One of the best days of my life to date – definitely top 5 moments – was a random Tuesday of June 2009 in Orlando West, Soweto. I was standing outside a classroom at Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre and watching with 2 others (Prisca and Vusi) through the window, behind the curtains where we were out of sight. We were watching as one of the carers from the Nkanyezi Stimulation centre, Salomina, was encouraging Thato to take her very first steps. Thato was six at the time, suffered from three different physical disabilities and doctors had told her parents that there was a very tiny possibility that she would be able to walk but in order to achieve this, extensive and continuous (read: very expensive) treatment would be required. Yet here she was taking her first steps in a classroom without electricity, carpets, any equipment – never mind specialised equipment – and a carer with no training but plenty of love and patience. Thato seemed to understand the gravity of the moment and after 5 steps in a row, taken very seriously and with every bit of her concentration, she exploded into that true belly laughter that only children seem to be able to do. And while Thato laughed Salomina, Prisca, Vusi and I all cried, cried and cried some more at the witnessing of what was a real life miracle.
What made this a miracle was not that her chances of walking, according to doctors, were slim even with the best care available – although this was so – but that this had occurred in a place with so little in a physical or material sense. Also because although Thato was the first to be taught to walk at Nkanyezi there have been several others who have done the same since. It shows that what really counts at the end of the day is perseverance, patience, determination and (albeit very hippy of me) love. With these things the most insurmountable odds can be overcome. This centre is proof of that…
The Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre was founded by Prisca Tshabalala, who having recently given birth to Nkanyezi, a child with multiple disabilities, searched for some form of support and assistance in her Orlando West community of Soweto but found none. Not the sort of woman to sit around and do nothing she started a support group for parents of children with multiple disabilities that within weeks had over 40 members. This group grew and grew all the while with Prisca reading and learning as much as she could about not only coping but flourishing with, because of and despite any disabilities. Eventually it became clear that a special school was needed for such children and since there wasn’t one Prisca founded one. After years of fund raising, campaigning and dogged determination Dimpho Stimulation Centre for children with multiple disabilities was only weeks away from opening when tragedy struck. Prisca’s shining star, as she called Nkanyezi, passed away in 2000 at age eleven having never seen the school his mother had worked so hard to create for him and others like him. Despite her heartbreak, despite the fact that she no longer needed the services of such a school she persevered and now she did so because of a promise to Nkanyezi to make as much of a difference as possible to the lives of ‘his people.’ Twelve years later Prisca still runs the school, in fact gives her monthly pension to the school to ensure it survives, and is the foundation of strength, love and determination which seems to feed the rest of the school. From the carers, who come to work with smiles on their faces and endless patience for their pupils despite the fact that they often go unpaid for months at a time because of funding shortages, to the gardener Bra Nxobo who has been providing lunch to the centre through his vegetable garden and maintaining the centre grounds for 10 years also more often than not without pay and even with broken ribs!
This centre is just one of the many reasons I believe in Africa. The economic growth rates, education statistics etc. are all very impressive and important but it is the people, the people like Prisca, Salomina and Bra Nxobo that make me believe. The knowledge they have acquired on their own, the innovations they have come up with to overcome resource shortages, the dedication despite scant reward are motivators and inspirational to all who come across them. They make me believe because with such goodness, determination and self-sacrifice, of which Nkanyezi is just one example of many from our continent, it seems impossible for us not to succeed.