A passionate advocate for the importance of childhood education, Mrs Zikhali was actually pulled out of school by her father upon completing Grade 7 so that she could help out around the house. Just 16 years old at the time, she was often seen doing ‘men’s work’ such as driving the tractor and changing tyres and was led to believe that she would never get married.
When her father told her she was old enough to get married, Mrs Zikhali ran away from home. En route to her aunt’s house, she stopped to ask a man for directions. Little did she know this would be her future husband. The two were married when she was just 17, and once she raised their four children she finally had time to focus on completing her high school education.
As a housewife, Mrs Zikhali then started tutoring mathematics to community children in her spare time. Once the school caught wind of this, they asked Mrs Zikhali if she would consider continuing her community work at the school instead of at her home, although they were unable to offer her a position nor a salary.
Mrs Zikhali agreed to volunteer at the school and was eventually offered a position, many years later. Teaching by day and studying by night, she eventually completed her diploma in education via correspondence.
When Nkomo School was finally approved, Mrs Zikhali was still a few months away from becoming a fully certified teacher. The qualified teachers were approached to run this new school, however, they declined, leaving the position open to Mrs Zikhali who admits she felt honoured that the role was offered to her before she was even fully qualified.
Her hope soon turned to despair when she was escorted to the school site. With no buildings or any form of infrastructure in sight, she soon realised the harsh reality that she would be teaching the 60 children outdoors in a field of wild grass and bushes.
Ever the optimist, Mrs Zikhali chose to turn her sadness into hope and she resolved to make a difference in the lives of these young learners no matter what. Her fellow community members helped clear the land and cut down thorny bushes so that the children could have a space to learn.
At first, she was ridiculed by the community. Her makeshift school was situated on the other side of a crocodile-infested river, which Mrs Zikhali and her students had to traverse twice a day in a handmade boat. Faced with such adversity, and coupled with persistent rainfall and muddy conditions, there were many times that Mrs Z wanted to call it quits. But she didn’t, and for a full year, she and the students crossed that river to their temporary classroom.
Eventually, the community agreed that the school should be located on the other side of the river, and soon Mrs Zikhali had a new site, beneath the shade of four grand trees. With the dangerous river crossings now averted, Mrs Zikhali’s enrolment suddenly grew from 60 to 220 students, now that more children were allowed to attend school.
Mrs Zikhali persevered and in 1999, after teaching the children under those trees for two years, she approached Africa Foundation for support. Her obvious love of children and passion for education, combined with her strong leadership skills and sustained determination, led her to eventually become the principal for Nkomo School, which is now a full-service primary school for more than 1 000 young and enthusiastic learners.
She also played a pivotal role in the development of Khulani Special School in the nearby Mduku community. Not only did she tirelessly raise funds for its construction, but she also assisted with the consultative process between the community and the Department of Education, ensuring the long-term success of the school which now educates 300 children living with disabilities.
Principal Zikhali also secured the necessary funding to build a centre for orphaned and vulnerable children based at Nkomo School, which provides after-school care for children attending Nkomo and other neighbouring schools. And recognising the importance of conservation and the role of education in protecting our planet and its wildlife, Mrs Zikhali is a leader in the Eco-School programme.
A genuine ambassador for Africa Foundation and its proven methodology for community empowerment and sustainable change, Mrs Zikhali mentors other school principals in the area, illustrating how they too can take ownership of their own sustainable growth and development.
With hope and relentless passion, Mrs Zikhali persevered. Despite constant adversity and ridicule, she set out to prove everyone wrong and is now a highly respected leader of her community. She is a humble mentor, visionary teacher and devoted community member.
Congratulations Mama Zikhali, you are an inspiration to all and we hereby thank you for all that you have done. Not only have you improved the lives of countless children, but you have also ensured a sustainable future for the Mnqobokazi and Mduku communities. We salute you Mama Z.
With the support of Africa Foundation, Nkomo Primary School has evolved from a school that started under a tree, to a Full Service School with 19 classrooms, aftercare and crèche facilities for orphaned and vulnerable children and a feeding scheme. A dormitory is being planned on the school grounds to allow children without guardians to be cared for day and night. Nkomo is now also able to accommodate the village’s disabled children, allowing them access to education for the first time.