South Africa is a Beautiful Place

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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  • Reply Slowvelder November 11, 2011 at 10:27 am

    The poppi’s are so beautiful Heather – as is our wonderful country. I hope that what ever is making your life difficult resolves soon. Sending good thoughts your way.

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 10:38 am

      Thanks Jackie. I know that it will 🙂

  • Reply Sine November 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

    I’m also writing this with tears in my eyes. Thank you for your beautiful post. I’ve also had a rough few days and now wish I’d gone with you instead of thinking I needed more time at home to catch up with things. I admire your energy to keep going out there and record these events, just like I admire Bing for the many things she does.

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 10:39 am

      Thank you Sine. I hear you — I’ve made the same decision that you made on Wednesday many, many times. But for some reason I didn’t this time. Some things are just meant to be, I guess.

      • Reply namratainberlin November 11, 2011 at 12:22 pm

        i’m echoing sine’s sentiment….what a touching story. thanks for blogging about it. thinking about you a lot…see you tomorrow.

        • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm

          Thanks Nams. Looking forward to seeing you too.

  • Reply Derek Smith November 11, 2011 at 10:44 am

    A wonderful wonderful post – I love it. Both Karen and you are wonderful ambassadors for South Africa and do things and go places the average white South African don’t explore. Great stuff. Poppi must be an abbreviation of the correct Afrikaans word which is poppie (e at the end) Bit of absolutely useless trivia – the best known and most durable of Shwe Shwe is “Three Cats” if you turn the cloth around you’ll notice the three cats embossed on the reverse.

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 11:07 am

      Thanks Derek. That’s an interesting piece of useless trivia. Does the fabric actually have images of cats on it? I want some!

      • Reply Derek Smith November 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm

        Yes, on the reverse – go to the Oriental Plaza and ask for three cats shwe-shwe

    • Reply Bing November 11, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      I’m so motivated to find the Three Cats Shwe Shwe now! Which means we should make a trip to Oriental Plaza, Heather. I have a friend who has a shop there and she’s been inviting me to go visit her. We can eat an Indian lunch at Fordsburg after that!

      Thanks Derek for your encouraging words. This country is great and has given so many of us foreigners lots of joy and learnings. I feel like this year in SA has been the most significant year of my life. Being able to give back on my birthday is just my own way of saying Thank You.

      • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 3:27 pm

        Yes, we have to go to the Oriental Plaza! Have you been before? It’s one of my favorite places — I’ve actually blogged about it twice. The best samoosas in the world are there, at World of Samoosas.

  • Reply miadidthis November 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Wonderful post Heather. Amazing to see people like that, working so hard, being so creative. That is the stuff that makes this crazy country wonderful!

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

      I know, it’s such a cool concept. I love my Poppi!

  • Reply Bing November 11, 2011 at 11:30 am

    @&$@!!&!!!!! You just made me cry!

    Big hugs gal, you belong here. 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 11:38 am

      Thanks my friend, so do you.

  • Reply Lu November 11, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Oh, dear – tears in my eyes too… – Happy tears, I might add 🙂

    These poppis are so unbelievably cute! I always admire how colourful and creative the South African craftwork is. Shwe Shwe rocks! So does Bing!

    I’d be interested to know just how much money does get back to the communities that create the artwork when items are sold overseas. I’m so sceptical that I’d rather buy at source – to be sure, to be sure.

    I hope that your worries of the past week are over – you’ve got a gorgeous “Happy Pop” to help cheer you up!!

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm

      Hi Lu, thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. If you’re interested in learning more I can put you in touch with Sue Smirin, one of the founders of the poppi program who I met this week. She’s very involved with marketing and sales of the poppis and could definitely answer any questions you have. Send me a message if you’d like her contact details.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough November 11, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    How sweet, Heather. The dolls are darling. Sorry you are having a touch week, my friend. Hang in there and huge hugs to you, Bing, and the ladies of the cooperative.

  • Reply Sue November 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Your visit makes all the work worthwhile! Thank you

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm

      Thanks so much Sue, and thanks for showing us around that day. It really meant a lot.

  • Reply Jeanie Freeman November 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Amazing blog and inspiring. I wonder if I might find a market here for the poppis. Could you send me Sue’s contact info. I’m happy you have so many friends supporting you. Hang in there. I’m thinking of you.

  • Reply Paige November 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    We just moved to Jo’burg a couple of months ago and I’ve been following your blog – I found out about it from Sine – and love it! I especially love this sweet post! I just bought one of the Shwe Shwe Poppi’s for my little girl and now am dying to go to Soweto and visit these ladies who make them and buy many more! Thanks so much for sharing your adventures and experiences 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      Hi Paige, I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying my blog! Do you read Bing’s blog as well? I’m sure we could arrange for you to visit the centre. If you want, send me a message from my contact page and we can try to set something up. Cheers, Heather

      • Reply Sine November 11, 2011 at 4:34 pm

        Paige – I’ll come too, please keep me posted when you do set up something. Can’t believe I didn’t jump on this trip as Bing had told me about it. But like I said, too often one thinks one doesn’t have time, although South Africa should have taught me something new about the concept of time! I will get back to my emails now now…

  • Reply Owls November 11, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Heather does Sue have information on where I could order some Shwe Shwes in the U.S. to support this wonderful cause? Your post has been a tearful pick-me-up over here too. The Shwe Shwe Poppis would most certainly help on tough days.


    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      Hi Drury, I will send you an email in a minute 🙂

  • Reply Nomad November 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Hi Heather,

    I have been following your blog for a while now… like you I am an expat here… I moved here from India a couple of years ago…. but the reason I was so tempted to reply to this blog is that sometime last week I realised, that though I have gone through lots and though I feel that I could have had it easier in life, I still have it a lot easier than a lot of the people I live around, here in JoBurg.. and for that I need to be grateful…

    Love your blogs.. keep writing

    • Reply 2summers November 11, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      Thanks so much Shilpa, reading this comment means a lot to me. All the best! -Heather

  • Reply thirdeyemom November 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Seeing the children’s photos is what always gets to me. No child should have to suffer and not have enough to eat. Thanks for bringing these important issues to the public eye.

  • Reply Yashik Nanan November 11, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    beautifully written. Africa is part of your soul now…

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

      Thanks Yashik. You’re right. That’s why I came here and that’s why I will stay.

  • Reply campbellisaac November 12, 2011 at 3:40 am

    So jealous. One day I’ll be in South Africa. But until then, I’ll just pretend I’m there by reading 2summers

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

      Aw! What a sweet thing to say. Thanks Campbell, all the best to you Down Under.

  • Reply fornormalstepfathers November 12, 2011 at 4:10 am

    Beautiful photos!
    Thank you for sharing.

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

      Thanks to you for reading and commenting.

  • Reply tenney mason November 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Sorry to hear you had a bad week. My computer is down, but bope to get it fixed today. We should skype soon.

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2011 at 10:36 pm

      Thanks Dad. Let me know when your computer is up.

  • Reply Sonja November 13, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    I love the article as always. The dolls are so lovely, the idea of letting the kids create them is amazing. I definately know where I am going next time I am in Soweto and buy a bag full of them!! Thanks for letting as know.
    What you say about the ladies who make them and so on is very touching and for me that’s one reason why I know South Africa is my home of the heart.
    I hope u find back to it and why we belong to this country. Tough times are unavoidable. I experienced some struggles as well when I was in Mzansi but they never get rid of me. There’s some spirit in the air which makes me keep on going every every day..!

    Keep ur head up and uzoba strong, as we Zulus say: U will b strong!! 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

      Hey Sonja, I knew you would like this one! Thanks for all the kind words. Hope you make it back home soon.

      • Reply Sonja November 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm

        I like it a lot and am working on coming home next year as soon as possible!
        By the way, I didn’t forget ur message on fbook, just didn’t get to reply yet! Coming soon!

  • Reply jackie hulme November 13, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    hey girl – I have tears in my eyes too now. “mamma said there would be days like this” – van morrison. just put your favourite song on and sing at the top of your voice. it is a crazy city and a crazy continent – but something keeps us here. What amazes me is the spirit of the people of the places we visit on our photographic trips – I don’t think any other continent has it.
    Hope to see you soon
    lots of love

    • Reply 2summers November 14, 2011 at 8:08 am

      I can’t believe how many nice comments I’m getting from this post! Thanks a lot Jacks, you’re right on all counts. See you very soon.

  • Reply lisa@notesfromafrica November 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    A beautiful post! I hope that things are going better for you this week. I’m only now getting around to catching up on my blog reading after my trip. Am very glad that I didn’t miss this post.

    • Reply 2summers November 18, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks, Lisa. Glad to have you back! I’m behind in my blog-reading too — I’ve been very haphazard about it lately.

  • Reply cashancountry November 21, 2011 at 9:49 am

    hey Heather, glad to see all the support, as you can see I now have a computer again… this droll info means that I can follow your fabulous blog. I am not the first to say it but there is an incredible book here.. best wishes

    • Reply 2summers November 21, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks Chris. Glad to have you back. I’ve missed having you in my virtual world, even though you are right up the street 🙂

  • Reply cashancountry November 21, 2011 at 9:49 am

    hey Heather, glad to see all the support, as you can see I now have a computer again… this droll info means that I can follow your fabulous blog. I am not the first to say it but there is an incredible book here.. best wishes

    • Reply 2summers November 21, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks Chris. Glad to have you back. I’ve missed having you in my virtual world, even though you are right up the street 🙂

  • Reply 72 Hours in Soweto – 2 Summers September 21, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    […] numerous instawalks in Soweto. I’ve done photography jobs and charity events, run races, and visited doll factories in Soweto. But I’ve never spent the […]

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