In 2011, I met a woman named Rosie Mashale in the Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, South Africa. It was a memorable meeting, so memorable that I’ve talked about it for the last six years. At the time, I was so taken by Rosie and her work that I posted a blog about her (below) and set about trying to nominate her as a CNN Hero. CNN Heroes is a program the network started in 2006 to highlight ordinary people making a positive difference in the world. I tried, but when I wasn’t able to get the documentation from South Africa to follow up I dropped the idea.
Here’s my April 26, 2011 blog, but please read to the end for an update:
Rosie is a Goddess
This is Rosie. To me and to her community she is an angel, a savior, and a goddess. She lives in Khayelitsha, a “township” in Cape Town, South Africa. Khayelitsha is one of the legacy holdovers from the apartheid-era Group Areas Act, the law that required blacks to have special permission to travel within the country. It was established when male laborers were allowed to migrate to Johannesburg and Cape Town for work and townships, like Khayelitsha, were established to house them. Soweto, in Johannesburg, with 1.3 million residents is probably the most infamous of these slums, but Khayelitsha is the largest one in Cape Town and home to roughly 500,000. With the end of the pass laws and apartheid, women began coming to the townships, families were established, and children raised there.
In 2001, Rosie decided to do something for the poorest of the poor kids in her township. She enlisted the help of friends and neighbors who brought her food supplies like cereal and potatoes so she could feed the kids. She’s famous in Cape Town now. Everybody knows Rosie and the tiny room she calls Rosie’s Diner. Every day she feeds 185 kids breakfast before they go to school and dinner when they come home. It’s simple fare – porridge for breakfast and beans, potatoes or rice for dinner, but these abandoned children, mostly AIDS orphans, get the basic nutrition they need to carry on at Rosie’s Diner.
I met Rosie through Alan Petersen, a local guide who helps with Rosie’s operation. Alan had us take sacks of potatoes and onions when we stopped by to see her. Alan has also organized a group of independent guides to help Rosie keep things going. Her reputation has spread and a couple of years ago Habitat for Humanity built a house for her in the township. She, like many of the women, is a single Mom and the house is really her dining room. Her old house burned down a few years ago and she is badly scarred from the fire, but she never stopped smiling and saying thank you the whole time we were with her.
Rosie and her helpers cook in a tiny 6’x 6′ kitchen off to the side of the house. It smelled great when we were there – onion and potatoes cooking in huge stainless pots. CNN has a project called CNN Heroes to celebrate and reward selfless individuals who are making a difference in their communities. Rosie seems like a perfect example of a CNN Hero and I’m going to do what I can to nominate her in the next round of heroes. She truly deserves the award.
I’m often reminded of how small the world is. Over the years I’ve had the miraculous and mystical experience of crossing paths with friends in unlikely places. Chance encounters in foreign places – Octoberfest in Munich, a Berlin art fair, the train station in Florence, the Amsterdam airport, on the street in London. I ran into a couple from Seattle late at night on an uncrowded street in Copenhagen and a college friend in a bookstore on the island of Rhodes–encounters in foreign places that neither of us knew the other was visiting. I’m always surprised and pleased when it happens, but none of these meetings surprised me more than seeing Rosie Mashale honored Sunday night on the 2017 CNN Heroes special.
I wasn’t surprised that Rosie was honored for her work. That was well deserved, but I was surprised at the coincidence of thinking she should be honored in this way six years ago. Seeing it happen on my TV 10,200 miles from Rosie’s Diner was just as surprising as running into friends late at night on a deserted street in Copenhagen. I don’t know who nominated Rosie. It’s not important, but it’s another example of a mystical element at work in the universe.
Rosie Mashale’s work has evolved and expanded since I met her six years ago. She started a non-profit called Baphumelele Children’s Home, a daycare center for 230 and a home for her orphan children. In addition, she offers respite and hospice care for some adult AIDS patients and Fountain of Hope for youth transitioning from her children’s’ home. From the small kitchen where she fed 185 children to this expanded community her CNN award is confirmation that goodness is still alive in this often troubling world.
Here’s actress Alfre Woodard introducing Rosie Mashale’s CNN Hero moment:
I hope you’re as inspired as I am. At a time when it’s difficult to find good news in the daily cycle I see this as just the present I needed for this Christmas.