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.>
the director of
holding the son of one
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.
mothers who bead in
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