Using creativity to fight poverty

2011-08-30 00:00

NESTLED between two private game ­reserves at the end of a long and sandy road, deep in rural northern Zululand, a group of local entrepreneurial woman are using their creativity to fight unemployment and poverty.

Their workshop is the floor of a lounge in a small house in the Hluhluwe district. Here, surrounded by bundles of colourful grasses strewn on woven mats, the ladies of the Vezumnotho Weavers Club deftly use needles, made by recycling the tips of the ribs of old umbrellas, into ­baskets, bowls, medallions and stools.

The women, whose houses are scattered throughout the mountainous area, also regularly gather together to collect the materials they need for weaving, and to share their skills with others eager to learn their craft.

They also take this opportunity to ­allocate the orders that they have ­received from Khumbulani Craft, a non-profit organisation (NPO), which aims to alleviate poverty in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga through the design, ­production, marketing and sale of traditional and contemporary craft.

Vezumnotho (meaning develop wealth) was established in 1997, with five members who wanted to earn an income through the sale of the woven items they traditionally made for their homes.

Initially, they had to rely on the rest of the community to buy their items, and to take them to nearby centres where they hoped to find other buyers. But since approaching Khumbulani Craft for assistance, shortly after the NPO began in 1999, things have changed significantly.

Vezumnotho members have received mentorship and training in business skills, as well as assistance in accessing both national and international markets. And, as a result of the increase in sales of their products, they have been able to generate enough income to provide food and clothing for their families, and to send their children to school.

The club now has 25 members, and the women say that the improvement in their living standards is attracting youth and other community members to learn the craft and to get involved.

Traditional skills are at risk of dying off due to the lack of interest by the young to learn. But groups like this are demonstrating that it is not necessary to flock to the cities in order to provide for one’s family.

Surrounded by strands of vivid blue, bottle green, deep orange and mud-brown Ilala palm strands, their curious children sit and watch how they use the strands of colours and their imagination to weave intricate and complicated patterns into beautiful baskets of all shapes and sizes.

Giggling shyly and with eyes sparkling with excitement, they talk to them about the photographs they have seen of their work in magazines and in homes in Europe and the United States, places they have only read or heard about.

According to Khumbulani Craft’s ­executive director, Jane Zimmermann, the development of the craft industry not only revives and assists in the survival of old indigenous art forms and ­techniques, but is a powerful means of ­contributing towards income generation in the light of the high rate of ­unemployment in South Africa, ­especially in rural areas. It is estimated that at least 50% of indigenous craft workers live in South Africa’s rural ­areas.

“While the empowerment of rural women particularly remains a national priority for South Africa, it will take many years yet to deliver the infrastructure, health services, electricity and ­education so desperately needed by those so remotely located, many whose daily chores still require walking great distances for wood, and queuing for hours to obtain water,” Zimmermann said.

Many crafters are not yet able to ­access markets because of their isolation and lack of infrastructure and education. Khumbulani Craft is assisting them, not only with marketing and skills transfer, but also with a number of other ­interventions including environmental responsibility, product development, transport, monitoring and mentoring.

Along with their age-old knowledge of weaving, the ladies relish the opportunity to learn new designs. Although not ­employed by the NPO, they receive ­training in product development.

This has shifted their mind-set, as they are not only crafting the traditional ­designs Zulu weavers are well-known for, but are looking at new creations and patterns that will appeal to different markets. Their products are then ­collected by Khumbulani’s field staff for cataloguing, packing and distribution to buyers situated worldwide.

Comprehensive rural development is one of the key priorities of South Africa’s government. At the launch of its rural- development programme in August 2009, President Jacob Zuma stated that various cultural activities, such as ­traditional music, arts and crafts and traditional sports, could be useful ­income-generating activities in our rural areas, and should be harnessed.

The Vezumnotho Weavers Club is a prime example of how, by recognising and harnessing the skills of South ­Africa’s people, and by providing necessary marketing and business skills ­support — the bleak future facing so many of our rural communities can certainly change.

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