Over the past two years, Venacio Chiriseri has had to settle in a new country, deal with xenophobia and adjust to a school where she couldn’t understand her classmates’ home language.
But the 18-year-old has taken every challenge in her stride, becoming the top pupil in her matric class at Masibambane High in Kraaifontein.
In March 2010, Venacio travelled from Zimbabwe on her own to join her family in South Africa. They had left their home in 2006 because of “the political situation and to look for greener pastures”, she explained.
She applied at a school in the Stellenbosch area, but was told they couldn’t offer her a place because she wouldn’t be able to do Xhosa or Afrikaans.
In April she started at Masibambane where she was told she could be exempted from taking a second language and could do another subject instead. She chose History.
“For me, it was a challenge that the other children’s home language was a language I couldn’t speak.
“But they just took me in like one of their own.”
The teenager, whose mother works as a waitress, travelled to school by train from Stellenbosch until a teacher, Xolelwa Maroqa, offered her accommodation at her home, which was closer to school.
With the help of Maroqa and others at the school, she can now communicate in Xhosa.
Venacio said her dream was to study medicine – but this is not to be, for now.
“When I first arrived here I was doing maths lit (literacy) and then we had a visitor from UCT (University of Cape Town) who told us that if you to do medicine, I couldn’t do it with maths lit. So I had to change to maths.”
She switched in March, with only a few months of her matric year left. Despite this she became the school’s top maths pupil.
But when she applied to study medicine, there was more bad news.
“I was told they couldn’t accept me because we have medical schools in Zimbabwe.”
She has now set her hopes on studying pharmacy at the University of the Western Cape.
Like many foreigners, Venacio said she had experienced xenophobia since arriving in South Africa and there was a period when she felt scared.
But, she said, she had been touched by the acceptance she received from the school community.
Venacio hopes to be awarded a bursary to continue her studies.
“Unfortunately for foreigners, the chances of getting a bursary are slim, but I’m determined,” she said. Earlier this year, she was named the school’s dux (top student). She received awards for all but two subjects.
Maroqa said Venacio was hardworking and naturally gifted. She expected her star pupil to achieve five or six distinctions.