On first introduction, Evelina Tshabalala's firm handshake is the perfect predictor of her personality - strong, assured and determined. On further investigation, this assessment is resolutely confirmed. Every element of her story indicates a character that is constantly striving to improve upon herself, break her own records and achieve her own ambitious goals. And there is never a doubt that she will triumph.
In 1985 Evelina decided to become a runner. She is now an accomplished marathon competitor. In 2005 she decided to climb mountains. She summited Kilimanjaro recently and plans to climb Aconcagua. These are two of the world's Seven Summits, a term given to the highest mountain on each continent. Evelina aims to summit each of these peaks by 2008, ending in Everest. She wants to be the first black woman in the world to reach the highest point in the world. A challenge that is only fitting for this remarkable woman. What will make this achievement even more remarkable is that Evelina is HIV positive, this means she will also be the first HIV positive person to have summited Mt Everest.
Evelina Nokufa Tshabalala was born in 1965 on a farm near Harrismith. She and her seven siblings lived there with her parents where members of her family had been farmworkers for four previous generations. After completing her Grade 6 at the Harrismith Loskop School, Evelina and her family moved to Bergville in Natal. There she gave birth to her first son, Doctor. Soon after having Doctor, at the age of seventeen, Evelina became a domestic worker in Durban.
In 1985, when she turned 20, Evelina made two of the biggest and most important decisions of her life. She moved to Cape Town and she began running. She remembers the first day she ran competitively: "I ran a 10km race in Sea Point and later that day, I ran another 5 km race in Pinelands. I won them both." Inspired to start training as a marathon runner by South African sporting icon Zola Budd, a barefoot Evelina astounded her peers and her trainer, winning her first two races, on the same day.
For almost twenty years whilst working as a cleaner first at Pick 'n Pay and then at Spar, Evelina never stopped running. She continued her training even through the arrival of her second son, Emmanuel. In 1994, Evelina realised a life-long dream and ran the London marathon where she came in at an astonishing twenty fifth place. Surviving a car accident in 1997 and the tragic death of her son Emannuel in 2003, her ability to transform struggle into energy and focus carried Evelina to where she is now - poised to be the first black woman to summit Everest.
The quest to ascend the Seven Summits is part of a ground breaking project called Isicongo. This project will see Evelina and her great friends and fellow runners, Zuki Matamo and Nomawethu Nika traveling the world, tackling some of the highest mountains and becoming the next South African sporting icons.
Having completed the first leg of the journey, Kilimanjaro, Evelina is clear on her goals and certain of her success. "When I was near the top of Kili, I began to get very tired. My water was frozen, my feet were frozen and my legs felt heavy. I had to talk to myself and focus my thoughts. I thought about all my family, living and dead, and willed them to help me. I imagined the pride I would feel when I reached the top. Eventually I got there," says Evelina. She is only excited, not intimidated, by what lies ahead. Having recently met her ultimate role model, Nelson Mandela, Evelina Tshabalala feels that she already has everything she needs to make this project a success. She also summitted Aconcagua on 26 February 2007.