I sat down with Lettie – the driving force behind Vikelani Abantwana Crèche – to get her story. This is a person who sees a chance to better her community, her family, and herself, and is taking it head on.
Lettie is a woman with a vision for her community: clean surroundings, healthy residents, and proper care for children and the elderly. These may seem like the basic ideals and the top priorities for any community, but in rural KwaZulu-Natal, progress on any of these fronts can be daunting and slow.
Lettie was born in 1967 across the border in Mozambique, just north of the village where she currently resides. Part of a large family in this rural, Southern African region, she naturally grew up learning subsistence farming practices common for the region, and went to the local Mozambican school where she was taught in Portuguese.
But after grade seven, the family relocated to the village where she currently resides in South Africa. At that point, she essentially had to start her schooling over again, now learning in Zulu, English and Afrikaans, not reaching grade 12 until well into her twenties. Even after passing high school, in the 90s there weren’t many jobs available in the area. She began obtaining further training whenever possible for healthcare related certificates.
In 1996, Lettie wasn’t happy with the conditions of the local town. It was dirty and no one was doing anything to clean it up. The town had no municipal governance, so everything was under tribal authority which had no provisions for sanitation.
Wanting to make a positive difference and with hopes of preventing disease, Lettie took it upon herself to request to the tribal authority for permission to start a clean-up project. It was a approved. She used her first payment to buy “dustbins” – garbage cans – to begin cleaning the town. However, due to some local corruption and sexist attitudes, some local men wouldn’t stand by while a woman was suddenly employed and they were not. They forced themselves into the job she had created and remained until a municipality was formed in that region. At that point, her idea and work had been appropriated again and she had nothing to show for it.
Still holding on to her integrity and ambition, in 2000 Lettie began a project for building reed and grass huts for tourists wanting to have an authentic experience in rural South Africa. Soon after, she sold those huts and resumed her training in healthcare, eventually obtaining a total of 15 certificates in various healthcare related programs.
Lettie, now 47, has held the role of a Community Caregiver since 2005, originally for a local non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), and now for the local hospital. Her duties include going to sick and elderly people’s homes to check on them, make sure they are taking medications and eating well. This role is considered to be a volunteer position, and the pay is a low, monthly stipend that she uses to help provide for her family.
Her husband, Jose, also provides, but from a distance. Jose works as a barman at a restaurant in Johannesburg, nearly 400 miles (over 600 km) away and rarely sees his family. Her 13 year old daughter, Mbali, attends grade 7, and 9 year old son, Sizwe, attends grade 4 at the local school where I teach. They are both clever, high achieving students.
Lettie’s work takes her around the community, and many people know who she is. As she makes her rounds, she sees the needs of individuals and of the community at large. So, her idea for building a daycare center is not new, but has really started to become a reality in late 2013 and early 2014. She started by organizing a team of residents in the village that has become the board of directors. They named the organization Vikelani Abantwana Crèche, wrote a constitution for the organization, and then applied with the province to be a registered non-profit in KwaZulu-Natal. After she obtained the land from the tribal council, she had a local contractor draw up blueprints for a 100 square-meter building. Her next step was finding funding for construction of the building, and she came to me for help.
Naturally, people in the village are getting excited for the services Vikelani Abantwana Crèche will provide, and a list of clientele has been growing little by little as word of this new organization spreads. Lettie is currently negotiating with her church to use their building while she waits for the construction the organization’s own building. She expects she’ll have to use her stipend from her job to compensate the church until the crèche is built, but she is eager to make her dream a reality.
Lettie is delighted that so many people from across America and beyond have contributed in ways large and small to help fund this project. When I asked her what she wants the people helping in America to know, she said “I wish maybe one day that people who donate can come to see what you have done here for us in 2014. I have faith that it will be a success. Thank you for your help.”