Sue-Anne Cook, much-loved founder and director of the Vhutshilo Mountain School in the Nzhelele Valley, passed away in Johannesburg on 1 November. Photo supplied.
The passing away of Sue-Anne Cook on 1 November has resulted in outpourings of love and respect, not only from the local people who knew her well and interacted with her daily, but also people from afar.
Sue-Anne has left behind a legacy that will live on at Vhutshilo Mountain School, which she founded and was the director of, as well as those who are helped by Positive Care, a non-profit organisation (NGO) that she co-founded, and in the hearts of all whom she touched with her love and care over the course of her life.
She lived in Venda for more than three decades, but in 2002 Sue-Anne started a crèche in the Nzhelele Valley, based on a sudden and irresistible impulse. A journey began that would touch the lives of many suffering people in ways that they could never have imagined. In that year, she also met the child who would become her beloved daughter, Vhuhuwavho Nevhungoni. Nevhungoni, fondly known as Woo, was a two-year-old toddler then. Her biological mother had already passed away, and her grandmother was not well, but from the day that the little girl wrapped her arms tightly around Sue-Anne’s neck, refusing to let go, the two of them became family—mother and daughter.
Sue-Anne never intended for the small crèche that she ran for three children from her mobile home for two years to become an NGO. She soon realised, though, that it would never be the income-generating business that she had originally thought it might be. The crèche quickly became a preschool for vulnerable children, particularly AIDS orphans. Over the years, it grew into the fully established centre that it is today, where children who do not have HIV and whose parents pay fees, learn side by side with children who have no parents, no money, and are also infected with the most dreaded virus in Africa.
Kathutshela Nemafhuohoni (Khathu) was Sue-Anne’s protégé at the school for many years, with Khathu supporting her in all functions as administrative and financial manager and the two of them running Vhutshilo together. The school and its outreach programmes will continue exactly as Sue-Anne wanted it to.
The life that Sue-Anne led was an eventful one, although not easy. She refused to give up, however, and was named in the 2013 Mail & Guardian Book of South African Women as one of South Africa’s extraordinary women of that year. She celebrated her ups and downs and won the hearts of many along the way, unfailing in the sharing of anything she could give or do to help those who could not help themselves. Her actions gave many people the hope of life, which is what the word Vhutshilo means in English, and the reason that she chose this name for her school - Life.
Vhutshilo has been supported by many organisations over the years, and still is, thanks to Sue-Anne’s tireless dedication. Studies have been conducted there because of the success achieved in integrating people with HIV/AIDs and not only allowing them to integrate into society, but to become successful, happy individuals. The children at Vhutshilo, who themselves try to educate others, are not ashamed of either their health or their financial status. Vhutshilo gives them what Sue-Anne intended for them to have all along - dignity and life.
Born on 4 September 1955, Sue-Anne was 63 when she succumbed to the cancer that had caused her much pain for the past year. Her most fervent prayer was to see her daughter Woo a little more established as a young adult. Gillian Enslin, a Louis Trichardt teacher and friend to both mother and daughter, said that when Sue-Anne brought Woo weekly to board at Ridgeway College from Grade 8, this was costly for them both. “Woo was very unhappy in hostel and missed Sue-Anne so much … Later, I taught Woo in maths and life sciences, where she was exceptionally hardworking and responsible. I used to take Woo to the hospital to visit Sue-Anne when she had to be admitted, so I got to know her mom then. I also took Woo home to Thathe Vondo for weekends occasionally, when Sue-Anne was not well enough to drive. They lived in a simple little house in a beautiful garden near to the lake. That was where Woo grew up and became such a loving, responsible person.”
Sue-Anne’s niece, Trudi Winton, had this to say: “Years ago, when I was just starting my journey as an adult, over a glass of wine, my Aunt Sue-Anne shared with me words of wisdom that have stayed with me … She said, ‘All you need in life is a bottle of red wine, a loaf of bread, and friends and family to share it with. If you have this, then you have a full life’. When times have been tough, these words echo in my mind to remind me how blessed I am. Sue-Anne was one of the bravest and most inspiring women I have ever known. RIP, Aunty Sue.”
Dr Murray Hofmeyr, the National Director of the Study Trust from 2008 and a lecturer in theology and philosophy at the University of Venda for 18 years prior to that, said, “We are very sad [to hear of her passing]. We were her neighbours at Thathe Vondo. She taught my kids to swim. She had a horse called Samson, who stuck his neck through the window to participate in conversations. I rode him in Santa guise for the kids’ Christmas party. Wonderful memories.”
On their Facebook page, Vhutshilo Mountain School say their farewell with “…Suzi will be sorely missed, not just by her family and friends, but by the community of Tshikombani and the hundreds of children whose lives she changed. She will be remembered not only for her selfless commitment to bettering the lives of vulnerable children, but also for the quirky sense of humour that endeared her to us all. Muya wavho u edele nga Mulalo, Vho Suzi. Your legacy lives on, but we will miss you dearly.”
And finally, from Woo, Sue-Anne’s beloved daughter: “Mom was suffering, and I could see it in her. Yesterday [1 November] was a long and painful day. It tore parts of me I never knew could get torn apart. Things took a turn for the worst and the hospital staff, her nurse, and a couple of doctors tried all they could to help my mother, but I could tell people knew what was to come. The staff were truly amazing.
“Heather and her sister Anthea were there for me throughout if all, and I was grateful to have such loving company surrounding me, because honestly in amongst all her pain and suffering, I felt like I was going to burst. I could not handle watching her in such a state, and then and there we let her know that it is okay to let go and she’s suffered for too long. I thanked her for being such an amazing mother and I told her over and over again that I love her. She got to hear me saying all of those things to her while she was going, and I think it made her feel better.
“She said to us, ‘I’m ready. I want to go.’ She put up a fight but then she just closed her eyes and slowly went. She had people who loved her and whom she loved around, and I think that was all she ever wanted. What a woman, what a woman!” said Woo.
Details of services for Sue-Anne can be found on Vhutshilo Mountain Schools’ Facebook page.
Date:10 November 2018 - By: Jo Robinson
Jo joined the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror in 2018 pursuing a career in journalism after many years of writing fiction and non-fiction for other sectors.