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Dr Taheera Hassim (South Africa)MBBCh (Wits), Dip Obst (SA)FCOG (SA), MMED O &G ( Wits)MBA (Wits).

— Malala Yousafzai

I still have flashbacks of my childhood which just seemed like yesterday….

Our lives were average, we came from a typical middleclass orthodox family. My father was the breadwinner and my mother was a housewife. We lived in a small close knit community of Louis Trichardt.

I was the eldest of six children (four girls and two boys). My father had his own businesses which were family run. He was the pioneer of his businesses and incorporated all the family to participate in these businesses. He ensured that everyone was provided for and was a mentor for all the youngsters in the family. My father completed his tertiary education in a technical institution in the apartheid era. He could not study in a University and attain a degree because of the political circumstances of the country. He always had a keen interest in the mechanical and electrical world but never had the opportunity to become an engineer.

My mother came from a very disadvantaged background. She was the youngest of two daughters. She was a toddler when my grandfather was shot and paralyzed in an armed robbery on his brother’s farm. They relocated to Fietas so that my grandmother could get a job. My grandmother worked long hours in a clothing factory as a seamstress in order to support the family. Although my grandfather was paralyzed from his waist downwards, he sold buttons, zips and ribbons to try and help financially. My mum became a nurse and furthered her studies in the field of midwifery. She always told us that she chose this profession because she wanted to help and nurse the ill, and at the same time whilst training, she earned an income to assist her family.

My father lost his father when he was a toddler. He was the second youngest of nine children. His mother and siblings ran a café, and that’s where his business skills developed because he spent all his time after school in the business.

As a child, I always felt fortunate for what I had, when my parents would sit at the dinner table talking to me about their difficulties. Little did I know, that I would be in a similar situation a few years later.

I loved going to school and always had a hundred percent attendance. I enjoyed reading and drawing. Being an all-rounder throughout my school career, I was always involved in netball, tennis, and athletics and even in the school choir. My love of reading afforded me the opportunity to volunteer in the library and my wealth of knowledge rapidly increased. My curiosity grew, I wanted to explore the outside world. Unlike other children, my weekends were often at the SPCA helping and giving love to abandoned animals.

I always knew that I wanted to study and be involved in healing, be it animals or humans. However in our orthodox family, the girls were not sent to further their education. Most of the cousins were married young and were provided for in the family run business. There was no real reason for the females to be breadwinners.

Family life and closeness was very important; the principles of humility and togetherness were always imbibed in our home. We always sat together, ate together and shared everything.

My fathers’ business primarily consisted of selling frozen foods. He used to buy old trucks and his interest in the mechanical world often allowed him to repair these trucks and use them to transport large amounts of stock. He also built his own cold storage rooms. He spent long hours installing these massive cold storage panels into his buildings so that he could freeze the products and supply local supermarkets in the area. His fascination with both the mechanical and electrical world led him to pursue these projects, whilst the family ran his supermarkets.

Dad had a congenital heart condition and often told me that he didn’t think he would live until I have grown up. He said that having a big family was his dream. Because he was so active and involved in almost everything, he never appeared ill. I didn’t realize the reality of what he was saying. I was young, I didn’t understand much. I always felt sheltered and secured when I saw both my parents at meal time. Those were such simple yet precious moments that I still treasure today. The warmth and togetherness of our family….

In 1993, my father went for Haj (his last pilgrimage). During that trip he fell ill and the doctors in Saudi Arabia told him that he has irreversible damage of his heart and that he didn’t have much longer to live. When he returned from the trip, he didn’t look ill. He continued building cold rooms to meet demands of his frozen lines. During that same year, in December he became ill and went into cardiac failure. He didn’t complete his last cold room…

During those six weeks he rapidly deteriorated. He could barely make the journey from the bedroom to the kitchen. At mealtime he would try to get to the lounge area just to sit and be part of the family at mealtime. Watching us together was his form of therapy.

During that time, it was Ramadaan. I knew that something was wrong, it was the first time that Dad didn’t join us for Iftaar or Sehri….

Faheema (second eldest), Muhammed (third child) and I were at school and the headmaster called us to tell us to go home because my dad was being taken to hospital. I had to suddenly be the grown up and remain at home with my younger siblings whilst my mum went with to the hospital.

Dad was admitted to the Polokwane Provincial Hospital which was an hour away from our home town. I didn’t know what to feel, I was unsure and too naïve to think about what this meant. The next day we had planned to visit dad but a series of events delayed us (geyser burst, house flooded). We eventually got to Polokwane later that evening. As his children, we only saw him for a few minutes. There were many people, friends and relatives flocked the hospital. There seemed to be many discussions going on and the adults were in and out. I wanted to ask my dad what was happening but in the few minutes I spent with him, he gave me a hug and just said “always look after your brothers and sisters”. He told my very young brothers to “take care of our mother and always respect her”. I didn’t understand what that meant at that time. That was the last time we spoke to him.

We left Polokwane at 11pm after a much disorganized busy day and entered Louis Trichardt just after midnight. I was wondering why there were so many cars waiting at the 4 way stop entrance to the town. Did our house flood again? We were pulled over and the news was broken that my father, our pillar had passed away (there were no cellular phones at that time). I had never been so scared in my life. My mother was hysterical and she insisted that he looked much better and that this was a mistake.

We finally got home. My mum sat in her bathroom inconsolable. I thought this was just a nightmare but it wasn’t…it was now a reality. I still didn’t know what it meant to lose a parent.

I was, just 13yrs old, it was 2am and I was helping to prepare for my dads’ funeral. My world was shattered! Being the eldest of 6 children, what was I going to do! My youngest sister was still being breastfed, the others were too young to understand what had happened.

As time passed our situation worsened. Initially we were provided for by the family business but then the businesses had to be separated so that each family had their share. Eventually we were left with a supermarket and some warehouses. The supermarket was leased with stock and the tenant paid at leisure but eventually sold our goods and vanished. Some of the other buildings were also leased but those tenants took advantage of the fact that my mum had no insight into the business world. Rentals were never paid. Every time we went to ask for rental, my mum and I were made to stand and wait for hours….It was so humiliating for my mother to be waiting and waiting and then the tenant would tell her that something urgent had come up and he would vanish. Some months we had income and other months we didn’t.

I kept asking myself 'what were we going to do? I was in std 5, I wanted to finish matric but how were we going to do this? In our little town called Louis Trichardt, we didn't even have a high school. All the children that wanted to go to high school had to board in Pietersburg (now Polokwane, which was an hour away from Louis Trichardt. Our bread winner was no longer with us and life became tough. As I neared the end of std 5, I became so disheartened as I knew that my education would stop there! The girls in the family were not allowed to leave home to study.

Times were tough, basic groceries were expensive! My mum had 6 children to feed and provide for. How could I be so selfish to even think about getting an education when we battled with daily living expenses? I had an old 'hand me down' uniform and a pair of school shoes with worn out soles. The tip even had a hole which I covered with sellotape and colored it in with black marker so that no one would notice.

As I walked to school each day, the nightmare of my education coming to an end haunted me but the echoes of my mothers’ words were always in my head 'get educated, knowledge is power!'

I confided in my Afrikaans teacher about my dreams and my current situation; and told her that if we could build up a standard 6 and each year to the next, we could have a high school in our town. This was my only hope of ever finishing matric. I didn't have funds to go to Polokwane for high school.

Nine other students and I started a collection drive so that we could build a standard 6.We sold ice creams every Friday. We would sell sweets and biscuits to fellow scholars. We managed to get a sponsor to build a classroom for us. We didn't have desks or chairs, the little money we collected, we bought some textbooks and shared with each other. Eventually the primary school teachers came together so that we could start a std 6 in the following year. Each year we built on, and eventually got to Matric. We had no teachers but our primary school teachers helped us.

During my crucial year of standard 9, our difficulties increased exponentially. One of our tenants vanished overnight and left the supermarket with unpaid accounts and minimal stock. My mum decided that she would have to stand in the shop and try and sell as much of the stock as she could so that accounts and staff could be paid. We were in debt but eventually managed to sell most things at below cost. Some traders were like vultures waiting to profit at our time of distress and desperation. Mum just wanted to make ends meet. I would finish class at school and walk to the shop to help take over whilst my mum came home to sort out the children and meals. At just before closing time she would come to complete the business finalities. It was tough. We were often robbed by customers. We felt powerless and helpless.

One day at the time of closing the supermarket, my mum and I were about to leave for home and the alarm went off. Mum asked me to stand at the supermarket door in case there was an intruder whilst she went to the back of the shop to check the area. This always gave me such anxiety. I heard her frantic screams and realized that she was being attacked by an intruder. I ran out and stopped a passerby to help. My mum was unharmed but deeply traumatized. That was when we decided that we would just sell whatever we could and try and get educated to get out of these circumstances. Mum sold shelving, old stock, eventually and dad’s cold-room panels. The building insurances were very high and payments couldn’t be met because there was no steady income. Eventually mum decided to sell one of the buildings. During the transfer process, she decided to cancel the building insurance for that building as she had no funds to pay for insurance and it would soon have a new owner. A few nights later, we were woken up by fireman and told that the building was set alight. Mum was shattered. We lost everything, every hope and we were now moving further and further backwards.

During that difficult year, I couldn’t ask for money to buy the much needed Physichem and math’s past exam question books. I was fortunate to realize that if you bought ten, you would get the eleventh one for free. So I motivated the fellow classmates that were with me in standard nine to pay me to order the books so that I could have a book. During matric we were eleven in class (an extra scholar joined the class) and I was to get the free book. I would borrow my neighbors bicycle (without my mothers’ knowledge) and cycle to the post office which was approximately 10 kilometers away and do a postal order for the books. I also arranged some tuition for the class in my matric year but I was not allowed to attend as I didn’t have the fees to pay the tutor. The agreement was that I arrange the tuition class and if it happened, the classmates would give me their notes. I would sit outside the class to try and hear what the tuition was about.

Our community seemed to notice that we had difficulties. We were fortunate to be donated old clothes which we treasured. This made it easier for my mum. As the children grew older, we all grew much closer. We were so close that even if we got a chocolate, we would cut it into seven pieces and share it.

My brothers Muhammed and Ahmed became each other’s pillars. They were often bullied at school and eventually realized that they had to stand up for each other. They were teased at school because of their dilapidated school wear and cheaper stationery. Children couldn't understand why they always had the cheaper or more broken form of things compared to them. Even the brown bread for lunch was a subject of trauma... My brothers used to have to hide and eat their school lunch as to not be made a mockery of.

My younger sisters, Fayyaadhah and Raeesa were still too young to understand anything. They were born a year apart and literally grew up as twins. They were also each other’s pillars. Fayyaadhah ( youngest) was still breastfeeding when my dad passed on. She has no memory of him. One day she came home from preschool and asked us a question that left us all speechless and sad. It was Father's Day soon and they had to make a card. She asked “what’s a father? Where's our father?" And then asked if a mother can be a father...yes our mother was also our father…our everything...

The years passed and I matriculated. Our primary school was now a secondary school and we were the first matric class. It was such a long journey where there seemed to be no light but eventually the glimpse of light appeared. I applied to study medicine at Wits in my matric year. I had written many letters to try and get sponsorship for University but none were available for medicine. My mum couldn't afford to send me to University, although her words constantly echoed in my head "knowledge is power", which happens to be in line with the emblem of the Memon Association of South Africa. That's when I applied to this association.

With 5 children at home, I was always worried. Matric results came out and the next thing, my letter from Wits confirming my seat to study Medicine. The struggle carried on, it was tough, but the years went by.

The first day that I went to Wits to start my first year, I didn't have a place in the residence. The residence team told me to try and find a place to board. My mum had to leave to go back to Louis Trichardt as she had gotten a lift with my cousin to drop me at University. I remember sitting at the stairs of Sunnyside residence at Wits with my small bag and pink bucket with my toiletries, with no place to stay for that night. My family had to leave. A kind senior student took me in and allowed me to share a room with her. Eventually the residence assisted me and after a week, I was given a room. So much uncertainty and difficulty just made us stronger. Again, I was the one who didn't have money for textbooks. I spent a lot of time in the library and borrowing fellow resident student’s books. I studied when they were asleep so that I wouldn't interrupt and inconvenience their study times when using their books. I always struggled with funds to pay for residence. Our close family friend and family GP, Drs Ayob assisted me with funds for residence and a lot of emotional support during my time at medical school. They became family. My paternal cousin and his wife were also pillars of support during the difficult times. We are always grateful and treasure all the help they gave to us.

My sister Faheema soon followed to Medical School (she was 2nd in the province in Matric), then brother Mohammed went to study Engineering at Wits. After the first year Muhammed changed to a Bsc in Informatics and completed his degree through Unisa (is currently completing his MBA at Stellenbosch) and we eventually grew up. Faheema received a scholarship from Wits and would work part time during her student life teaching other students to obtain a small income. Mohammed also received a scholarship for his 1st year and had many part time jobs. He was selling airtime both in Louis Trichardt and at campus. In Louis Trichardt my youngest brother became his airtime agent there. This kept the income coming in. Muhammed was also employed by a supermarket in Louis Trichardt during his holidays. He worked in this supermarket every Saturday during his school days. He saved money and bought a bicycle which formed his transport to get to the supermarket. Muhammed worked at Spur in Rosebank when he was studying. My brothers learned responsibility and started to become independent. Ahmed is currently completing his engineering degree.

Mum always says, 'every opportunity you have to attain knowledge, go for it, you will never have enough knowledge!’ With those words, I never stopped! I qualified as a Doctor in 2005.During my community service, I started doing a Diploma in Obstetrics and decided that I wanted to specialize in Obstetrics and Gynecology. I applied immediately for a training position. Within 4 years, I qualified as a specialist and started working as a consultant at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital for Wits, where I was involved in training medical students, interns and registrars in the specialized field of Obstetrics and Gynecology. During my time there, I furthered pursued my education and completed a master’s degree! I now have my own private practice and the joy of looking after women health is just immense. I have travelled internationally to learn the art of key hole surgery. My thirst for more knowledge has led me to enrolling again at Wits for further studies. I am currently completing my MBA.

28 years later, Mum has managed to educate all 6 of us. Our youngest sister, Fayyaadhah, is a qualified Dentist and the 2nd youngest, Raeesah, (she was in the top 10 learners in the province in matric) also completed her Mechanical Engineering degree!

I will never close my door to a child asking for education. I understand why it is often said "Educate a Woman, Educate a nation". Thank you to my Mother, my world! This life lesson has made me realize .You don't have to be born privileged to make a difference.

We had many opportunities to take the easy way out and just get married and be taken care of but we chose the struggle. All six of us had dreams and goals, and these difficult circumstances led us to becoming stronger, more motivated and to practice all the values that my mother had instilled in us.

I would not be here today if it was not for my mother and the donors such as yourselves. Because of the generosity of people like you, less fortunate people like me have had the opportunity to pursue our dreams and make a difference in the lives of others- just as everyone of you have made a difference and lasting impression on mine.

By being awarded the Memon Association bursary, our financial burden was lightened which allowed me to focus more on the most important aspect of university and that was, learning. The generosity of the Memon Association and its members has inspired me to help others and give back to the community. I hope one day I will be able to help students achieve their goals just as you have helped me. I hope that my story has made you all realize the impact your contributions has had on mine and other student’s lives.

Every donor, every cent makes a difference, so thank you to each and every one of you. Your help has been crucial in mine and my family's life. And for that I am humbled and eternally grateful. I encourage all of you to continue contributing. Every student has a success story and that includes mine. You have changed my life.

I am currently involved in many projects with the World Memon Organization in empowering women and orphans to make a better life. I have been part of the Gift of Givers medical team and travelled to disaster areas to aid patients. My quest for knowledge continues and my duty to always assist remains my first priority. I still continue to serve as a front liner in the covid pandemic.

KYC (Know Your Community), is a series of stories on various Memon Individuals & Organizations established in India & abroad highlighting their contributions for welfare & upliftment of society & Memon community across the Globe.

Dr Taheera Hassim can be contacted on

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