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Top Stories:Catalysts

STEPPING UP: STRINGS ATTACHED




Fighting AIDS in the slums of South Africa In Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town where people live in shacks made of cardboard and tin, Tuffy Kirsten is something of a pioneer. There, Kirsten, a white South African, founded Mothers Creations, a beading co-op to help HIV mothers earn a living that has since won the support of Manhattan retailer Kenneth Cole, U2’s Bono, and First Lady Laura Bush. Here is Kirsten’s story, as told to Kristin Stepanek, 23, who, during a recent trip to South Africa, interviewed mothers, thought leaders, and activists on the front lines of the AIDS crisis. What follows is an edited transcript of Tuffy Kirsten’s remarks.>


Tuffy Kirsten, the director of Mothers Creations, holding the son of one of
the HIV-positive mothers who bead in her program.


I grew up on a farm in the rural Eastern Cape, which was 20 miles from the nearest town and miles from the next-door neighbor. My first language was Xhosa; all the staff on our farm spoke it, and then so did I, which was, looking back, the most incredible thing that could have happened to me. It was years before AIDS swept the landscape; the local African children were my earliest friends and playmates, and during that time on the farm, they taught me to bead, which is very much part of the South African culture.

Beads were a means of trade in the early 1700s, and when the Dutch and English were in the Western Cape, they used to go north to trade for provisions. They exchanged these provisions for beads, including exquisite Czechoslovakian glass beads, and then brought them back to the villages of South Africa.

Each piece of beadwork that the native South Africans would make was not merely just an adornment. It meant something; it was partly how people communicated. When a young girl reached the age to be courted by a young man, she would bead herself a beautiful piece of bead lanyard, which would hang down past her waist. And when she wore it, this would signal to a young man that she was available and that he could talk to her. And if the girl liked the man, she would make him another piece of beautiful beadwork, to show him her feelings. That, then, would be how the courtship would progress. Beads have always been part of the culture, a form of communication. Culturally, they have been a way to bring people together.

And so it was entirely fitting that one day in 2002, I met up with a wonderful woman who was visiting a village near my farm; she came out from Cape Town. Jean was a friend of Mitch Besser, a doctor starting a nonprofit there to help mothers with HIV/AIDS to raise their children without leaving them orphans too soon. I was just bowled over that somebody would take the trouble to help women who really needed help, women who had been recently diagnosed as being HIV positive and yet who were pregnant.

But what these mothers really needed was money. So I talked with Jean about the possibility of using beads as a way to give these mothers a way to generate income for themselves. I think that at first, she was a little nervous because NGOs are littered with beading projects. Nevertheless, she told Mitch about me, describing me as one who speaks the language and who also can bead. Then they asked me to make them an item they could sell to start the project; I made them a beaded lanyard, which I learned how to make as a child. Jean came out to the farm to pick it up, then asked me to drive with her to the city.

I was a little nervous; I had never been to the city. But when she showed me the project, it just blew me away to see these South African people who had been displaced during Apartheid, forced to migrate from the rural areas to the bigger city, just to look for work to survive. And now many of them had HIV/AIDS; some were barely surviving. Something like 95 percent of mothers in the townships are HIV positive versus a national average of 20 percent. My heart went out to them.

Top: A group of young HIV-positive mothers learn how to bead in the tradition
of their culture, a skill nearly lost during the Apartheid era.
Bottom: A beader’s home in the township of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town.

I then met Mitch, who very kindly gave us the funding needed to start the beading project, and the very next day I bought beads, returned to Khayelitsha, and started classes. There were, initially, 11 women—all of whom had no idea how to use a needle and thread. During the Apartheid era, nobody bought African beads. They were no longer a means of trade, and a lot of their bead rituals and culture were nearly lost. Three generations just never learned to bead. So it was really very good for me to be able to give back something to the people who gave me so much when I was a child.

I started the project with 11 women on that particular day, November 25, 2002, which also was my birthday, and I baked a big cake and took it out to share with everyone.

It was slow starting, at first. The first beading projects we did were absolutely horrendous. But the women have become quite proficient since then.; during the course of the following year, we had Bono and Beyoncé come to visit the program, and then, we were visited by Kenneth Cole, and he placed a wonderful order which kept our women going for quite a long time. He spent more than two hours working with the beaders, looking at their designs, and sketching new designs of his own. At the height of his order in 2006, we had about 250 women in the townships working in Mothers Creations.

What’s good is that some of the women have figured out ways to make quite a lot of money. We pay them by the week, and they get paid up front. We’ve got women earning, on average, about 400 rand (about $53) a week because they will do just 800 grams worth of beads a week, and they’re quite happy with that, and they can live on that. Others are making up to 1,000 rand (about $133) a week. There is no minimum, which is good for the mothers because sometimes they’re not well and won’t bead for a week, or their child is not well and they can’t produce as much. But then, of course, others have been very clever and have gotten their families involved in the beading, and they earn a lot of money. We have women who have been able to buy houses with their earnings, and others have bought taxis, which is a very lucrative business for them — all with money they’ve earned from the beading.
It is striking to see these women develop from when they first arrived at the beading center. Having money gives them so much confidence. We teach mothers in the program how to open a bank account so they can keep the money for themselves and not have to go home with cash in their pockets, which can be taken away from them. Since so many of these women were in abusive relationships when they started, earning their own way means they can leave these abusive men, and it’s been wonderful for them.

I remember I had a really sick woman come out of the townships to ask me if I would teach her to bead, and I thought, Oh, my, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to teach this lady to bead. That was in February 2003. At the end of that year, she was going home, back to her family’s village, for the Christmas holiday. She came in smiling. “Makasi,” she said, calling me “aunt” in Xhosa. “This year it’s Intercape” — a luxury passenger bus line. She was at that stage of earning about 2,000 rand ($266) a week. She finally could afford to take her family back to her childhood home and put them on the Intercape, as opposed to nothing at all just months back.

There is such justice in this. We give back, we go forward, we come full circle, unbroken.
Interviewer Kristin Stepanek (left), with one of the beaders in the Mothers Creations program in Cape Town.

 

 

 

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