From homelessness to the halls of Buckingham Palace, foster carer Jennie Ngulube has had an incredible journey. Ruby Kitchen reports.
A grandmother from Leeds, turning from teaching to a role she found more inspiring, hoped to ease the burden for troubled children.
Becoming a foster carer more than a decade ago, she had hoped to instill a sense of stability for those facing a life of turmoil. Since that time, she has fostered more than 20 young people and in 2015 was awarded an MBE for services to children.
But her journey doesn’t stop here. Having penned her autobiography, she hopes to fund a life-changing endeavour, to inspire thousands more and give them the best start in life. Her goal is to build an orphanage in Zimbabwe.
“Fostering is not a job to me, it’s never been a job,” the 53-year-old said. “I need to do something positive. I do connect with the kids. I know what it’s like to be segregated, to be hurt, to be alone. But I know how it feels to find yourself in all that, to find hope and keep going.
“My dream is to build an orphanage. It’s not just about a building and food, we need to find a way to bring back lost hope to a child.”
Brought up in a tiny village in rural Zimbabwe during colonial times, Ms Ngulube’s own childhood is a world away from her home in Leeds today.
It was a time of conflict, as the country fought for independence from British rule, with few offered the chance of an education or a career. Her father, determined to create a change, had insisted she go to school, but it was shut down after an attack by freedom fighters.
When her mother fell ill, she stepped in to look after her siblings at the age of 12. When independence was declared in 1980, the year she finished school in Harare with hopes of becoming a teacher, it spelled the beginning of a dark time in the country’s history.
“We were very excited, we had a bit of freedom,” she said. “But it was short-lived. By 1982, the city was chaos. I remember running away, running for my life. Gunshots everywhere.”
As a young adult, there were to be more horrors. In the early 1980s, a campaign of terror was waged against Ndebele speakers, with fears more than 20,000 civilians were killed.
“People who spoke my language were wiped out,” she said. “I lost a lot of my friends, a lot of relatives. It was for nothing. We had been marginalised from the day I was born. We had never known peace. For us, independence had done nothing but traumatise us.”
In 2002, Ms Ngulube left Zimbabwe, moving to England with her four children. She found herself homeless, utterly reliant on the state. She returned to teaching, working with special needs children. But a single parent, with few friends, she was lonely and miserable.
“By the time I left Zimbabwe, nothing mattered so much to me as connecting with someone else,” she said. “My journey has seen a lot of pain. I wanted to use that pain. I was burning inside, I had this desire to help somehow.
“I don’t like playing the victim. I don’t let it stop me in my tracks. I wanted to do something to make a difference. I wasn’t feeling that in teaching. Fostering, really, has been my whole life.”
Since 2007, Ms Ngulube has fostered more than 20 children, although she insists she counts the changes, not the numbers. Some have stayed just for respite care, others for years.
“My children never want to leave!” she laughs. “I grew up with the idea that you look after others' needs before yourself. That’s what carries me, that’s how I work. But I couldn’t have stood on my own as a foster carer, without a network to catch me when I needed to be caught.”
In 2015, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Honours list, for services to children.
When the letter had arrived, from the Cabinet office, she had presumed it was to do with election campaigning and had ignored it. When she finally opened it, she couldn’t understand.
“I read it, and read it again,” she said. “Then my partner had to read it to me. It didn’t make sense.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think anybody was noticing what I was doing.”
This recognition, she says, was the greatest honour. But she is determined to use it to power good. Her next goal is to build her dream of an orphanage.
“What I’m doing now is a drop in the ocean,” she said. “In Zimbabwe, you can’t cross a street without a child begging, or a child sleeping in rags.
“I’m hoping to build something they can call home.
“I’m so hopeful for a bright future. Zimbabwe is the bright basket of Africa. I think we will see the beginning of a new dawn.”