South Africa orphanage persists without its founder
The Monitor follows up on Zenzele, an orphanage now struggling to meet the needs of hundreds of children who lost their parents from AIDS.
Finetown, South Africa
The playground scene is deafening. The constant groans of rusted swing chains mix with the pounding of little feet on metal slides; running children and their high-pitched shrieks cut through the thin air.Skip to next paragraph
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Not long ago, Winnie Mabaso would glide through this commotion with a halo of calm. Even the naughtiest children seemed to dip into reserves of politeness when "Gogo," or Grandmother appeared.
After all, it was Ms. Mabaso who gave them food and a place to live. But more than anything, it was Mabaso who showed them that even though they were orphans, forgotten in an AIDS-ravaged South African township, they were still deeply loved.
The orphanage Mabaso established continues to function. But since her death on Jan. 20, the transition has been difficult for those who still work and volunteer here.
Today, the playground seems to teeter on full-fledged chaos. In one corner of the dirt yard, a frazzled staffer scoops samp and beans – a traditional starchy dish – from a white plastic bucket. She scrapes the bottom with a long spoon, but there isn't enough to fill all the empty containers clutched by dozens of tiny hands. When the children at the back of the line realize the food is gone, they turn away quietly.
"It is difficult since Ma Winnie passed away," says Miriam Louw, the orphanage house mother, as she watches the line of children. "We are trying, but it is difficult."
A year ago, the Monitor ran a story about Mabaso and her orphanage, which is called "Zenzele," or "do it yourself" in Zulu. The article told how Mabaso, a retired nurse, was shocked when she moved to Finetown in 1999 to see that many children in her neighborhood had lost their parents to AIDS and were living on their own. She started feeding these young neighbors soup from her front gate; soon, over the objections of her husband, she invited a number of orphans to sleep in her house.
Over the next few years, Mabaso's inclination to help her neighbors blossomed into a full-fledged orphanage, day-care center, community-care network, and feeding center. "I never planned this," she told the Monitor. "I didn't know it would get this big."
A stream of donations
Many readers were inspired to help Mabaso and Zenzele, sending donations to this small orphanage south of Johannesburg. And judging by this reporter's visits to Zenzele over the course of 2006, that money was put to good use.
During that time, Mabaso increased the number of children living with her from 20 to 60; she built more rooms for the day-care center; she tiled the orphanage floors, and redid the bathroom. She built a line of showers and toilets to accommodate the flood of children coming to her for help. When it was a child's birthday, she bought a cake and threw a party; sometimes she would take small groups – to make each child feel special – to McDonald's.
She also continued to train staff members and develop relationships with donors inside and out of South Africa. "This needs to live beyond me," she said.