“We understand our communities better than anyone else” – Nokwanda Mathonsi, medical student


Discovery asked the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation to identify eight young doctors or medical students who they think will have a big impact in the future. That’s how we met Nokwanda Mathonsi, a student who wants to transform rural healthcare.

Nokwanda Mathonsi is a fifth-year medical student at Stellenbosch University. Her main area of interest is obstetrics and gynaecology. “I would like to open my own obstetrics and gynaecology clinic after I’ve specialised one day,” she shares.

“I’ve always had an interest in working with women,” Nokwanda says. “I love empowering women. So, working hand in hand with them in taking care of their health would be such a great way of making an impact in their lives.”

Nokwanda joins the Umthombo family

What made a big impact in her life was meeting the representatives of the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation during her final school year.

“I come from Nkandla. It’s mainly a rural area and one of the poorest places in KwaZulu-Natal province,” Nokwanda explains. “One of the challenges I had to overcome was to get a good education while I have a poor financial background. Most schools in rural areas are still very disadvantaged, so it takes a lot of effort for them perform well. The few that perform better have some extra expenses attached to them, like transport fees.”

“I did my grade eight year at one of the best schools in Nkandla and I was doing really great, but a few days before my grade nine registration, my mother told me that I was no longer going back to that school because she would not be able to afford my transport fees for the year. So, I had to change to a nearby school.”

Nokwanda first heard about Umthombo in 2014. “Nkandla Hospital had a career exhibition for Grade 12 learners and my school was one of the schools that was invited,” she recalls. “A representative of Umthombo delivered a speech on who they are and what they do. I became interested instantly. I then did a week of voluntary work at Nkandla Hospital, which was a requirement for application. I later applied, got interviewed and I was accepted! It was one of the best days of my life. I’ve been part of the Umthombo family since then and I hope the relationship never ends.”

Taking care of women

Nokwanda hopes to improve the lives of the women in her community. “I want to see women being the priority. I want to see women being well taken care of. I want to see women being more valued.”

“I want to raise more health awareness among the women in my community,” she says. “Women are the ones taking care of everyone and everything. In that process, they tend to neglect paying attention to themselves. If they have a health condition, they usually take it lightly and delay coming in for a consult because they are busy.”

What does it take to be a doctor and future leader?

Nokwanda believes that being a doctor should be a calling rather than a profession. “You should do it because you really love caring for people. You should be brave because some of the conditions you see in hospital are not for the faint hearted. You should be competent and have self-confidence because the decisions you make are between life and death for your patient.”

“To be a future leader as a doctor means being an agent of change,” she continues. “I believe if you’re passionate about patients, which is at the root of being a good doctor, if you can adapt to the changing systems, if you can find new solutions to the problems the patients face, and if you are able to inspire others to achieve a common goal, then you are a future leader.”

Her hopes for the future of rural healthcare

“I hope that one day we will be able to offer quality care to patients and that it will be a better experience, even for healthcare providers,” she says. “Right now, it’s a struggle for doctors working in rural areas. There are many challenges, starting from external factors like the gravel roads that limit the car you can drive, few recreational facilities, a lack of proper accommodation near hospitals, and so on. Internal factors are a lack of equipment, limited variety of treatment and limited senior professionals. In the future, I hope this gets resolved.”

“I also hope that more young people from rural areas will get opportunities to be trained and go back to serve in their communities because we understand our own communities better than anyone else,” she adds.

“I had an opportunity to go do my elective studies in Ibadan, Nigeria, last year. There I noticed how they don’t have enough but they do their very best for their healthcare workers. I met great professionals who have options of leaving their town for greener pastures, but because of the compassion they have for their people, they choose to stay. They have a motto, ‘Serve humanity with humility’, and I wish to say the same about us as the youth of my land in the future.”

Her advice for children from her community? “Hey, keep dreaming big. Keep working hard. It’s possible!”

About the Discovery Foundation

Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.

The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus to strengthen the healthcare system by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services.

Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested more than R230 million in training and support for more than 400 medical specialists and institutions. The grants support academic research and clinical science, sub-specialist training, rural medicine as well as programmes to develop public healthcare resources. For 2019, Discovery Foundation awarded 42 grants to medical specialists working in South Africa’s healthcare sector to the value of R27 million.

Learn more and apply for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards.

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