In a tiny kitchen, in the middle of a sprawling informal settlement in Khayelitsha, Ntomboxolo Bikitsha is preparing lunch for 60 preschool children.
As a mother of seven, Ntomboxolo is only too familiar with the demands of childcare and the struggles of raising a family in one of Cape Town’s largest townships. In her own neighbourhood, she has seen children left at home alone without food during the day. She knows teenage mothers who have struggled between caring for their babies and staying in school, and she has seen young children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Nine years ago, Ntomboxolo decided that she had seen enough. ‘I wanted to provide a place of safety for vulnerable children in my community,’ she says.
Still working her day job, she asked her church for assistance in setting up the project – but with little support from others, Ntomboxolo eventually resigned from her job in 2008 to work on her vision for establishing her own preschool.
In January the following year, she opened the doors of Njongo Yethu Educare to 60 children.
Housed in an informal shack structure, the preschool cares for children up to the age of 6, each paying a monthly fee to attend.
Today, Ntomboxolo has four practitioners working with her at Njongo Yethu. In one corner, a practitioner leads a group of children in song; in another, a crying girl is consoled after she pokes herself in the eye. Down a narrow passageway, the smallest children take their midday nap.
One of the four practitioners is Wiseman Bikitsha, Ntomboxolo’s husband. ‘There’s nothing I love more than children,’ he says, grinning. Despite mocking comments from other men in his community, Wiseman has always shared childcare responsibilities with his wife – a rarity in South Africa where gender norms are still deeply entrenched and almost 46% of black African children live only with their mothers.
At 45 and 68 years old respectively, Ntomboxolo and Wiseman don’t hesitate to kneel beside the youngest babies at the preschool to keep them entertained between activities. And even past his retirement age, Wiseman’s energy is contagious – as he helps the children wash their hands before lunch, they clearly compete for his attention and beaming smile.
The couple has always wanted to work with children and although there have been challenges along the way, Wiseman says his Christian faith has helped him persevere and support his wife in making her dream a reality.
There are challenges for the future, too. Ntomboxolo has hopes for a brick structure, flushing toilets and higher salaries for her staff.
But as the children take their seats for lunch, it is evident that the couple is proud to be able to provide a space for these children to learn, grow and play, safe from the troubles of the outside world.
Ntomboxolo and Wiseman Bikitsha have enrolled in the ten-month Ikamva Labantu Persona Doll training programme this year.
Ntomboxolo is taking part in the Principals’ training which focuses on leadership and business skills; Wiseman is taking part in the Practitioners’ training for 0-18-month-olds in order to develop practical skills for dealing with children and parents on a daily basis.