Limpopo lad’s obsession with Isaac Newton and science puts him on the path to Oxford

Limpopo lad’s obsession with Isaac Newton and science puts him on the path to Oxford
Thorsten Shibambu has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study in the UK. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

Growing up in impoverished circumstances did not discourage Thorsten Shibambu from pursuing his dreams. Now he is packing his bags to attend one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

While other youngsters his age idolised football stars Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Thorsten Shibambu was fascinated by science gurus such as Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

His ultimate dream was to enrol at Cambridge University to follow in the footsteps of his hero Newton. But, growing up in a remote village on the border of the Kruger National Park, this seemed a far-fetched dream.

However, dreams do come true, even for village boys. Shibambu (21) is now on his way to the University of Oxford in England.

Shibambu, who hails from Makuleke village in northeastern Limpopo, was recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. First awarded in 1902, it is the “oldest international scholarship programme, enabling outstanding young people from around the world to study at the University of Oxford”.

According to the Rhodes Trust, which manages the programme, there are 10 scholarships available each year for students based in southern Africa, of which nine are for South Africans.

Shibambu, who completed his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT) this year, matriculated with five distinctions in 2018, including an impressive 100% score in physical science.

He was raised by his maternal grandmother, who inspired him to reach for his goals early in his school life.

“It’s a poor family, I would say. I grew up in a mud hut with my grandmother and extended family,” Shibambu said of his childhood years. His greatest goal was to complete matric and study further so that he could “make as much money as possible so that I could help my family”.

In 2012, his grandmother opened up a new world for the youngster when she presented him with a brand-new smartphone bought with savings from her state old-age pension grant. After that Shibambu never stopped surfing the internet to do research on his passion: science.

His high school, Jim Chavani, didn’t have a laboratory or other amenities found in urban schools.

It is a no-fee school with a good academic record and is recognised as one of the top schools in the Vhembe district.

Thorsten Shibambu, from Maluleke village on the border with the Kruger National Park, has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study in the UK. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

“I think the discipline in the school helped us,” said Shibambu. “We had extra study sessions and the teachers were very helpful and were also strict.”

He cites overcrowding in classes as one of the big challenges of his school career, especially in an area where temperatures can soar to 40°C in summer.

“At some point there were 86 of us in one classroom. And it would get very, very hot. Sometimes you just lost concentration in class,” said Shibambu.

But this was not the only challenge. Being close to a national park often meant enduring scary encounters with wild animals.

“One night I was studying and suddenly I heard lions roaring like literally by the window. They could have been far, but the roar was just so frightening.”

Cape beckoned

His exceptional matric marks earned Shibambu a full scholarship to study mechanical engineering at UCT. Some of his peers chose the bright lights of Gauteng to pursue their studies, but he felt Cape Town was more suited to his goals.

“I chose UCT because it was far away from my friends who went to study in Joburg and [because] it was said to be the best in Africa at the time,” he said.

However, moving from a remote rural area to a completely new and unknown city environment was unnerving for the youngster.

“I was intimidated by the UCT environment. It was very challenging that I had to speak English every day.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Flying the SA flag: Cambridge University rower Garth Holden’s uplifting sports narrative

“And I was a bit of an introvert and didn’t have the confidence to speak or ask questions during lectures,” said Shibambu.

Although he initially wanted to study at Cambridge, like Newton, he is nevertheless thrilled to be heading to Oxford.

But what exactly does he like so much about Newton? “His way of thinking was so amazing,” said Shibambu. “I just fell in love with his way of thinking – how much time he dedicated to his work.”

Newton is still celebrated in scientific circles for, among others, his work in physics and mathematics. He is most famous for his theory of universal gravitation.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Rising above it all — the impoverished rural school that produces champions

Shibambu put in an application for the Rhodes Scholarship after learning about it from a friend at varsity. During this year he received the good news that he had been accepted.

“They will basically fund my postgraduate studies,” he explained.

“It’s brilliant because they have a large community of experts that we are going to interact with from all over the world.”

Shibambu will be pursuing a master’s degree in energy systems and said he would like to focus on how renewable energies can be best used to benefit developing countries like South Africa.

“I am hoping that one day I will come back and contribute towards dealing with the energy challenges here in South Africa,” he said. Mukurukuru Media/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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