nomusa zikhali sitting under a tree

Announcing the 2017 Robin James Award winner

Meet the winner of the inaugural 2017 Africa Foundation Robin James Award and read her inspiring story…
by 25th May 2017

This year marked an important milestone for our long-time community development partner, Africa Foundation. Humbly founded under a tree back in 1992, Africa Foundation now proudly celebrates its 25-year anniversary, which means that we have been working hand in hand for communities and conservation for a quarter of a century (&Beyond also turned 25 last year). To commemorate this momentous occasion, the Foundation recently launched its inaugural Africa Foundation Robin James Award.

This prestigious award honours the late Robin James, one of Africa Foundation’s original trustees and the chair of Africa Foundation (UK), who sadly passed away last year. To pay homage to one of its well-respected forefathers, Africa Foundation created this award in Robin’s honour, as a way of recognising those selfless people, like Robin, who have committed their lives to helping and empowering others.

Most happy and at peace in the African bushveld, Robin’s love of Africa’s wild places and its people led him on a fulfilling philanthropic journey. His early childhood interest in wildlife developed into a lifelong dedication to conservation and the upliftment of rural African communities and it was Robin who provided the initial seed funding and vision for Africa Foundation 25 years ago.

Throughout his life, Robin remained an active and unwavering ambassador for Africa Foundation and, without a doubt, his influence, inspiration and sheer dedication have been invaluable to the success and continued growth of Africa Foundation.

We hereby salute Robin James and the 25 years he gave to Africa Foundation and the communities neighbouring our reserves. Robin’s light shines on through these awards and may they always remind us of his contagious passion, tireless support and generous heart. It was a true honour to have known and worked so closely with the legendary Robin James and this award is a fitting tribute.

More than 100 heartfelt nominations came pouring in for people who have been inspired by Robin’s legacy and who have demonstrated a similar and sustained commitment to helping, inspiring and uplifting others. It is those quiet, yet steady, and all too often thankless, acts day in and day out that drive invaluable and positive change in our communities.

An impressive list of 50 hard-working and well-deserving candidates was officially put forth and the judges then had the painstaking task of selecting just 11 finalists whom they believe embody the true spirit of the award.

Here are the 11 incredibly inspiring finalists (in alphabetical order). Click here to read each of their truly uplifting and commendable motivations.

Faced with 11 different stories of equally inspiring altruism, hard work and perseverance, the judges had the unenviable task of selecting just one overall winner. It certainly wasn’t easy, but they deliberated, debated and eventually came to an agreement. The first person ever to receive the esteemed Africa Foundation Robin James Award, which embodies one of our core values of Care of the People, is Mrs. Nomusa Zikhali.

A strong believer in the importance of childhood education, Mrs. Zikhali was actually pulled out of school by her father upon completing grade seven 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, a kind man who would continue to give her guidance and direction for the rest of her life.

According to Mr. Zikhali, he fell in love at first sight and it was only after he gave 11 cows as lobola to Mrs. Zikhali’s father that she finally took his marriage proposals seriously. The two were married when Mrs. Zikhali 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.

The students had to walk long distances to get to school, so the vast majority of them simply stayed at home to help their parents with household chores, such as babysitting and tending to the family’s livestock. The community eventually agreed that a nearby school was needed, however, this would be a long time coming.

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 under a tree.

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. Zikhali 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, once she had been 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.

Mrs. Zikhali 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 also 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.

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