What turned this lady around from abandoning two tiny children to become one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of 2017 — and the only non-American nominee? | Photo: Nicky Elliott
KNOWN TO ALL as Mama Rosie, South African ROSE MASHALE is one of only 10 people worldwide nominated by CNN as a Top 10 Global Hero of 2017, and is the only non-American to make the cut. But this woman of substance admits she wasn’t always heroine material. What stopped her from making a decision she might have lived to regret? Rosie told her story to SHIRLEY FAIRALL…
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‘MY LIFE AS MAMA ROSIE began after my husband was invited to open a traffic department in Khayelitsha, South Africa’s largest township and a very, very poor place.

Our home was near a dump where I heard kids playing every morning. One day, I asked them why they were there, and they said their mothers had left them while they went to work, or to look for work. They were mostly single moms who had to leave their children and hope for the best. I was a stay-at-home mother  so I took the children to my house, gave them something to eat and we sang rhymes.

When their parents came home from work, they asked if I could look after their children every day. I gathered other stay-at-home members of the community together and by the end of the week we were looking after 36 children. That’s how, 17 years ago, Baphumelele Educare Centre was founded. Today it’s an established community crèche and preschool, caring for about 250 children aged three months to six years.

Initially, Rose had 85 children living in her house! | Photo: Nicky Elliott

During the time Baphumelele was developing, I needed a sabbatical and took a year off. Not long into that year, I found a small, naked boy on my doorstep, covered in sores. He didn’t even know his name. I bathed and fed him, and called the police to come and take him away: he was their problem, not mine. The police came in the middle of the night but instead of taking the boy, they brought me another one! I took both children to the Children’s Court but the commissioner said to me, ‘Go and take care of the orphans’. My mind raced on the way home. I wasn’t working and didn’t feel I had the means to take care of these two children. The only thing I could think of was to abandon them at the side of the road.

this is the truth

But then I heard this voice and I knew it was God. I wasn’t a churchgoer or devoted Christian, but I knew it was Him. The voice said exactly what the commissioner had said: ‘Go and take care of the orphans’. People still say to me, ‘Are you crazy, are you mad, are you lying?’ But this is the truth, believe it or not.

From that day on, my life changed. My heart grew bigger and bigger, and I was really thirsty to help these children. I made a deal with God: I’ll take care of these orphans but you’re going to have to provide! Within a week he sent me many children, but also the resources to deal with them: I bought a plot of land next to my house and an architect agreed to design something for me pro bono; I approached foundations locally and abroad, and people responded straightaway to the need.

Over 5 000 children, many of them abandoned or orphaned by their parents dying of HIV, have had their significance restored at Baphumelele  | Photo: Nicky Elliott

Initially, I had about 85 children living in my house, fortunately a double storey, and it was difficult before I had the help I have now. But for 17 years, God has provided for the 5,305 orphans and vulnerable children who have been through my care. We have 170 permanent staff, 85 volunteers and the project now has many different strands, from babies to teenagers, a hospice, skills centre and respite centres for adults and children. This makes me really grateful. Now I know that God will never forsake me: He’ll hold my hand all the way.

turn your stress into doing something

I used to have 200 children sleeping on the floor, but because we have grown we now have regulations and can’t do that any more. Then my mind races: where is this or that child going to go now? This was depressing me, so I decided to set up an outreach programme for households headed by children, many of whom are orphaned by AIDS, to help them rebuild their lives. We’ve built 85 homes and sent hundreds back to school. It helps to turn your stress into doing something.

I think we’re here on earth for a purpose. Even if the government created thousands and thousands of jobs, I believe there would still be poor people, and some of us are here on earth to serve them. We’ve rescued children who were abandoned in dumps and bushes and I’m motivated by them now saying to me. ‘If it wasn’t for Baphumelele, I’d be dead by now’. Their ‘thank you’ and their big smiles keep me going and getting up in the morning. I always say to myself, if I hadn’t obeyed this calling, where would these children be now? My hope for them is that their dreams will be fulfilled.

There were thousands of nominees for the CNN Hero of 2017, so to be shortlisted in the top 10 is really amazing. It’s still a shock every day.

What do I think is important in life? I’d like to slow down a bit, have time to go to church and focus on God. The other thing is respect. You must respect young and old, and have an ear to listen. Don’t judge people, sit down and listen to their problems. Then, instead of judging them, intervene.’


BORN: Matatiele village, Eastern Cape, South Africa, into a loving home. Father worked away on the mines, mother looked after their four children.

FAMILY: Husband deceased in 2001, daughter Rethabile (30), is a mother of three with a PhD in social development

CHILDHOOD: ‘I was happy and lived among humble people. We all ate together with our hands out of one big bowl. If anyone was without food, their neighbours shared.’

QUALIFICATIONS: Kindergarten and primary school teacher

HOW DO YOU RELAX? ‘I’m boring. At weekends I don’t even open my gate. I switch off my phone and TV. For one hour I lock my room, have a nap, try to clear my mind. When I feel down, I ask God to lift my burdens. He cheers me up.’

You may have noticed part of a message on the wall alongside Rosie in the cover pic of her on our home page. It was written by Elton John in 2005 and reads, ‘Dearest Rosalia, You are a miracle, a saint and an inspiration. May love shine on you and the children forever.’



WHAT DOES BAPHUMELE MEAN? ‘We have progressed.’
LOGISTICS: 170 permanent staff, 85 volunteers. 65% of funding comes from individuals and government subsidies assist three of the projects. ‘I need to raise funds every day,’ says Rosie.
  • Educare Centre, a community crèche and preschool caring for about 250 children aged 3 months to 6 years. 
  • The Children’s Home orphanage, a place of safety for over 100 abandoned, abused, neglected or orphaned children, many affected by HIV/Aids.
  • PLUS: Adult Respite Care Centre, Child Respite Centre, Hospice in the Home, Fountain of Hope (for young adults), Rosie’s Bakery/Sewing Project, Child-Headed Households.

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