Mrs Elizabeth Saul was one of the earliest residents of Zwelihle and any way you look at it, she was a remarkable woman. Not only did she raise nine children of her own in her small home, but it became a safe house for young political activists on the run from the authorities during the apartheid years. After her seven daughters and two sons grew up, instead of sitting back and putting her feet up, she found herself looking after many of their children – 24 in all!

The pre-schoolers at Phaphama ECD Centre in Zwelihle recently enjoyed a whale of a Christmas party sponsored by two foreign friends of the centre, Suzanne Elsholtz and Carol Cole. After a delicious braai with juice and pudding, everyone had fun playing special games and tumbling around on a jumping castle. When it was time to go home, they were each given an exciting Christmas parcel packed with clothes and other goodies. With some misgivings, even Mabel Saul founder of Phaphama was persuaded to join the children on the jumping castle.

This exceptional matriarch was anxious to ensure that all her children received the best education available and supported them in whatever career they decided to follow. One of them, Mabel, had her heart set on becoming a nurse, but because there was no money for training, she was happy to get a job at Camphill School where she would be working with intellectually disabled children. Her mother considered this a blessing for both Mabel and the children and she was delighted when the school sent Mabel off to the Rudolph Steiner Training Institute in Cape Town for training in kindergarten teaching.

“My mother had such a heart for children,” Mabel remembers. “I knew I could bring Camphill children home for the holidays if they lived too far away to get to their place, and I knew they would be safe and loved in our house.” It was while she was at Camphill that she was befriended by someone who would continue to play an important role in her commitment to Early Childhood Development (ECD). She was Swiss-born Suzanne Elsholtz, an experienced Steiner educationist.

Indeed, this method had proven so successful at Camphill that it was decided in 1994 to start a Waldorf School on the Camphill property for mainstream children, and Mabel was appointed its first kindergarten teacher, with seven children in her care. The class soon grew from seven to 14, and then to 21 children and it became clear that if the school was going to continue growing at this rate, they would have to find new premises off campus. Several different rental premises were used before the current Waldorf School was built in Sandbaai.

Sadly, Mabel’s mother passed away in 1995 and having lived her life in service of her family and her community, she left strict instructions in her will that her house was to be used either to provide accommodation for homeless people, or for the care of children. Knowing how scarce accommodation was at that time in Zwelihle, her children chose the first option: to provide temporary accommodation for people from the Eastern Cape until they could build a shack or be allocated a house.

A few years later Mabel came up with an alternative proposal. In 2003, she had left Waldorf School to join Enlighten Education Trust’s newly established ECD outreach programme as a facilitator and trainer, and for the first time realised the full extent of the need for good-quality ECD in Zwelihle. There were very few well-equipped facilities, run by trained staff, implementing a professionally-designed ECD programme. But of equal relevance, most of the parents couldn’t afford these services. That meant that many small children were either left alone at home while their parents were at work, roamed the streets with older siblings, or were accommodated in often unsafe and unhygienic home-based child-minding facilities with untrained carers.

Mabel’s siblings didn’t need much persuasion and with the encouragement of her previous employers at the Camphill and Waldorf schools, as well as Enlighten management, on 15 January 2007, the new Phaphama (‘Be Alert’) ECD Centre opened its doors in her mother’s house, with 20 small pupils. The next day 65 arrived. “It broke my heart to send most of them away,” laments Mabel, “but we simply couldn’t accommodate any more than 20. The place was still stuffed with my mother’s furniture and each day we had to carry it outside to make space for the children.”

By this time she herself had undergone Levels 4 and 5 ECD training through Boland College and she appointed three untrained assistants, including her own daughter, Bianca, to help her. She actively supervised the activities at Phaphama, whilst retaining her job at Enlighten. The parents paid a minimal amount in school fees (sometimes nothing at all) and Mabel subsidised the running costs of the centre from her own salary, as well as sending Bianca and the other assistants away for training.

In the intervening 12 years Phaphama has undergone a complete transformation, inside and out, thanks to the ongoing support of her friend Suzanne Elsholtz, now living in Ireland, and American Carol Cole, another Waldorf friend, as well as assistance from Enlighten and several major donors. Fully furnished, with all the indoor and outdoor educational equipment any child could wish for, completely fenced, with its own vegetable patch and fully-equipped kitchen, laundry and first aid facilities, it still caters primarily for the poorest children in Zwelihle.

The centre follows an approved ECD programme, under the supervision of a now fully-qualified Bianca and two additional teachers. “Of course, I’m always around, too, to make sure everything’s as it should be,” adds Mabel with a glint in her eye. “I’m sure my mother sees too and is happy. It all started with her, after all.”

And so the project has come full circle. Mabel herself has become the face of ECD in Zwelihle, through her training, supervision, mentorship and monitoring of formal and informal ECD facilities. The compassion for children which started with Elizabeth Saul and was taken forward by Mabel and Bianca has enriched and enhanced the lives of literally thousands of children in Zwelihle.

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