Women from the Gone Rural BoMake co-operative work under the Swazi sun. They dye grass in vivid colours – red and yellow. Other grass remains natural beige. It’s left to dry on outdoor tables.
The women will weave the grass into a variety of items, from baskets to chandeliers. Yael Uzan-Tidhar is program director for the co-operative. She says the beautiful baskets are sold in airport gift shops throughout the world. But the group is about more than that. The co-operative uses its profits to meet community needs. This year, it has budgeted 200,000 American dollars (approximately 140,000 Euros) for social welfare programs.
Zihle Vilakati is a basket weaver. She says women in her community were tired of waiting for rural development programs promised by the government. So they joined together to earn some money. They began harvesting lutizi grass, which grows abundantly in Swaziland’s mountainous north.
The founders of the group had large families to support. Yet, from the beginning, they put some money aside to help others. They direct a portion of their profits towards the care and schooling of children orphaned by AIDS.
The co-operative has grown quickly to almost 800 members. A survey was conducted to determine their priorities. The women identified their needs as children’s education and water.
The co-operative’s school bursary program now pays school fees for 400 children. The next big initiative involves borehole wells. Mkhuleko Hlatshwako is coordinator of the group’s water, sanitation, and hygiene initiative.
He explains that women walk several kilometres each day to collect water from rivers. In the past, some borehole wells had been set up by donors. But with no funds for maintenance and no spare parts available, they have fallen into disrepair. The women’s co-operative has already met with communities to ensure new boreholes will be maintained. Community water committees have been established to maintain the wells and a bank account established to collect donations. The co-operative will ensure that the well is built using locally available materials so that it can be repaired when necessary.
As Ms. Vilakati puts it, the women have taken on the task of “lifting themselves up.” Additional programs run by the co-operative include women’s literacy initiatives, workshops to inform women of their legal rights, and a playmobile that travels to remote communities, bringing toys and games to children.