What would Nelson Mandela have thought about a women’s cooperative at Londolozi?
I found myself asking that question – not because I was feeling particularly philosophical or political – but because I was strolling up Nelson Mandela Way in the Londolozi village, en route to a weekly women’s cooperative meeting that was taking place in the new Ubuntu hut.
To be honest, I was quietly looking forward to this meeting (even though I’m a boy!). I know the word “cooperative” sounds redundant and staid, but having worked in development in South Africa for a little over two years, I have seen first-hand the growing leadership and influence of rural women, both young and old.
The meeting had already begun as I dipped my head under the hut’s thatched lip. Lina Lamula – bedecked in her signature shweshwe headscarf – was chairing the discussion, and around the table sat a gathering of wise old Londolozi matriarchs.
Annie Mnisi from housekeeping, on my right, nodded her head as I sat, before turning her attention back to her sewing. Gogo Mo Groch was at the head of the table next to Lina. I spotted Nora Ubisi opposite me, leaning against the timber frame. Ma Nora is an African healer who has been at Londolozi for decades and was once quoted as saying: “N’wana wa nyoka inyoka” or “the baby of a snake is still a snake” (you have been warned…).
The majority of the meeting took place in Shangaan, and I suspect it was for the benefit of the matriarchs, who occasionally nodded or hummed their consent – a vibration of endorsement that seemed to settle most matters. However, there were crossovers into English and that’s when the voices of the younger women were heard.
Thoko Godi, Londolozi’s ‘2020 Person of the Year’, spoke at length about the vision for the gardening project: an initiative that will see the women’s cooperative sell organically grown, seasonal produce to the Londolozi kitchen.
Nomsa Nkosi discussed the product release plan for the Craft Centre, including quality control processes, merchandising, photography, and product descriptions (I would urge guests to visit the Craft Centre when visiting Londolozi – the locally produced jewellery collection features some of the most exquisite Shangaan beading, and the Centre is located in a traditional Shangaan village).
Incidentally, at the previous meeting, Kim Drake – Londolozi’s Procurement Manager – had facilitated a stocktaking workshop and the Craft Centre has already implemented a number of new business practices to improve budgeting with the help of Pippa van den Heever, Londolozi’s Accountant.
There are a number of other strategic projects that have been spearheaded by the group. The famous Londolozi choir is a women’s cooperative initiative, as is ‘The Sewing Project’ which produces a range of hand-made stuffed toy elephants. There is also a traditional food project in planning stages that will one day allow guests to enjoy an authentic Shangaan food experience hosted by matriarchs (read: experienced and trusted chefs) in the village.
Of course, there have been challenges. Procuring seeds for the vegetable gardens was one, and ensuring a level of product consistency on The Sewing Project was another, but the point is to learn.
“It’s about being a team,” says Gogo Mo. “We are taking what we have been doing in the village anyway, and formalising it so that the women’s cooperative can benefit economically, but also so that we can learn about running a business. Perhaps most important, as we learn, we are developing future leaders.”
When you are next visiting Londolozi, I would strongly recommend a guided walk through the village. To this day I get goose bumps every time I walk along Nelson Mandela Way. You will be amazed at what I can only describe as the hive of activity “at the back.”
The thing is, and what I am coming to realise, is that “at the back” is actually “at the front.”
Through community led projects, like the women’s cooperative, like the Londolozi “guerilla” gardening initiative, like the Sunday walks (where the team gets together to tidy up the village), there is a feeling of “let’s start small, but let’s do things better.”
What would Nelson Mandela think of the Londolozi Women’s Cooperative?
I think he would be incredibly proud. Proud because these women are working together. Proud because they aren’t afraid to take the first step. Proud because the “gogos” and young women are working hand-in-hand. And proud because he will have seen a handful of men in the crowd, welcomed by the women and ready to contribute to the future success of the group.
If you would like to know more about the women’s cooperative, or, you would like to find a way to connect or volunteer your skills when you are visiting Londolozi, please contact Gogo Mo Groch: firstname.lastname@example.org.