Nearly every day a group of women in the small town of Dete, near Hwange National Park, gather together to stitch beautiful robes, tote-bags and handbags that are sold at African Bush Camps.
The women call their group Thandanani – meaning in Ndebele, loving and caring for one another.
Their primary, most urgent, goal is to generate funds to pay their children’s school fees – $60/ year for primary education, $210 for secondary. Students who fail to bring the fees on the first days of school are likely to be sent home. The women also need money to pay their rent and utility bills. Equally important, from what they told me and what I observed during the five days I spent with them in September, is the emotional and social support they draw from the group: these women have somewhere to go each day with a shared purpose and they can open up and express their wishes and hopes and frustrations.
Thandanani was launched by African Bush Camps’ Foundation, which seeks to empower and uplift people living in fragile ecosystems close to the borders of such national treasures as Hwange National Park. Thandanani is not a charity. After an initial donation of fabric and sewing supplies from the Foundation, the women have been paying for all materials used to produce their merchandise.
As a visitor to Zimbabwe from the U.S., I was asked to bring the Thandanani women some new ideas and inspiration for other items they could produce that might expand their potential market within and beyond the bush camps. I quilt from time to time, but I’m not a “craftsperson” beyond appreciating beautiful handiwork. So before my visit I let friends and family know that I was searching for fresh ideas, and we came up with several projects that the women interpreted with their own aesthetic using the bold-themed, intensely colorful African fabrics and their great sewing skills.
The women range in age from 20 something to mid-40s. Four are widows, two are married, and one is single. Most are supporting children and grandchildren.
During my visit I stayed at the Miombo Safari Lodge, a 2 km walk from the women’s high-density neighborhood. The management offered me a comfortable staff room at a very reasonable rate. As elephants and buffalo occasionally wander through the area, the women insisted that two of them accompany me to and from the township. We never encountered wildlife along way the way, and one woman later told me that the real reason for escorting me is that it’s the African way to take care of guests in this manner. I couldn’t convince them to let me walk alone. But it was nice to have the company. They all spoke English so we had good conversations.
These experienced seamstress learned very quickly how to assemble the items for which I’d brought images and some instructions: cloth baskets, interlined to provide some body; pieced place-mats with cotton batting; and a crazy quilt. They have a great sense of design and color. We had fun stitching the crazy quilt, and most of us contributed to it. Afterwards, we talked about ideas for other abstract, but more organized quilts – and they liked the images I’d brought from the Gees Bend quilters of Alabama. But the Thandanani women will come up with their own designs. While working, the women chat constantly in the soft tones of Ndebele that is punctuated by those lovely click sounds. There’s always a lot of laughter and checking cell phones and interruptions by children and people stopping by. The house is on a corner of the township, and no one passes without some sort of greeting or comment. Usually once a day the talk got a little bawdy, producing much laughter from all.
Towards the end of my stay we critiqued their work – what they had produced before and during my visit – and the need for quality control, checking each step for errors. They’re still not making enough money to cover their monthly expenses, so the idea of selling directly to Europe or America excited them. I believe they can definitely meet the standards demanded by the overseas market; if this happens they could significantly augment their incomes.