My Trip JournalHere is a brief summary to let everyone know what we did on our trip to Sweetwaters, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (green arrow at the bottom of the map) in January 2008 teaching quilting to the Zulu Quilt Guild at the Mzansi Quilting Centre.
After taking almost 2 ½ days to get from Ontario, Canada to South Africa I was ready to begin my Humanitarian Mission to teach quilting. I had had enough of airports, 9 hour layovers, trying to sleep on the 17 hour plane flight and just wanted to start teaching- the reason for going to South Africa.
Saturday January 5th and Sunday January 6th were spent setting up the New Mzansi Quilting Centre. Previously they held classes in the community of Sweetwaters in the old bus station. There was one room for sewing and one supply room. The Guild members that have their own sewing machines and hydro in their homes can also work at their home. Once the quilts are pieced and ready for quilting they would then go to another location for machine quilting. Since they had outgrown this original facility, another location was built to hold the piecing classes, long arm machines, sell fabrics and sell the finished quilts. This location also has a dorm, kitchen and bathroom facilities for the quilters.
Everything had been put into the new Quilting Centre but still needed to be unpacked, set up and organized. Not to mention cleaned! They had one long arm quilting machine that needed to be moved to that location, and 3 other long arm and short arm quilting machines that had been donated and they needed to be set up as well. In the piecing area the machines needed to be cleaned and oiled and set up on tables to be ready for classes on Monday morning. The front cash desk needed organizing as well as setting up the ironing table, cutting table and fat ¼ shelves. The finished quilts for sale get displayed on the walls of the centre and those quilts needed to be hung. They also have a "bed" they use for quilt turning when customers would like to see what quilts they have for sale and we needed to arrange the quilts on display here too. We all worked quite hard and got very dirty. I have never been so covered in red dirt, as I had been this whole week! Thankfully the weather was comfortable for working and was more spring like. Not too hot and humid yet. Note the fact I said yet!!
Sunday night the quilters arrived as the centre has a 12 bed dorm in the back. These women come to the centre and spend a few days so they can piece quilts and quilt them as well. It is almost like a quilting retreat. Because none of them have cars and some live farther away, they have the option to stay a few days to accomplish more work and use the machines and supplies at the Quilting Centre.
Monday morning was the first day of teaching and there were so many classes and teaching locations it was amazing how organized we all were. Throughout the week there were 4 classes where the students learned machine quilting from the very beginning of loading the quilt on the machine and setting up the pantograph pattern to machine maintenance as well as custom quilting.
There were classes where the students learned free motion machine quilting on domestic machines, classes to teach hand quilting, machine appliqué and hand appliqué, marking your designs on the quilt and piecing classes where the students learned to piece new blocks which they made into pillows that they would then sell at the centre.
One of the afternoons that week I had the opportunity to go into Sweetwaters to teach one of the piecing classes. Because of the quantity of classes and students, we had 2 remote locations in addition to the Quilting Centre which all offered classes. It was a bit dismal to see where they had been working for the past few years, but so encouraging seeing how bright and useful the new Mzansi Centre is.
You would think that after working all day long teaching, I would have been tired in the evenings. But no. It might have been that I was running on adrenaline or that my internal clock was still 7 hours behind. A few of the evenings Jane and I went back up to the centre to visit with the women and to do more long arm machine quilting. Sounds like home, work all day and then back to work in the evenings!! We were able to show a few women more quilting techniques and helped them quilt their quilts they were going to sell. After we left, the ladies stayed up to finish bindings. Others pieced their quilts, added borders etc. while we machine quilted with our smaller group. Everyone worked so hard that week. The week got progressively hotter and way more humid. By the end of the week 35oC and humid was common and even the fans didn't seem to cool anyone off. Friday afternoon the classes ended and we spent time tidying up the centre after a very rewarding and productive week of quilting.
On Saturday from 9 AM to 1 PM the centre had its grand opening. The local Rotary Club had spread the word on the opening, local newspapers ran stories and ads for the opening and even one lady that was on the plane with one of the teachers came to the opening. Can you tell we told anyone and everyone we met on our journey to Africa why we were coming? The Mzansi Quilting Centre is now also on the Midlands Meander route which is a craft tour of the region that puts out maps for visitors and tourists. This will increase the traffic to the centre and generate more sales. Jane and I did machine quilting demonstrations on the long arm machines. Many guests bought fabric, some bought quilts and others came to see what the facility was like. Being a very British culture we had morning tea and refreshments for the opening too. People kept coming even after 1PM, that's how busy the opening was!
Mid afternoon we all drove to Sweetwaters to have a traditional Zulu braai- their word for BBQ. The children's choir sang for us, we watched the young men do a traditional warrior dance and the men and women also entertained us with some traditional dancing. All the women were dressed up in traditional Zulu clothing, which consisted of a specific flat topped hat, bead collar and bead belt. It wouldn't be South Africa with out some kind of conflict or protest and some of the locals thought we would like to witness one first hand. Once the protesters disbanded we had our lunch, which included rice, poutou, mealie bread, curried chicken, swiss chard, beef, samp and beans and other foods I can't pronounce. Thankfully I didn't see any maas which is a favourite of the Zulu people. It is very thick milk that is purposely soured and stinks like nothing you have ever smelled. It almost makes you want to be lactose intolerant!
Sunday, our last day, was spent driving along part of the Midlands Meander route so that we could see the scenic countryside and do a little bit of shopping. It is a long tour and might take a few days to see the whole area, so we decided to narrow our area and see only part of the tour. We did pass by the location where Nelson Mandela was arrested along this route. Even with the end of Apartheid, South Africa is a very troubled country with extreme poverty. The landscape is so mountainous and lush. The month of straight rain might have something to do with the tall grasses, flowering trees and leafy bushes. The area seems to be a very crafty region and along the Meander we stopped at a wind chime store, pottery shop, lavender farm, a craft market and many artist's studios. This seems like a very well marked and publicized craft tour so I think it will benefit the Quilting Centre a great deal to be listed on this popular route.
After saying goodbye to the rest of the group Monday January 14th it was sad to think of our trip nearing its end as the time here just flew by. 2 days, 3 planes, 4 take offs and landing, countless in flight movies, delayed luggage and before we knew it we were back home to the cold and snowy Canadian winter we had only just left behind. Thanks again to everyone who helped make this Humanitarian Trip possible, I hope I made you all proud and I couldn't have done it without you.
If you are interested in purchasing a quilt from Africa and supporting these quilters please contact the Mzansi Zulu Quilt Centre directly. We saw first hand what a difference the sales would make to their lives. By selling one quilt, a family can buy food for 4 months and the sale of multiple quilts will enable the quilt maker to install electricity into their home and bring water to their property. Their livelihood depends on selling these beautiful quilts and genuine works of art. Each quilt has a label sewn on the back with a photo and story about the quilt maker so you can learn more about them and their family. These stories will truly touch your heart.
Mzansi Zulu Quilt Centre- Contact Elisabeth Baratta
Mailing Address: Baratta PO Box 600, Hilton 3245, South Africa.