Archive for July, 2017


July 7, 2017

NOTE: To find out more about anything I’ve mentioned below, please click on the blue highlighted words to go to their websites.

On the flight from Johannesburg to Durban I struck up a conversation with the fellow sitting next to me.  Turns out he is the Account Manager for Product Managers of DyStar – of which Procion Dyes is a subsidiary!  Of all people to sit beside, the guy who supplies dyes to the quilt artists, shops and fabric manufacturers in Africa! This is where the dyes for the shweshwe fabrics we are about to buy come from.

Durban is quite different from Johannesburg – it is on the coast of the Indian Ocean, for one, and further south.  The ocean is quite warm at this point, and the air is quite a bit more humid.  It feels sub-tropical and there are lots of tropical/textural gardens like I’ve seen in parts of Australia.

We drive directly to the home of Odette Tolksdorf, who is Val’s partner in this venture.  She has been doing the local organizing of this trip – brilliantly, in my opinion.  Odette has provided a beautiful lunch for all of us, plus our first encounter with three other South African art quilters.

Odette Tolksdorf

Odette with one of her pieces.

Val, Dudu Malinga & Ann

Ann had made a number of small sewing kits which she gave to the Isipethu Embroidery Group (along with our embroidery threads) via Dudu, who came to the lunch. We gave her a bunch of embroidery threads as well to take back to the group.

Judy Jordan & Jeanette Gilks

I fell in love with Jeanette’s work. Judy, the coordinator of Isipethu, is sitting behind.

It was a very convivial afternoon.  We stopped at the Artisan Gallery on the way to our hotel.  More stuff to buy!!! (By now it seemed impossible for the lot of us to NOT buy, when given the opportunity!)


Our hotel in Durban did not feel as pretentious as the one in Johannesburg, nor as barricaded. Yes, there’s still a sense of security everywhere, but we were able to walk along the road to local restaurants without feeling on guard to the same extent. We were beginning to be able to see more open walls and gates to the houses beyond.

The next day was nice and warm and a bit rainy, but it didn’t prevent us from dipping our toes in the Indian Ocean!

Durban Beach

We were headed for our first chance to refill our bags with fabric, after unloading some of the supplies we brought with us.  We went to the fabric area of Durban, to Val’s favourite shop for shweshwe fabric!  This is originally a blue denim-like cotton fabric, painted with geometric designs, but now it’s all the colours of the rainbow.  The fabric in the shop feels like cardboard, with all the sizing in it, but it washes out to be a thick-ish (like denim) cotton and much softer. The designs are beautiful.  It was so difficult to choose! It was NOT the budgetted 1/2 hour stop!!!  Kudos to our driver for getting the bus around the narrow streets, too.

Fabric quarter

The fabric sector of Durban.


A very colourful corner of the shop.

There was lots going on in the street outside as well.


We visited the Indian and African Market in Durban, meeting an old friend of Val’s from when she lived here. Spices were purchased! And this is where I bought the first of my bowls made from telephone wire.



The Durban Botanical Gardens features some of my favourite things: cycads, for one.  Have you ever read the book “Island of the Color Blind” by Oliver Sacks?  Fascinating tale of an island in the South Pacific where they eat flour made from the fruit of the cycad. It results in the whole island being unable to see colour! The fruit itself is very colourful, though.

005 Botanical Gardens (22) cycad with two orange fruits

Golden Bird of Paradise honouring Nelson Mandela

We also saw for the first time, the Bird of Paradise variety called “Mandela’s Gold”.


It kept raining off and on all day.

After lunch we visited the Phansi Museum and had a brilliant guided tour through all the artifacts there.  This is a private museum, started as a collection in the basement of Architects and Planners offices. There is so much Zulu art here! Our guide, Phumizile Nkosi, was very entertaining, especially when describing some of the strange ways of using things. I had to take a picture of some of their musical instruments.


Guitars made from oil cans.

They had a temporary exhibit of Mandela-inspired beaded art while we were there.


Our day finished with a lovely Indian meal featuring the famous Durban curry at Palki’s

The next day was all about ceramics, sculpture and beading. We set out for Ardmore Ceramic Art in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.  If you have the time, click on the Ardmore name and visit their website to see some of their magnificent works.

Started by Fee Halstead in 1985, the studio employs local Zulu artisans who have trained there, making fanciful African-inspired ceramics that are exhibited and sold around the world. Over the years, AIDS has taken many of their artists, and so they now provide anti-retrovirals to their people. So many of the stories around these projects we visit have AIDS stories wound around them. Health care as well as mental care entwine to create these hopeful, successful projects.


A wall of plates dedicated to the artists whom they have lost to AIDS.


Painter at work

Most of the potters are men; the women are the painters.

Fee is also an equestrian; her daughter is a member of the South African Olympics equestrian team, and we were privileged to watch them working a couple of their horses.

Fee & daughter

We stopped briefly at an extraordinary monument/sculpture to commemorate the place where Nelson Mandela was captured before he went to Robben Island.  These are individual vertical steel bars that look like nothing much until you stand exactly THERE.


I am amazed at the creative process it takes to come up with this idea!

Our next stop was the Hillcrest AIDS Centre, where we learned about their vital work with AIDS patients, including a 24 bed respite care facility, and dropped off supplies to help them continue their work. Happily, 70% of people who stay in the care facility go home, thanks to the excellent drugs now available for AIDS patients. Our suitcases were getting pretty empty by this point, and their little shop beckoned, filled with exquisite beaded things we could carry home.

Peter & Veryan


You could help support this too, by shopping in their Woza Moya craft shop.

Onward! To meet Carl Roberts, Sculptor, at his home.  Tucked away in the jungle treetops, his studio is filled with unusual things – he works with wood, bone and stone, and it makes for a fascinating “stash” as a result. He and his wife were so generous in allowing us to visit them at home, and the work was astonishing and magical.

Carl Roberts

What a jam-packed visit to the Durban area! We said farewell to our wonderful, informative and fun guide Jacqui the next morning, and flew down to East London to continue the trip.

Trip of a Lifetime – Soweto

July 6, 2017

The name “Soweto” is an amalgamation of three words: SOuth WEst TOwnships.  The townships were created by the Apartheid government of South Africa to keep all the Blacks in one area, close by to Johannesburg and the gold mines, but well away from where the whites lived. “Apartheid” actually means separation.

Mural on Chris Hani hospital

We picked up our guide, Collette, who lives there and knows all about the history of the township – there are about 5 million people who live there now, all crammed into an area of 41 square miles (106 square kilometres).  There are various levels of income, and some people do live in nice houses as they raise themselves up and stay in the town, but there are still lots and lots of shanties where people eke out a living somehow.


In the Bara market near the hospital.

Children born after 1990 are called “Born Frees”.

We got a wonderful overview of how things are and were there, and then we visited our second stop to deliver some knitting supplies at the Phaphama Group.

Phapama Group

The table was full of yarn and knitting needles for the seniors.

Phapama knitter

This woman was so proud to show us her wares, which she knit herself.

Before we left (Val had told us the first day that she would be wrenching us out of wonderful experiences under protest from us, only to deliver us to another, equally wonderful place, she was right), the ladies (all dressed up in their best) followed us out to the bus and sang their goodbyes to us. They were all so sweet – there wasn’t a dry eye among us as we climbed back in the bus.

Phapama Group grandmothers goodbye

We were off next to lunch!  Thanks to Collette, we were expected at a private home where lunch was served. We ate traditional food – lots of grilled veggie dishes including “chuckalucka” – all with our fingers.  First we had to wash our hands from a communal bowl. Then we lined up and friends and neighbours who had come in to help out served us some really delicious food!

lunch in Soweto (Joan & Peter Gillespie, Ruth)

lunch in Soweto

I don’t normally post pictures of what I eat, but this is the meal we ate with our hands. It was delicious!

We sat in groups of three: two “bus people” and one “local”. Our job during lunch was to learn how to say “hello”, “how are you?” and “my name is: _____” in one of four languages spoken among the group.

Val and I were sitting with Sydney and he is Setswana.  His job was to give us our African names, and when he found out I was a singer/songwriter, my name became “Miriam Makeba“. I was deeply honoured by this!  Then, they tried to teach me how to sing her clicking song – that was too much for me!

Each one of us stood up and introduced ourselves to the group.  It was such a good way to get to know each other!


“Le Kae”

“Lebitso la ka ke Miriam Makeba!”

Sydney & Cathy

Ke a leboga, Sydney!

There followed singing and dancing by all of us before we got back on the bus.  I could have stayed there all day!

It was on the way back to the hotel that I started to write my Thank You song that we could sing back to them.

We left Collette behind and joined Jo Buitendach for her tour of the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein.  She is a specialist in graffiti – especially inner city graffiti.  I’ve been fascinated by graffiti for years, and was very interested in hearing her take on it. The government has built a beautiful national courthouse on the property that was one of the most notorious prisons in South Africa: Prison #4. This prison has been called the “Robben Island of Johannesburg”, but was in many ways worse.  Robben Island was reserved for freedom fighters exclusively, but in Prison #4, the freedom fighters were incarcerated with everyone else, some of them really dangerous.

Cell block priority

Blankets showed how closely the men had to sleep. Blankets were also used to create art.

Solitary cells

A row of cells for solitary confinement.  On the back of most of the doors were scratchings made by the inmates. Slogans, names, letters.  All ways to say “I was here”.

Solitary cell graffiti

In the Courtroom itself hung an amazing South African flag – all done with beading! The bricks are from the original “Awaiting Trial” block which was torn down to make room for the new courthouse.

Beaded South African Flag

So much in one day! Plus a short visit to Nelson Mandela’s home in Orlando and a very short stop at the Hector Pieterson Memorial. It was our last night in Jo’burg. We fly to Durban in the morning.

ready to rock Soweto

Trip of a Lifetime Part 2: South Africa days one and two

July 4, 2017

Sorry for the delay in getting this second installment to you: my computer died just after the last one, and I’ve had to spend a couple of weeks getting things back to where they were (my backup settings have now been fixed……!!)

We had an 11 hour flight from Perth to Johannesburg, South Africa, arriving at 5am.  Happily, the hotel found us our room early so that we could get a nap in before the festivities started at dinner time.  Our first impression of Johannesburg was that of a walled city.  Every house had a high impenetrable wall around it, often with razor wire on top, and security signs about “armed response”. There were lots of black people walking along the highways – and lots of white people driving BMWs and Audis and Mercedes Benzes. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!

The hotel itself was sumptuous with walled patios and swimming pools. Strange birds strutted around like they owned the place, and attentive staff made sure we were comfortable. Outside, there was lots of construction, street vendors and cafes. We were told not to visit ATMs by ourselves, and not really to wander about much.  Odd, for Canadians.

Our first night was all about introductions and dinner at a local restaurant, where we sampled some African food (including fried worms!!!) and got our faces painted.

Cathy & JCB

We have a group of 24 (all Canadian except for four Americans and including 3 husbands) on this guided tour organized by Valerie Hearder (Nova Scotian now, but originally from Durban) and Odette Tolksdorf.  They are both art quilters, and there is a significant fibre arts component to the trip. Val loves her birth country, and has planned this 21 days to show us as much as she possibly can about why she loves it so much. Our suitcases are bulging with embroidery and sewing supplies, reading glasses, knitting yarns and needles and school supplies to give away as we visit some of the projects.


We meet our driver, Charles and start with a bus ride to the Cradle of Humankind. This is a really important site for human fossils, some as old as 3.5 million years!  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we got a private visit with one of the researchers at one of the many limestone caves where they do their digging.  They only dig for a few months each year, and get enough interesting fossils to keep them busy the rest of the year, identifying and cataloging them.

It was the trial by fire for our new bus driver, Charles, who had to drive us on single lane dirt roads in the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve to get to the site.  It was our first day in South Africa, and we saw all kinds of wonderful animals!

Neck & Deck giraffeWhite rhinos

When we finally got to the site, we were greeted by a table full of hominid skulls to introduce us to our cousins and ancestors.

Drimolen Fossil site - Cradle of Humankind

This is also where we had lunch, under the trees watching the weaver birds flitting into and out of their nests.

The dig site was fascinating – tarps cover things from season to season (they weren’t digging at the time we were there). There are more than 3 dozen of these caves where they are unearthing huge numbers of fossils each year. These caves were found originally in the search for gold.  Instead, they found gold of another sort: history!


A great introduction to Africa!

From there, we drove back into town to visit our first couple of galleries. The Everard Read Gallery is high-end art, and it was a good introduction to the artistic sensibilities of some South African artists. Lots of sculpture, etc.  Across the street was an beautiful new Gallery called Circa. It is a totally amazing building and there were lots of wonderful photo opportunities while we were there.

Jacqui, Ruth, Colleen - Circa GalleryEverard Read Gallery

Our first day in South Africa:  lapwings, oryxes, giraffes, pronking springbok, rhinoceros, warthogs, weaver birds, 70,000 year old fossils.


Today we meet our first group of women to whom we’ll give embroidery supplies. We  picked up our guides at the Pretoria Botanic Gardens. From there, we drove to one of the poorest areas of all of South Africa: Winterveld. As we entered the community, we noticed lots of people on the side of the roads – lots of vendors, lots of people waving at us. I imagine there aren’t a lot of tour buses that make the trek into these parts.

roadside clothing stall - Winterveld

Selling clothes on the side of the road in Winterveld at a “bend over boutique”.

We arrived to an amazing display of colourful embroideries done by the Mapula Embroidery Group!

There were hundreds of pieces, large and small, and some of the ladies who made them were in attendance.  I bought a few pieces, but was only able to meet the maker of my little giraffe bag. This is Jennifer Makamo.

Cathy and purse maker

This project was started by Sister Magella and the Soroptomists in Pretoria in 1991 to help women in the Winterveld – named the “throwaway people” by Sue Miller in the Pretoria News. Started with 14 women participating, now over 140 work on making these pieces. Some live entirely off their embroidery work – they are only paid when their work sells – and each person making money might be feeding up to 10 family members.  We did our best to help pay these women, and we left them with some supplies to keep on making them. Their pieces have been sold worldwide, including to the Obama White House, and 50 to Oprah Winfrey.  It “gives them a reason to be”.

Sister Magellan, Sisters of Mercy, Winterveld

Sister Magella in the middle and Janetje, one of the Soroptimist founders, on the right. I think the woman on the right is Tswane.

Two of our group from Canmore managed to involve the Lions and Rotary clubs to help them bring reading glasses from Canada.  They brought HUNDREDS of glasses!


There are two artists who draw most of these pieces – drawn with crayon on black cotton.  The motifs are outlined, then given to the women to fill in with embroidery stitches.  One of the artists is a man who sometimes draws very political pieces.  This is a new one all about President Zuma and the current state of politics.

anti-Zuma hanging in preparation

The women dressed up for us – they were beautiful in their traditional dresses!

fashion parade

Before we left Pretoria we stopped in at the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government and office of the President.  This is where a remarkable 9 metre high statue of Nelson Mandela, erected in 2013, welcomes the world into his embrace.  His “Rainbow Nation” dream is still alive in this country, even though the way seems to have been temporarily lost.

Mandela statue

Day 2 in Africa:  We begin to learn about the wide divisions between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in South Africa. We learn there is hope in the poorest areas. We learn that people here Think Big!

Hamba gashlei – Zulu for “go safely”.

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