Inspirational journeys, South African-style

It’s amazing whom you end up meeting.

 

Over the last week or so, I seem to have come across a number of people who are doing what can only be described as inspiring things with their lives, albeit in a number of different shapes and forms.

 

So I don’t know whether there’s something in the air. But if there is and I were going to try and distill it down in any kind of coherent fashion, I’d say that it’s about seizing opportunities, taking risks and effecting change when your current life is no longer working for you. It’s that kind of thing.

 

So first on my list of inspirational souls is Stephanie, a French woman who manages the Kraal Gallery in Stellenbosch. She came to South Africa about 20 or so years ago for a three-month holiday, met her future husband and ended up staying here – after spending a couple of years in London with him and tying the knot there, that is.

 

Although Stephanie had, until quite recently, followed a fairly traditional employment route working for the usual large corporations, last year she decided that, despite the financial benefits, it was no longer the life for her and gave it all up.

 

After a couple of months of unemployment, she started working at weekends for the Firlands Farm Stall near Somerset West, a town about 20km from Stellenbosch, which sold the Kraal Gallery’s hand-woven goods. But she has since taken over the management of its shop in my new hometown, relocated to Somerset West with her dog and transformed her life.

 

Because the Kraal Gallery (www.thekraalgallery.com) isn’t just any old gallery. It’s an innovative social development programme that was set up and is sponsored by a local businessman (and individual donations) in order to train historically disadvantaged women in how to become master weavers, or ‘weaverbirds’.

 

Unique, hand-woven goods

 

On completion of their training, the women are employed by the Gallery, with the aim of creating unique hand-woven rugs, wall hangings, bags and the like, all of which are sold in either one of the organisation’s two physical outlets or online.

 

A key selling point of these bright and beautiful goods is that no two pieces are alike – although, given the supermarket chains’ penchant for uniformity, such a philosophy has made it difficult to get them interested, unfortunately.

 

However, unlike many such schemes, an important plus of this one is that it offers workers a daily wage rather than simply paying them on the sale of items that they’ve made – an approach that ultimately has to be much more sustainable for women coming from deprived communities who live hand-to-mouth as it is.

 

Although the most experienced weavers operate out of the Gallery’s shop in Stellenbosch in order to showcase their techniques, a workshop also opened up in the rural community of Genadendal about four or so years ago.

 

Genadendal is a settlement of 4,500 people, which is made up mostly of households where single mothers with between three and four children are the key breadwinners, but have to rely on mainly seasonal agricultural work to survive. Which means that initiatives such as the Kraal Gallery’s act as a true lifeline.

 

And working for such an organisation has made a real difference to Stephanie’s outlook on life too. She may have less money in her pocket than she did once-upon-a-time, but she sure as hell looks forward to getting up in the morning, seeing what new people and opportunities the day will bring and, ultimately, feeling like she’s doing something worthwhile.

 

Next on my list of motivating life stories, meanwhile, is an English woman called Janet, whom I met here at my B&B in Stellenbosch – unfortunately just as she was leaving South Africa after five weeks in the country as I’d like to have got to know her better.

 

102 faces

 

A former art teacher, Janet decided to pack it all in at 61 and go travelling by herself, after a light bulb came on in her head and she decided that it was time to start pursuing her dreams. Her key aim was to learn new art techniques from various artists around the world in order to apply them to her own practice.

 

The problem with the UK’s art scene apparently is that it is now so stuck in its consistently modernist ways that students barely learn how to draw in the classical sense let alone innovate beyond their narrow establishment confines.

 

But after raising three kids and going through a divorce, Janet was keen to broaden her horizons and do what she’d always wanted to do – paint.

 

So she set up a web site called www.102faces.com  (100faces.com was no longer available) and set off with the idea of finding interesting fizogs to photograph and later capture using techniques that she’d learned from the artists she’d worked and studied with.

 

Each completed painting will appear in her ‘102 faces’ online gallery and will be auctioned off to raise funds for multiple sclerosis, a cause dear to Janet’s heart. She herself was diagnosed with the condition at 15, with her parents being informed that she’d be lucky to make it past 19.

 

Nonetheless, she survived and thrived, only to be told again at the age of 43 that she should prepare herself to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair – and soon.

 

Not long afterwards, however, it came to light that Janet had, in fact, been misdiagnosed all along – at 15, she had suffered a brain virus that had caused a weakness in her left side and presented in a similar fashion to MS.

 

Perfect marriage venue

 

But Janet isn’t the only person in her family to have taken off into the wide blue yonder in a bid to experience the new. Her son, Alex, and his fiancee, Lisa, are also travelling the world and, indeed, were part of a mix of factors that inspired her to take action in the first place.

 

After a few bottles of wine over which they bemoaned the lack of unique wedding locations available to them, the couple decided not just to talk about it, but to actually embark on a three-year-long journey to find the perfect marriage venue.

 

Alex sold his car body repair shop along with their house and both worked all the hours God sent to finance their plans, which included purchasing a 25-year-old camper van named ‘Peggy’ as their vehicle – and home – of choice.

 

After setting up a website called http://www.2people1life.com to raise sponsorship and keep interested parties informed of progress, Alex and Lisa have so far been unofficially married in around 37 ceremonies around the world, where the focus has been on embracing local culture and traditions.

 

Weddings to date include a Voodoo event in New Orleans, a First Nation celebration in Vancouver Island, Canada, and a Zulu ceremony in a township near Johannesburg  – and they’ve become a big hit in countries such as Brazil, and the US where their activities are being televised.

 

At the end of it all, however, the pair intend to select their favourite venue and make honest people of themselves there – accompanied by someone who has donated to the Unicef ‘Zankyou Wedding Register’ fund and has won an all-expenses paid trip to join them.

 

So there you go. “It’s been an incredible journey”, as they say (oh so cheesily) on the X-Factor – but it’s been an inspirational one too.  

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