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Rosie's Story

Rosie Gwadiso grew up near Port St Johns, a pretty cove in the old apartheid 'homeland' of the Transkei. At 15 she became pregnant, but managed to conceal this from the old white lady that ran her school, and went on to complete her matriculation with distinction.

Her ambition was to become a teacher; but the training college regularly examined female students and, discovering she was pregnant Rosie and her daughterwith her second child, expelled her. Rosie became depressed. Her mother had died when she was young. Her father had re-married and neglected the children of his first marriage. Her boyfriend, the father of her two young children, had left for Cape Town. Her dreams were in tatters. She felt alone and desperate.

She decided to find her boyfriend. In defiance of apartheid laws she made her way 800 miles to Cape Town and the busy suburb of Sea Point, looking for the address he had given her. But it was a false address. She had nowhere to go, and sat down in a bus stop with her luggage and two children, aged one and five. She did not know what to do. Evening was falling when a domestic worker passed by and asked if she was OK. Rosie lied, saying that she could not find her brother. The lady insisted she come with her and overnight in her Khayelitsha shack.

Rosie ended up living with the lady and briefly found work cooking for a foreign exchange student who gave her a generous parting gift of R500. Rosie used the money to build a shack of her own. But now she had no work and became too ashamed to keep asking her neighbours for food; sometimes she would pretend to cook, boiling water until her crying children fell asleep. "We knew what it was to go to bed hungry" she recalls.

Rosie's shackCatholic nuns visited her area with soup twice a week; too scared of the anti-apartheid riots to come more often. So Rosie approached the priest, suggesting she could run a daily kitchen for her community. She found it hard to convince them that a 20 year mother could be trusted with the responsibility, but they soon discovered her tenacity. And so, Rosie started the first WARMTH* 'community kitchen', serving hot nutritious meals for a nominal price. Catholic Welfare provided the equipment and foodstuffs. It gave Rosie a job, and a community food. Her example inspired others and today there are 51 kitchens like Rosie's operating around Cape Town, each serving hundreds of meals a day.

When her boyfriend discovered she had a shack of her own, he reappeared. They lived together for the next seven years. Then one day disaster struck: her children started playing with the gas bottles in the kitchen and they caught fire. Rosie rushed in to save them. Her children escaped but she suffered very serious burns and was taken to hospital, where she had a skin graft. While in hospital she learned that her boyfriend was stealing everything from the house and burning the children's clothes. When she returned she found he was dismantling the shack and loading it onto a truck. She and her neighbours chased him away.

Rosie was at her wits end, but she remembered the example of the lady who had found her at the bus stop; and the 'ubuntu' values of her people: 'I need you today, but you will need me tomorrow'. And so she summoned her courage and re-established the kitchen in a donated shipping container. Soon after this I was introduced to Rosie and began encouraging tour groups to visit her kitchen. Many Rosie speaks to a group in the lounge of her new home.have become supporters of the project and shown great generosity to Rosie, buying her furniture and helping her save enough money to build a brick house in 2004.

For 15 years Rosie has worked from 5am to 5pm, typically producing 500 meals a day. She has literally raised a generation of healthy children; giving them not only food but advice based on her own experiences of growing up. Unlike many leaders, she is not shy to talk about HIV and teenage pregnancy. But the long hours take their toll, and she is often very tired…

In November I was preparing to lead an alumni tour for Carleton College (Minnesota). At the last minute, one man had to drop out and generously offered up his place. We agreed Rosie should be invited to join us on the Cape Town leg of the trip. She was excited: she had never stayed in a hotel before; never been up Table Mountain; never heard the city's history (much of it concerning her own people); never been to Cape Point; never eaten in fine restaurants. But she was also nervous: apartheid had made her feel inferior, that she was 'too small' to be in the company of 'white' people and not 'deserving' of such a holiday.
Rosie, enjoying lunch on tour
She decided to come: "the holiday was a great experience for me and the people made me feel comfortable; I was happy to be with them and I feel refreshed". The US guests found she brought an extra dimension to their experience and they enjoyed sharing with her (one couple introduced Rosie to Scotch; and helped her find her room afterwards….)

Today, Rosie's son is training to be a plumber, her daughter is doing well at school and should matriculate next year. She has a brick house and friends around the world. She has lived by the generous values of 'ubuntu', taken risks and overcome challenges. When confronted by things that seem overwhelming she holds on to a phrase that has served her well: 'let me just try….'

(written with Rosie's permission. *WARMTH is 'War on Malnutrition Tuberculosis and Hunger' and is a division of Catholic Welfare and Development (CWD))



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