The Keisakama Trust operate in Hamburg, South Africa.
A smiling man and woman hold hands in the centre, their colourful dress befitting a rural wedding. Beneath and behind them are figures of various ages in distress; sick and dying. Above them all hover angels, their wings and halos picked out in gold. Embroidered in intricate detail, this evocative image rests between paintings of grandmothers, the gogos who care for those sick and orphaned due to AIDS. Standing behind the last row of pews in Grahamstown’s Cathedral, its grandeur a tangible reminder of European domination, I was captivated by the tapestry’s evocative images.
So much was being expressed in this one piece; who were its creators and what lay behind the smiles and the pain depicted? I read that it was made by women of the Keiskamma Trust in Hamburg. My sights shifted to this previously unknown village. I was drawn to it, wanting to find out more about ‘the Trust’.
"The Keiskamma Trust is made out of five wings; we’ve got art, health, education, gardens and music” Nomfusi Nkani was our guide to the Trust. She welcomed us on the side of the road with a vivacious grin, her funky hairstyle and clothing in tune with her role as assistant manager of the art project. Over the next day she would take us round the art studios, clinic and heritage centre that form the core of the Trust’s work in Hamburg and neighbouring villages scattered along the Eastern Cape’s coast.
Designated a ‘homeland’ by the apartheid state, this area then known as the Transkei was relegated to the bottom of the pile in terms of investment in infrastructure, education, health and social services. HIV rates sky-rocketed here in the early 1990s and have never subsided. While the rest of the world enjoyed the rise of generic drug treatments, South African politics stopped them at the border. Hamburg only saw these drugs in 2005 when the Trust were finally able to bring them in. Owing to sheer lack of health care it is practically impossible to collect accurate data on the full-spread of HIV in rural areas. What we do know is, even today, 35% of pregnant women in Hamburg are HIV positive.
Nomfusi recalled that a few years ago there was a funeral in the village every two weeks. The devastation was fuelled by mis-information around transmission, even from state leaders, bolstering local belief in spiritual causation or that AIDS is a disease of ‘the white man’ whose aim is to spread sickness to further oppress black people. The lone medics who spoke in the area about HIV testing and ARVs were not to be trusted and thought to be in fact ‘spreading’ the virus. This scenario was to become apparent to the Trust’s founder, and only further motivated her desire to act.
The Keiskamma Trust has awakened creativity in the community
"It was founded in the year 2000 by Carol Hofmeyr. She came down here to this community and saw the potential of young people and women. And she saw the suffering of our people and around here. They were suffering through HIV and AIDS but there was no-one accepting this disease, or that it is among us. Because we had knowledge of being bewitched, we believe in bewitching each other and all these things”..
An artist and a medic, Carol began what she envisaged to be a small embroidery project with the women of Hamburg. Their business boomed and local enthusiasm for employment opportunities, plus access to social and health services, fuelled the Trust’s rapid growth. Those creating art works and building the project saw drastic change in their lives and their community. Nomfusi, who has been involved from the very beginning, told us her story:
"My life was not easy. Because firstly I am from a poor family, and my parents are very old and then they don’t have money to take me to tertiary. I passed my matric then I stayed at home doing nothing. Fortunately I had a job here in a hotel. I worked as a waitress, then I quited there. I just stayed at home doing nothing. Then in 2000 Carol Hofmeyr. She was interested in art and I was also interested. I just got into the project and started doing designing and then from that, she had an idea that I could go to school for arts and develop my artistic skills. And I said ‘OK I can do it’. So I applied for a school loan at the Border Technicon in 2003, and they accepted me.
I graduated in 2006, started at the art project and worked as trainee manager for one year, then from 2007 I have been fully employed as assistant manager from then until now. So for me I have had a big privilege to be where I am now. Before I had that dream that I will fly in a plane, but now a plane is like a car for me because I have been flying in and out, I went to London, Kenya, London, Portugal…”
Nomakhaya, whose job is to transform the embroidered panels into cushion covers and wall-hangings, is much newer seamstress for the Trust. As I sat in the busy studio, she pulled up her chair to tell me a bit about herself and what the project means to her:"Now while my husband is dead, I’m struggling so much about my kids, because I have to look after them, and my family too.”
After Nomakhaya was widowed two months previously, she decided to take her two young daughters to live with her mother in King Williamstown. Her husband’s death was a double blow to the household economy: First the loss of a father who cared for their children, second the end of the state grant allocated because he was blind. Nomakhaya now needs to work full time in an area where unemployment runs at 90%. The combined income from sewing for the project and her state disability grant must cover her own expenses and those of her mother and children "I am happy here. When I am here I am stress free, yeh, I meet people here.”
Creating tapestries has given hope to the Hamburg Community
The camaraderie found in the studio provides something of an informal support system for those touched by the challenging duo of poverty and AIDS. It is a place one can be honest with one’s feelings, ask questions that trouble and is frequently filled with song.
After a busy morning, I enjoyed a picnic and impromptu concert while looking over the Keiskamma river. The relaxed and welcoming spirit of the women restored my energy to head out and learn more. Nomfusi was eager to take me to the Umtha Welanga Treatment Centre where we would meet Eunice Mangwane, who is clearly a source of boundless energy and compassion for the health of people in the area.
It was never easy an easy road, it was quite a tough road It took a year and ten solid months, struggling, trying to turn people away from what they were their thinking it is this that infects their children.” But her chance came in the form of a sick man brought to her door. "They brought this man. Who is this? He was so sick he could hardly walk. ‘Are you Mrs Mangwane?’ Yes. ‘We’ve brought this guy’. Where are you people from? ‘From one of the villages in the Peddie area. He was at a workshop where you were, and he is coming to you for help’.”
Eunice Mangwane brings her boundless energy to fighting HIV
The man’s CD4 count was zero, leaving his body open to any infection. Even with the best medical care, this man was on death’s door. "That man made me cling onto hope as he was brought to me. I had to practice what I preached. If I turned him away, people would lose trust. More came, there were five. Two died and three are still alive. That’s what broke the ice. People saw that this man improved.check”
Only five years later, the Trust has initiated over 700 patients on anti-retroviral treatment. Over 200 are outpatients of the Trust, which boasts a 90% adherence rate, a remarkable success for any treatment programme. This feat can be attributed to a team of 43 local health workers who provide home-based care and social support to patients and their families. Most are former patients, with an intimate knowledge of the disease and its implications.
The reach of this organisation far surpasses its patients and the estimated 250 people on the payroll, by extending to the village’s children, the grandmothers and orphans. Through school and nursery programmes, a music academy and heritage centre the Keiskamma Trust approaches nearly all aspects of life, to achieve wellness in all its dimensions.
"With us here, you don’t only look at the patient coming for treatment, you look holistically, to know what is going on. If people default, there’s always a reason why…we need to go to their homes and get the whole picture.” With such a multi-dimensional approach, the change has been dramatic:
”What a change! What a change! What a change! I’m telling you. Sometimes when we have meetings in the hall, not for health but just community meetings, then I would say ‘do you remember guys?’, and they say "please, you make us so shy, because in those days we knew nothing. We are ever so sorry, if we only at that time knew the truth about this thing, so many would have been saved. So many people died here in Hamburg and within the surrounding areas because we didn’t trust. We did not believe, we thought this thing was in far away countries, and was with white people, and we as Africans, because we do our rituals, we do things for our ancestors, we never thought it would touch us’.
Its lots of work. That’s why I sometimes say to Carol when she says ‘Oh, this and that’, when she complains that there is no funds to keep going, I say her to ‘Carol we must always just look back at where we are coming from. Yes a people need to look forward and have vision and goals, and our hope is that 2020 we’ll be there. But we also need to stand still and look back at where we came from, how many lives we’ve saved in this organisation, Only here in the Keiskamma Trust, how many lives we have saved'.”
Although spontaneous, my trip to Hamburg left me with a lasting impression of what can be achieved through a shared vision, dogged determination and home-grown creativity. Something that began as a small art project is now rooted in the lives of nearly everyone in the Hamburg area.
Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 13 Feb 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: society, the arts | design, craft, social development, HIV