On Wednesday morning, my friends Bing and Tein Po picked me up and took me with them to Soweto. We went to a part of Soweto called Zola, where we visited the cooperative that produces Shwe Shwe Poppis.

A woman sews a Shwe Shwe Poppi.

These funky poppis (an Afrikaans word for doll) have a fascinating story. The designs for Shwe Shwe Poppis are based on drawings by children from a crèche (daycare center) at the African Children’s Community Education and Feeding Scheme. Skilled craftspeople create the poppis using shwe shwe, a colorful cotton fabric used in African textiles. The dolls are sold all over the world; proceeds support the craftspeople and their communities.

When we visited the cooperative on Wednesday, the Shwe Shwe ladies gave me my very own poppi.

My Shwe Shwe Poppi. Here’s what the tag says: ‘Hello, my name is Nozipho. This Shwe Shwe Poppi is based on my drawing. I hope you like it! I live in Soweto, South Africa, and play buddy with my friends. I love chicken for lunch, and my best colour is orange and I also love zebras.’

Bing had visited the Shwe Shwe cooperative before. The last time she went she purchased five dolls, which she intended to give as gifts to her friends in Singapore. Then she changed her mind. She decided to auction off the dolls and give the proceeds back to the craftspeople. Wednesday was the day Bing went back to give them the money. It was also Bing’s birthday.

A birthday photo of Bing, with a new load of poppis she purchased on Wednesday.

We went into the house where the women were making the poppis. The women greeted us warmly but didn’t stop what they were doing for more than a few seconds. These women work hard. Their fingers never stop moving.

A woman creates a small poppi, probably for a keychain or magnet.

Bing announced she had an early Christmas gift for everyone. She explained about the auction and began handing out the money, packed in red and gold Chinese envelopes that bring good luck for the coming year. There was an envelope for everyone.

All work came to halt. I saw pure joy on each woman’s face as she accepted her envelope. They all got up from their working tables, and the singing began.

I don’t have photos of the huge smile on Bing’s face as she handed out the envelopes. I don’t have photos of the women holding their envelopes up to the sky and kissing them. I don’t have photos of the singing and clapping, although I can still hear it in my mind.

I was crying too hard to take good photos. My shutter kept clicking but I was blinded by tears.

I’ve had a tough week. Definitely the toughest week since I moved to South Africa. Possibly one of the toughest weeks of my life. I almost didn’t go with Bing to Soweto because I was feeling really down. But in the end I went, and being there reminded me of a few things.

Bing and the Shwe Shwe Poppi ladies reminded me that I belong on this crazy continent, in this crazy country, in this crazy city. There’s a reason why I went to Zola on Wednesday, just like there’s a reason for every one of the weird coincidences that ultimately brought me to Jozi and kept me here.

Bing and the Poppi ladies reminded me that no matter how tough your own life may seem, there is always someone else who has it tougher, and who is surviving against all odds.

Later that morning we visited the African Children’s Community Education and Feeding Scheme, where the Shwe Shwe Poppi concept was born. This child was waiting for her daily ration of bread, peanut butter, and milk. When my life feels unmanageable, I’m going to think of her.

Thank you, Bing and Shwe Shwe Poppi ladies, for everything you do to make the world a better place. And thanks for reminding me about where I belong.

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