Rwanda women reap what Gauteng embroidery project sewed
An empowerment drive in the Winterveld has won international acclaim and now helps unemployed elsewhere on the continent generate an income
A remarkable story has emerged from an area hit by high unemployment — the Winterveld, Gauteng — where members of the Soroptimist International Pretoria Club trained a group of women in the early ’90s in an income-generating empowerment project.
The Sisters of Mercy provided a classroom and an embroidery project for the women of Mapula that started with 14 women, evolving through the years and growing to include 150 women, guided and supported by experienced individuals.
In a unique storytelling fashion, with needle and thread, these women have been sharing their stories over the past 26 years. And it is often these personal remembrances capturing SA’s past from a unique vantage point that has captured the imagination internationally. Over the years, the high levels of technical and visual artistry with social and historical commentary have resulted in recognised works of art.
Their ideas are generated from lived realities, local magazines, newspapers, the internet and television. Artists in the project draw the images while others translate them into brightly embroidered wall hangings, cushion covers, placemats and bags.
These have been exhibited widely, in SA but also internationally all over the US and Europe. Mapula embroideries and artists feature in more than 12 art publications and have won several awards.
Women in the Mapula Group won the FNB Vita Craft Now Gold award for example; an order for 52 items for the Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls was executed; many art museums globally feature their work, which are also included in many private collections, and celebrate the Mapula women.
A well-researched book, Mapula: Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld by Brenda Schmahmann was published in 2006 by David Krut Publishing.
The project now consists of three groups, two of which are situated in the Winterveld, north-west of Pretoria; with one in Hammanskraal. The production of the goods is managed by the embroiderers themselves. The Mapula Embroidery Trust with non-profit status was established in 2016.
One of the members, Pinky Resenga, says that the project saved her from a life of drinking and living on the streets.
“With the income I could extend my mother’s house. After helping her I hope to build my own four rooms for myself and my children,” Resenga says.
The income generated through the project has assisted women over the years to clothe, feed and educate their children. Now, 28 years later, the project with its strong foundations is well established.
A few years ago, after visiting the project, Netty Butera, wife of the Rwandan high commissioner to SA, approached the Soroptimists who initiated Mapula to start a similar project in her country with the initial training of 12 women.
Again it was to add value and the possibility of a regular income to extremely vulnerable women in the south of Rwanda at Kibeho, close to the Burundi border.
It is regarded as a holy place because it is believed the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenagers there in 1981. It marked the rise of the remote Kibeho to a spiritual hub in the global arena. Many pilgrims visit annually and if the women instead of begging could generate an income from the sale of an embroidery project, it would improve their self-esteem and offer their children a different future.
Following much planning, three women — Rosina Maepa and Dorah Hlongwane from the Mapula Embroidery Project and Janetje van der Merwe from Soroptimist International Pretoria — left for Rwanda with suitcases packed with embroidery cotton, fabric, a brand-new sewing machine, two steam irons, needles and scissors — all to get the project started in a new country.
Local contacts, liaisons as well as facilitators were arranged to keep the process flowing and in the past few years, another training trip for a further 19 women was included, bringing the total number of women who are part of the project to 31.
Marketing of the products is still a huge problem and something they hope to improve dramatically so that those involved benefit to the maximum.
SA is a country that makes it easy for individuals to reach out. Some wonder if their efforts make a difference, but when one witnesses a project such as Mapula and how the lives of people are changed — even across borders — it shows how even a little assistance can go a long way.
• A fundraising afternoon, followed by dinner, will be held at the residence of the Rwandan high commissioner in Pretoria on March 31. Tickets for the event are R200 per person and bookings can be made on 083 447 7909/082 903 1178/073 564 8215.