by Carolyn Cramer

The Elasticity of Life

Stretching to make the most of your circumstances

Relate bracelets inspire rural women
Neliswa Mkunqwana empowers others

One of the best qualities of humanity is our capacity for resilience. Many people experience and endure untenable circumstances in life and, like elastic bands, stretch to the occasion. When it has passed they snap back into shape, ready for the next challenge. One such person is Neliswa Mkunqwana.

In the frosty Cape Town mornings, Neliswa (41) sees her four boys off to school. As they make their way down the road from her RDP house in Gugulethu, the young women who use it as a venue for making beaded bracelets are just beginning to arrive. Nellie makes sure they are equipped with all the materials they need for the day, chatting with them about their lives. Nellie takes her position as a role model very seriously. “Education is so important,” she says. “I want them to learn from my example.”

Nellie has had the opportunity to upskill herself, and is encouraging other women to do likewise. These young women are encouraged to make use of the opportunities provided by Relate Bracelets, a Cape Town-based not-for-profit social enterprise, so that they too can fulfill their dreams. Through her job as a quality controller at Relate, Nellie has been encouraged to attain her driver’s license and complete a computer literacy course.

American author Mark Caine once wrote that “the first step towards success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” In South Africa, so many women are captive to circumstances, which prevent them from achieving their dreams.

Nellie grew up in the village of Centani in the Eastern Cape. “There are no resources there. Even now, people have to go to the river for drinking water,” she says, as she recalls growing up with very little and relying on extended family to help them.

I always wanted to be a teacher, but there was no money and no one was going to finance me.”

There are no jobs in Centani unless you are a professional; there are not even factories there for people like me. So I moved to Cape Town.”

Living with her sister in a shack in Gugulethu, Nellie focused immediately on finding work. “If you don’t have a job, you don’t have a life. I needed to provide for my family, so I polished my shoes, and I went out and got a job.”

Lauren Gillis, the founder of Relate bracelets, employed Nellie as a domestic when the social enterprise was an idea that had just started operating out of Lauren’s home.

After doing the housework, we would make the bracelets. Sometimes I would take them home with me and ask for help in the township. In this way, I could represent Relate in giving other women, in similar positions, the opportunity to earn an income.”

Gillis is a philanthropist who developed the business model of Relate Bracelets as a means to uplift and improve the lives of those who make them, people like Nellie. The unique business model centres around giving people the opportunity to upskill and develop themselves so that they can move beyond Relate Bracelets and become self-reliant, independent members of society.

For many people, the prospect of a better life seems out of reach,” says Gillis. “I had a vision that through the production and sale of these beaded bracelets, we could provide opportunities for people to realise their dreams while providing communities with a sense of dignity and hope.”

Nellie’s is a journey of persistence and with encouragement from Lauren, she recognised opportunity when it came knocking. As her family’s sole breadwinner, Nellie says she felt empowered when she joined the Relate team full time.

Nellie cares for her four sons (three of whom are her nephews that she has adopted) on her own. She says it is difficult balancing single parenthood and work, but is grateful for the support and encouragement of her Relate colleagues.

Relate’s investment in Nellie has empowered her to upskill herself and improve her life. Now she is especially excited as she has the opportunity to stretch herself even further: Nellie has registered to study social work through UNISA. Although she always dreamed of being a teacher, Nellie has instead decided to become a social worker for the people living in Centani.

Relate changed my life by giving me a chance and helping me to see and take opportunities. I would love to do the same for the women of my home town.”

She says that because many are illiterate and uneducated, they are unaware of their right to access social care.

If you sow a seed, when it grows it has many branches and fruit. So I might be only one, but I won’t be the only social worker there, and then we can change how things are in my place of birth. The social worker’s role is to help people develop their well-being; I’m going to help the poor and disadvantaged. I’ve seen Relate do this for so many men and women and I would be proud to follow their example.”

Nellie smiles as she runs her hands over the beads, checking the workmanship of the bracelet which, in its own way, has helped her to become the woman she is today.

I am a strong woman, with a bright future” she says. “One day I hope to help the women of Centani to say the same.”

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