Umm Muhammed Umar - 23/07/2018
Most of us have come across the adage ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.’ This saying has never had more meaning than when I stumbled across the story of Riaan Cedras, and his amazing history.
Father of two, 34 year old revert to Islam, Riaan Cedras, is a lecturer at the University of Western Cape. While this is an easily recognisable achievement in itself, Riaan’s journey to this position is more than remarkable.
Riaan grew up in Lavender Hill, Cape Flats, where academic excellence was not highly valued. To South Africans, the area is synonymous with gangs, guns, and drugs. Despite this daunting environment, Riaan matriculated in 2001, at Witteboom High School, in the Western Cape.
By mid 2002 he found himself standing in a que, outside a container, every day for a week, in order to try to land himself a job. Riaan says any job would have done, anything that he was given at all, even if it meant cleaning toilets, just to bring in some money.
A register was taken daily to confirm that a person had pitched up, and those who did not pitch daily were not considered. Riaan’s mother, who worked as a cleaner, gave him the daily train fare.
The stop was the last one on that particular line, and Riaan travelled it every morning, and travelled back home late afternoon every day for a week. The next week Riaan was given a job working as a grass cutter for the South African Navy.
Riaan says that he related to his fellow workers very well, as he found his situation in life on par with theirs, at the time. However, his co-workers egged him on about being able to do more with his life, after finding him to be cutting the grass evenly.
On inquiring how he managed to do so, Riaan confessed he had read a book on how to cut grass. Riaan says on the train ride he would meet people who had been in the same class as himself at school, but who had had lesser scores than he had, but were studying, and this made him want to study.
He also cites as extremely influential a Grade 10 teacher at his high school, who also nurtured his belief in his own potential. Riaan made his intention to do so.
Riaan applied to The University of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where he gained acceptance. He worked as a grass cutter right up until a week before registration. He paid the registration fee with the money he saved from cutting grass.
Varsity life also held something else for Riaan: exposure to Islam. Riaan’s father was a mechanic, and had acquired an old BMW from someone, which he paid off over time.
It was this vehicle that Riaan used to travel to university and back. He formed a lift club, and his passengers were Muslim. Riaan admired them, the Muslim lifestyle, and Islam.
He began learning about the religion from them, and he says the beauty of the religion seeped into his heart. In 2012 he took the Shahaadah.
Riaan married in the same year and his wife Rafieka’s family also left a marked impression on him. He says what he witnessed amongst Muslims, was like nothing he had ever experienced before; the willingness to always support each other, to assist, no matter what the difficulty involved. All of this was to influence Riaan’s future choices.
After obtaining his Masters Degree in Science, Riaan was employed by UWC to teach Life Sciences to students from disadvantaged backgrounds such as Mannenberg, Khayalitsha, and other such impoverished places. While his mother had not prevented him from studying, she had from the outset, explained to him she could not support him financially in that regard. When Riaan obtained his undergraduate degree, however, she actively encouraged him to continue with his academic pursuits.
Last year, Riaan obtained his Doctorate in Marine Biology. Today, he is a lecturer at UWC. Nevertheless, he continues to tutor underprivileged students, whom he says he can relate to. Further, he has founded the Network for Young Scientists in the western Indian Ocean, in order to help them.
To date this young man from the Cape Flats, who started off cutting grass for a living, has visited Indonesia, Tanzania, Comores, Norway, Poland, Namibia, Mozambique, Mauritius, Reunion Islands, the Seychelles, all as part of his work. In all probability, the end of this year will see him in Zanzibar, and next year, in Madagascar, in projects partnered with UNESCO, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Oceans and Coast branch.
Speaking to Riaan, I feel I could well be speaking to a brother, a cousin, a friend or neighbour such is his unassuming, down to earth, unpretentious manner, and one thing comes to mind: Allah elevates the humble.