I did not think the highlight of my week in Swaziland would be making Vaseline, but this life has many unexpected moments………so more on that later.
I often read the complaint that too many are too dependent and incapable or unwilling to look after themselves. Today, I saw three projects that confound many of the assumptions made in our world – and often by African men too – that African women cannot shake off the hardship they experience, and are not capable of taking up bigger challenges.
I am here mainly to support and assess Tools for Life. Our pilot project is training women in carpentry skills in a really hard to reach rural location. The women volunteered through SWAPOL – Swaziland Positive Living – the Swazi partner of UK based Positive Women. They have been affected by HIV/Aids in some way, and want to earn an independent income. They have orders for benches and tables so their dream could become a reality if this course works.
We drove for 2 hours to Mgomfelweni, most of it along a dusty uneven track that must be damaging our minibus. But once there I was inspired by what I saw. Women in Construction - a UK based group – are supporting the training and these women are fast learners. After four weeks at the Technical College in Manzini, they have had two weeks back here in the community. And already most have almost finished their first school bench.
Faith, maybe 25 years old, explained to me that this was important to the women: a chance to raise the living standards and security of their families. Women ranging in age from 20 to 50 are hard at work, chiseling to perfection the joints required to make school benches. They support each other, listen to advice on the tools and using the benches, and they stick at it until the wood fits into place. Lomathemba is most advanced, but also keeps everyone cheery with her singing and dancing.
Later I took a short break with Zodwa to visit two other enterprises that she and her amazing colleagues are engaged in locally. One was a seedlings nursery where they grow seedling vegetable plants and then sell them on at R5 a time (approx 40p) generating a healthy profit for those involved.
The other was a Vaseline manufacturing facility. Mixing Aloe leaves and other ingredients with some pretty cheap and unpleasant petroleum jelly, the women turn 140Rand of ingredients into 500Rand of quality Vaseline that is sold in small tubs as far away as South Africa. The women poked some fun in my direction, and we shared a good laugh. But this was serious community enterprise in action.
Poor rural communities in developing countries need more than longer-term income generation projects to survive right now. But these and similar initiatives, generating economic activity using people and their skills, are life changing. We need more of them.