Evolving with Aunty Maggie’s legacy

The late Maggie Oewies-Shongwe and Helen Shongwe-Phillips.

Helen Shongwe-Phillips considers herself blessed to have inherited the Pinocchio crèche that her mother Maggie Oewies-Shongwe started during the difficult days of 1984.

Aunty Maggie, as she was fondly known, died last month at the age of 80.

The Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre is nestled between Main Road and Helen Suzman Boulevard in Green Point.

“My mother was a resilient person and persevered to establish this EDC, she believed that there’s power in encouraging children to being their unique self, building their self-esteem; this is not just a place where parents drop off their kids, they are here to learn,” said Ms Shongwe-Phillips and added, “We follow the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) for 2 to 5-year olds, and Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) for the Grade Rs.

Kids at Pinocchio are taught to play the violin.

“There’s a violin development programme, a gardening project and physical education. We believe that we are building a solid foundation in these rapidly changing times.”

Aunty Maggie, a domestic worker who was self educated, founded the Domestic Workers’ Association Educational Trust in 1974 after witnessing how badly domestic workers were treated.

When she was pregnant with Helen 10 years later, she recognised a difficulty that many domestic workers, including caregivers and gardeners, experienced – they needed a place where their children could be looked after; the Pinocchio crèche arose from these issues.

“My mother, at the age of seven, saw how her father was shot by the state police. He, Hans Oewies, was a teacher and a freedom fighter and that’s why he was executed. Her mother died a few months after that. But by this time her father’s influence shaped her,” she said of her mother’s childhood in Otjiwarongo, Namibia.

“She taught herself, she spoke English, Afrikaans and German. By the age of nine she was a domestic worker and that’s where her journey began to Pinocchio began, she was a natural born leader and teacher,” Ms Shongwe-Phillips spoke proudly of her mother’s achievements.

“Over the years she built up trust with the community of Green Point and in 1998 we moved into this former bowling club. It was derelict, empty for years and my mother saw the opportunity to establish the crèche here. We are constantly in communication with the City of Cape Town regarding the lease, the maintenance of our space and our plans,” said Ms Shongwe-Phillips, a recipient of three Certificates of Appreciation from the Western Cape Department of Social Development among many other awards.

“My father died a year after we moved here; he played a major role in cleaning up this place and settling us in here. He was of course loved by us, a gentle giant. My husband is similar to my dad in that he is hands on at the crèche, seeing to the upkeep of it.

The latest challenge facing Ms Shongwe-Phillips is the national lockdown and the taxi violence undermining productivity.

“We’ve had to cut down on staff due to the pandemic. The staff we have all play a pivotal role in ensuring the children in our care are not only learning but are also safe,” she said of her six-person team.

“We have children who are raised by grandparents as a result of their parents’ substance abuse. We have children living in informal settlements, many of whom weren’t able to attend school this week as a result of the ongoing taxi violence. We have parents who worked in the hospitality and restaurant industry whose sectors have been hardest hit during the pandemic and the ongoing lockdowns. Many are on short time or have been laid off completely. Taxi violence has become an all too familiar occurrence, this has been a problem for decades, this week we had to persuade an Uber driver to take some of our staff home to places like Mitchell’s Plain and Eerste Rivier.”

Nonetheless, the 36-year old is keen to carry on the legacy of Aunty Maggie.

“She founded a preschool on the Atlantic Seaboard, an area designated for white people during a time of segregation in South Africa. The baton has been passed to me and it’s our responsibility to move forward, we have plans, we have to make sure that this foundation continues to be solid.”

There is ample space to play at the Pinocchio creche.