Kopanang Community Trust Project
Sr Sheila Flynn OP
I have been missioned in South Africa since the end of 1988. Following on from art school and then teaching at the University of Johannesburg in the Fine Art Department, I began an initative with another Dominican sister (Mary Tuck, OP) to address the appalling impact of HIV/AIDS on an impoverished community south east of Johannesburg, particularly vulnerable women and children. This was made up of an African township and a Coloured Township.
A centre was established in April 2001 though it would be many years before the infrastructure would be complete. The Kopanang project was the first part of a community-based response to begin training women in income-generating skills (embroidery and papermaking), empowerment, personal development, dealing with critical health issues, life and death, all within a faith-based context, establishing relationships, building confidence and respect of the various cultures that came together. 'Kopanang' is a Sotho word meaning, 'gathering together'.
In May 2002 the children's section was established 'Sithandizingane', a Zulu word meaning, 'We love the children'. Initially this provided a drop-in care facility for pre-school children from Mondays to Fridays, gradually expanding to include an organic garden project, an after-school care programme and finally a feeding scheme to bring 400+ meals to orphans in the nearby settlement.
The Kopanang project has grown from strength to strength, attending to the daily struggles of women whose lives are bowed down in struggle but whose faith and courage continue to astound me. It is a privilege to walk with these women as presence. It has become a place of ongoing support for each member, a community committed to walking the walk in faith and solidarity with all, a place of healing, acceptance, prayer, love and joy. They have been my teachers. A litany of struggles persists yet there is always hope to be found. It has often be said by various members at different times, 'I choose life' and this tenacity for life grounds them in their daily experiences.
The women now market their exquisitely embroidered products all over the world, particularly to the Dominican schools and communities of Australia, and to various places in the USA. The proceeds of sales literally means life to the Kopanang members which provides them with the wherewithal to feed their children. It also blesses them with dignity and empowerment. It took a good while to instill high standards of quality products but it was important to forge the way forward not with sympathy buys, but with integrity. 65% of selling costs go to the maker, 35% goes back into the project for purchasing new materials. This account is managed by one of the project's leaders who has received skills to do so.
Education is a critical need which is being attended to at the project, with literacy and numeracy programmes being initiated for the mothers and soon a Master Maths programme will enable 14 of our younger children to attend Saturday school to develop their skills for the last term of the year. Our two project leaders are currently in study programmes to increase their skills and ability to run the project. We also provide training to other sister projects.
I have long experienced this development work as a sacred calling, totally congruent with our Dominican charism. It has been such joy to my heart to find other Dominican sisters joining in sharing this ministry. If you are interested in learning a little more about the project please visit the Kopanang Community Trust website, link in to a short documentary on the project or watch The Women of Kopanang by Ben Nissen below.