘So this is just breakfast? All this variety of things is just breakfast!’ At the Academy, there was no bell to signal the next period. You had to keep time yourself. At home, my parents would wake me up to go to school. There I had to make sure I woke up on time to attend class.”
Overall, Vuyani felt happy that he was attending the Academy.
“I felt like I just spent six months in hospital with other kids and for me, it kind of prepared me for boarding school where I would be staying with other kids for the whole year. In some way, I missed home. I was used to living with my parents and leaving my parents was quite hard. My parents were happy about me attending the school.”
Vuyani had no idea how he would pay the school’s fees.
“I didn’t have an idea of how the fees were going to be paid. My parents had faith that since I was accepted into the school, they would see me achieving high marks and that I would then get a bursary. My thinking was… just get in there.”
The first year at the Academy, Vuyani achieved four distinctions. Even though he didn’t get a bursary, Vuyani didn’t have to pay fees except for the R500 hostel fee every term.
In Grade 10, Vuyani decided to lose weight. He was advised by doctors that his weight was causing pressure on his leg that was operated on.
“The school had a gym and that’s when I decided to hit the gym. When I started gyming, I was friends with one of those buff guys. He said if you really want to lose weight then you have to start with the field and we went to the field and he would make me sweat! It was quite soon after I started that exercise routine that I lost weight and I’ve kept it off. He was also limiting my eating. Since our dinner was at 5pm every day, we had the habit of taking food with us to our rooms since lights out was at 10pm. He told me; ‘Not you, you don’t bring food to the bedroom.’
While Vuyani was doing his Grade 10 his family was hit by financial insecurity.
“My father who had returned to full-time employment as a driver lost his job and my mom got retrenched shortly afterwards. She began to work two days a week only. From there, things went south. After they got retrenched, we struggled financially. I knew they would give me R200 when I visited home on the weekends. That would be money for transport and to spend but they gave me exactly the amount for taxi fare. My parents were the type of people who would sit us down and tell us what was happening. My brother at the time was on an NSFAS bursary at University. There was so much tension in the house. I don’t like distractions so I tried not to think about it.”
It was during this period that Vuyani witnessed his parents fight in front of him for the first time.
“That stressed me out a lot. I’ve never seen my father shouting at my mother. They were always calm. That fight got to me. I went to school after that weekend. That week was the awards ceremony for our Grade for the September exams. I had three distinctions and one merit. As they were calling out my name, I walked onto the stage and then, it was lights out for me.”
“Next thing I woke up in hospital. My whole family was there. For me, that was quite life-changing. When I left for school my parents were fighting and then boom they were all together. I was happy that my parents were both there. They apologized to me for what happened and they promised it won’t happen again. From then, until now I’ve never seen them fight. The doctors suspected it was a heart attack but the test couldn’t confirm that it was. It was not clear what the cause was, but maybe stress combined with my new lifestyle. I spent one and a half weeks in the hospital for monitoring.”
Grade 12 was the year of exploration and discovery for Vuyani.
“In Grade 12 the school is not allowed to kick you out. So that was the time I started exploring life. I started smoking cigarettes, drinking and going out. In that year at the school, I was considered a senior. I guess it was peer pressure. Over the years at school, they knew me as that church person. Every time when I went back to school on Sunday, I would be in my suit from having been at Church. Most of my roommates did those things, so I wanted to finally try it.”
“My grades that year were not what I wanted because I went out a lot. I passed with a strong bachelor pass but with no distinctions. I was quite angry with myself. I really disappointed my parents. They were expecting a lot. They saw that on Saturdays I was going out and getting out of hand. They just sat me down and said that I’ve disappointed them and that I needed to change my ways.”
“After I passed my matric I enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) for electrical engineering. I did that for two years. The first year I was fine. I passed with distinction and then the second year the same thing that happened in Grade 12, happened again. I was living in res with my older brother who was at the University of the Western Cape. I was squatting with him, so I did not need to pay for residence. But during my second year, I began going out with my new friends. I would even be too lazy to go to classes. That messed it up for me. Most of my maths tests would be on Saturdays. My friends would walk in and I would be tempted to go with them. Maybe I would go to the study hall but my mind was with them, so I was unable to concentrate. I missed three tests because I didn’t wake up for them. I failed two modules and then I was excluded. I couldn’t tell my parents. I appealed and then I was accepted back. But I did not learn the lesson and I did the same thing again. I failed a major and the Technicon wouldn’t take me back.”
Vuyani had to face his parents with the news.
“I told my parents and they were so angry with me. I felt bad that I had disappointed them. They expected that my brother and I would be the ones to uplift our family’s status. My little brother has an eyesight problem and he is in a school for the blind and so he would need help in the future. They relied on me. They always said I was given a gift with academics and that I just threw that away.”
“I spent a year reflecting on my choices and I decided that it was time to grow up and make better choices. I enrolled in a coding academy and decided to give it my all.”
Vuyani has some key takeaways about the life he has lived.
“I look back at my life and I can see how blessed I have been. I was born into a wonderful family and I was given an able body with a good mind. My parents gave me so much by creating a loving, supportive and stable environment around me. They have sacrificed all their lives and have provided unconditionally. When I focus, I have been able to easily navigate school due to my brain capabilities. My biggest lesson is that you should not take your blessings for granted. You have been given certain tools, so make sure you use them wisely… so that you can truly achieve your deepest desires.”
Vuyani attends the Life Choices Academy.
*Shack – a shack (or, less often, shanty) is a type of small, often primitive shelter or dwelling. Like huts, shacks are constructed by hand using available materials.
*Bucket System – is constituted of a toilet seat on top of a bucket, shared by several households or one.
*Waskom – a wash-hand basin.
*Spur – a fast food restaurant chain
*Pap – a meal made with maize, water/milk, salt or sugar.