Cotlands is a former children's Aids hospice that was converted to an early childhood development facilitation centre.
Cotlands is a former children's Aids hospice that was converted to an early childhood development facilitation centre.

Dressed in a black tracksuit with two white stripes on the sleeves, five-year-old Thembilo gives a smile that immediately wipes the look of uncertainty from his face. He is hesitant because it is his turn to go to the teacher's desk so she can assess how school ready he is. Patience Tshabalala teaches him and his peers how to do basic calculations, hold a pencil and distinguish between different colours. It is all new to him. He has never been to pre-school before.  

Tshabalala is an early learning facilitator in charge of the 12 children in the play group, and is dressed comfortably in black and orange golf shirt. With the kids facing her she is sitting cross-legged on a bright-blue puzzle mat on the floor, next to the small plastic tables and chairs. Each of the four tables has a different educational theme to help stimulate different scholarly responses in the youngsters aged from two to five. Her stuffy, makeshift classroom is on the ground floor of a filthy, crowded, downtown building in Johannesburg. The toys, little tables and chairs are the only indication that this is a place where nursery school lessons take place. The charcoal-coloured walls leave a grim impression, considering that it is a playschool area. This is the only available room and since it is a temporary place of learning there are no activity charts and pictures.

Outside, people without jobs are sitting and waiting. They have nothing to do.  

This is just metres away from a sign that reads Redemption Street. The entrance is dim, loud and foul-smelling. The structure itself requires redemption. It is hard to believe that many families live here — most of them illegally. 

Tshabalala schools the beginner pupils for free. Her services are funded through Cotlands, a former children's Aids hospice that was converted to an early childhood development facilitation centre. Her lessons from Mondays to Thursdays are these toddlers' only chance to qualify for acceptance into formal school from Grade R. Their parents cannot afford the closest pre-schools and there are none nearby, nor are there any playgrounds. 

Seven years ago Tshabalala did not know that she would become an early learning facilitator. Her life was falling apart and she lost all purpose. She was diagnosed with HIV and thought it was going to kill her and her baby, who was five months old at the time. Within four days of receiving the bad news, her mother unexpectedly passed away. Despite her hardships, Tshabalala's condition helped turn her life around and gave new meaning to every day. "The thing that made me calm is counselling. It still felt like I was dreaming and that it was someone else that this was happening to," she said.

Tshabalala slowly rebuilt her life. She received counselling and later joined a support group for mothers who have babies with HIV. Later on she became a volunteer at Cotlands and in 2011 her tolerance for people as well as her unique listening skills earned her a Cotlands scholarship to study social work so that she could learn new skills to help communities and children thrive. The focus of the community care programme eventually shifted from health to education, because there was a growing need to develop the learning skills of young children. More importantly, the introduction of antiretroviral treatment drastically reduced the number of babies dying from Aids. 

"I didn't know much about education so I completed a three-month pilot project from March to May 2013 in Jacobsdal in the Free State. It included art lessons, mathematics, group work, rational thinking and problem solving with the help of puzzles. I think that most of the kids cannot do the mathematics part because they didn't get to experience such things and they struggle later on because they were not developed from an early age," she said.

Tshabalala completed the early learning programme in November 2012 and started teaching in March this year. Apart from the classes she conducts in the city centre building, she also runs early learning classes at Wings of Hope in Johannesburg. This school provides free education to homeless children aged between four and six. The school – including Tshabalala's lessons – gives the vulnerable and destitute young children the skills that are essential to enter grade one at any government public school. 

"Kids who are exposed to early learning have a better chance to thrive at school. Even if they don't receive higher education, they would have the opportunity to reach maturity, by having been to school. Basic things like baking is something they never get to do so how are they supposed to know what to do in a science laboratory? Early learning also teaches them that they have to clean up after themselves. Early stimulation is crucial to the development of any child and they require stimulation in many things," she said.

She wants to create awareness about early learning facilitation programmes in communities to ensure that children are developed from an early age. "If a child has a good foundation he or she can do anything. But grade R can be difficult if a child grows up in poverty. Therefore parents need more knowledge about early learning programmes and the importance of attending play schools. Most of the fathers don't want their children to be here and they think it is unnecessary for them to go to school. Ultimately, we are trying to make children ready for school so that they are not afraid of the tasks they have to do and understand the role of teachers," Tshabalala said.

Her new passion gives other people hope and purpose: she gives ordinary kids a chance to become educated – something that could turn their lives around, just like hers was transformed in 2008. The mountains she climbed during the previous two years are now a thing of the past, as Thembilo confirms when she asks him, as part of rating his progress, where he lives. He keeps quiet for a brief moment, a thoughtful expression on his face, but confidently answers: "yes, I live in South Africa – I even know the song!"