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.

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.

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.

After Mabaso's death, hundreds came to her funeral; her orphans held hands in a circle around her coffin.

Today, 60 orphans still live here, and the day-care rooms – converted shipping containers – are still packed with giggling, scrambling children.

One recent day found Wandile Mlung­wana in the kitchen, mixing a huge, steaming vat of samp and beans – lunch for more than 150 kids. Mabaso hired him three years ago, Mr. Mlungwana says, and he is still volunteering.

"Before, maybe I thought this project would close down [after Mabaso died]," he says. "But now everything is OK."

At first, Ms. Louw takes the same, positive attitude. She gives a tour of the orphanage, pointing out the girls' room with the new bedspreads, and the room that holds the double bed she shares with three orphans.

"Here they can read, they can watch television, they can go on the computer," Louw says. "I bought a stereo speaker so they can dance."

But as she walks into the kitchen, her mood seems to shift. The metal shelving – stocked with supplies when Mabaso was alive – is completely bare. "We are trying hard to keep it going," Louw says. "But we don't have enough meat or vegetables."

That's why today's lunch will be nothing but starch, she says.

Family members get involved

Money is tight at Zenzele. Mabaso's sister, Linda Tukula, has taken over Mabaso's position, and has told many of the staffers that there is nothing left in the orphanage's account. That means no meat, toys, or other items Mabaso bought regularly for her children.

The staffers say they understand why funds are scarce. After Mabaso died, many donors became uneasy about giving to the orphanage, unsure whether money would get to the children. Moreover, local companies and neighbors who had volunteered their time to fix up the Zenzele buildings have stopped their work. Before they continue, they want to know that the property will remain as an orphanage.

Many are waiting for assurances from Mabaso's son, Sipho, that he will not sell the place.

Sipho Mabaso has pledged to not sell his mother's house, saying that he wants the orphanage to continue. He says that he has been trying to straighten out title deeds and other documents and wants to ensure that the orphanage is properly registered.

"It's her wish that the project continues," he says. "She told me, 'The kids must have a place to stay.' "

While many in the community are still waiting for proof, children such as nine-year-old Kgomotso Sithole still find refuge at Zenzele. Kgomotso and his younger brother were orphaned and homeless when Mabaso found them last year. Now they live in the Zenzele house.

"I miss her," Kgomotso says softly as he plays with a rubber top in the soft dirt. "She was my caregiver."

He wraps the end of the top in a string, and then flicks the toy back onto the ground, grinning as it swirls upright. "But I still like it here," he says.

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