The Grail in the USA

Soweto, South Africa, written by Becky Hill

In addition to the amazing IGA meeting itself, I found the visit we made to the Skills Development Co-Operative in Soweto (South West Township) in Johannesburg , South Africa, a very moving experience. Winding our way through the maze of corrugated iron shacks that house many of the 2 million-plus residents of the “informal settlements” that make up Soweto, we made a sharp right turn at Corner 16 to reach the Grail Project.

The project we visited, started over 30 years ago by Ann Mohr and Thandi Maud Makwakwa, is one of five sites that have trained more than 4,000 people in the last three decades in production sewing, tailoring and dressmaking. Training in upholstery has recently been added. Included in the compound is the Kliptown Youth Program, which also offers adult computer classes, and a daycare center for children, one to six years old. Three of the sites in Soweto are training centers and two are production centers, sewing items by contract, employing women to support their families in an area with more than 50% unemployment and heart-breaking living conditions. Soweto was central in the intense struggle against apartheid and is typical of the resulting conditions (lack of skills, housing, infrastructure) that institutionalized racism and forced segregation engenders. Even though the apartheid system was officially dismantled more than 15 years ago, its results, as seen and lived in Soweto, are very much apparent.

I had arranged to purchase a number of the African Tribal Dolls that are made by women at one of the production centers to bring back to the Grailville store and very much wanted to see if there are ways we could be supportive to their industry, creativity and diligence. In the short visit there, I was educated by their determination and spirit, and inspired to want to somehow reach across, from my world to theirs, at the bottom of the world. All I have so far are a few dolls, and some ideas, and a wish to connect more.

  • Onica Nonhlanhla Makwakwa says:

    Thank you for this story; Thandi Makwakwa was my mother. I was a pre-teen when she started the co-op and feel like that’s where I grew up. She died in September 2011 and very much missed by her family and community. I hope you will continue to support the coop and many other similar initiatives that help improve the quality of life for women, their families and communities. God Bless.

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