Zimbabwean student Taida Mapara, who has just turned 16, is arguably Africaʼs youngest university student, studying medicine at the University of Malawi College of Medicine, reports University World News.
Mapara enrolled at university when she was 14 but due to COVID-19, was forced to delay her studies until February 2021. Her fast-tracked journey was thanks to education authorities in both Zimbabwe and Ghana deciding she should skip some grades due to her intelligence and excellent academic results
Her mother, Debra, is an early childhood education (ECD) teacher and her father, Ernest, an IT engineer. Their daughter was born in Harare in 2005 and completed her primary and secondary school in eight years, instead of the normal 13.
Potential seems to run in the family. Taidaʼs twin siblings, Zoey and Chloe, 14, skipped grade six and are now in form three.
Working hard, just like everyone else
The teenager told University World News she had always known exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a cardiologist.
“I was accepted and enrolled at the University of Malawi College of Medicine when I was 14. They assured my parents that despite my age, I would be in good hands,” she said.
She started on-campus university study when she was 15 but the delay of almost a year was due to the pandemic.
Mapara said she does not necessarily see herself as the youngest at university but tries to work hard like everybody else. She added that sometimes she found it hard to believe that she is only 16 and at medical school. Her peers are very caring and, since they are older, they are “wiser, and they see things differently”, she said.
Her choice of medicine and cardiology was fuelled by her love for the sciences, which she calls her strong subjects.
“My view of humanity leads me to believe that my contribution to my homeland and the world is through medicine. My dad told me on numerous occasions that I am young enough to have multiple careers, but I think I am settled on medicine and want to do the best I can.
“Everyone says medicine is very hard but that made me want to study it even more. If there are people out there who were able to get through it, then why canʼt I? There is a shortage of doctors in the world, so the least I can do is try to become one,” she said.
“In high school, I loved learning about the heart. It still fascinates me now and the more I learn about it, the more my interest grows. I chose cardiology because I would love to work in a speciality that focuses on the heart; I feel it would make being a doctor even more interesting.”
Formal and home-schooling contributed
She said she chose the University of Malawi instead of Zimbabwean universities because she wants to get a global perspective, but plans to do her masters and specialisation outside Malawi.
Both formal and home-schooling combined with hard work culminated in her going to university early.
“After nursery school in Zimbabwe I was home-schooled. Then I joined Maranatha Primary School for grade two. I was there from grade two to grade five.
“In 2016, the year my family relocated to Ghana [for work], I was home- schooled for a year by a very good Ghanaian teacher, Mr Kofi Annan [not the late former secretary-general of the United Nations].
“When I was home-schooled, I was able to learn at my own pace, or at least the pace of the teacher. I was able to learn a great deal more in that year,” she said.
“In August 2017, I started learning at Association International School [in Accra, Ghana]. Before I started, I wrote entrance exams and I did exceptionally well, so they skipped me to form two. I completed forms two to four at this school.
“After writing the IGCSE [International General Certificate of Secondary Education] exams in 2019, I moved back to Zimbabwe. In September 2019, I started attending Hilbright Science College [in Harare]. After nine months, I was able to write A-Level exams.”
Mapara described herself as very observant person, and said when she went to Hilbright Science College with her parents, she noticed awards hanging on the wall for the best student in the country, and many others.
“Before then, I had never thought of getting an academic award, but when I saw those awards, I remember thinking, ‘When I leave this school, my name will be there,ʼ and that stuck with me through my last year of high school,” she said.
Keen interest in local, global affairs
Debra told University World News she named her daughter Taida, which means “we wanted, or desired”.
She said her daughter was home-schooled in grade one after a government school declined to admit her because she was younger than the cut-off age. However, she did not want to repeat ECD and the family could not afford to take her to a private school.
Debra said that, as a teacher, she did not help Taida with schoolwork because her expertise lies in ECD, and the family thus relied on the school systems to do their part.
“Taida was meant to spend seven years in primary school, four in secondary school, and two years in high school. Instead, she spent five years at primary school, two years at secondary, and nine months in high school,” she said.
“During the year between primary and secondary school, the home-school teacher moved forward, following Taidaʼs pace and interests, focusing on both primary and secondary work.”
Debra initially studied agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe but later went on to pursue her passion for ECD at Gateway College, followed by a degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa). She has taught ECD in Zimbabwe and Ghana but is now studying law through Unisa because of Taidaʼs and her fatherʼs interest in the subject.
“Even though Taida and her father are ‘scientistsʼ, they share a keen interest in law, local affairs as well as global affairs. Taidaʼs father is an IT engineer-cum consultant working in sub-Saharan Africa. He has the same opinion as Taida about working abroad to gain knowledge and experience that will someday be of significance back home in Zimbabwe,” she said.
Debra said that, as parents, they just wanted what they felt was good for Taida and tried their best to provide a suitable environment for her and her siblings to achieve what was not available to them when they, themselves, were growing up.
She said COVID-19 delayed Taidaʼs start at university but had very little impact on her.
“The College of Medicine in Malawi began online lessons, and this was a natural fit for Taida. She is already very capable of studying on her own. We just had to ensure that she had adequate internet connectivity and the right ambience to study,” Debra said.
“She is not on a scholarship, and we finance all her tuition and upkeep. Our childrenʼs future is our focus and, as such, we will strive and sacrifice [so] that they complete their studies without any student debt. That is our gift to them.”
Debra said that despite few females pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, her daughter was different.
“When you speak to her, you will never imagine that she will be a doctor because her world view is more that of an anthropologist and observer of the global scene, but she is also a scientist. The combination is perfect in my view … a young person with knowledge of the world but seeking a science-based solution for the problems she sees around the world,” she said.
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