How it all began…
In the early l970’s, Carol (that’s me!) and a friend developed an interest in Zulu handcrafts after visiting a pension pay-out day in one of the outlying areas of northern Zululand.
At that time the “pension days” were a fun and colourful experience, with the local community setting up markets similar to western craft markets, and selling their handicrafts and home produce amongst each other, – there were specialist crafters, like the shield-maker, assegai- maker, basket-weavers, potters, and woodcarvers, to name but a few. Being so isolated, they had no formal outlets for their work, and were delighted when we purchased some of their handcrafts and asked us to come back! Our original vision was to help this very grass-roots community to earn a living “with their hands”, especially the women, many of whom were left at home to fend for their children, whilst their husbands were living and working in the cities and mines. We continued to buy their work, but as the months went by, home storage ran out and still no idea what we were going to do with all the wonderful works! It was only after our car had to be parked under the trees, as the garage was filled to capacity, it was suggested that we open a shop, the obvious had been staring us in the face! With no retail space to be found in our little village, we almost ditched the idea, until a kind farmer, hearing of our plight, offered us a small piece of roadside land, en route to the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. With the help of a sympathetic Bank Manager, we were able to raise the funds to build a lovely thatched shop, which we named “Tekwane’s Nest” (Tekwane being the Zulu name for a wader-bird which builds a large nest and fills it with found treasures!)
It was not long before word got out, via the “bush telegraph”, that we were visiting and purchasing crafts from the community in Chief Gumede’s area, and we were soon inundated with more and more Zulu crafters from other areas, some as far afield as 200 km, and this resulted in a formidable collection of traditional Zulu crafts – from old beadwork and woodcarvings to beautiful baskets woven from the Ilala Palm which abounds in the area. Thus the need arose to create a wholesale outlet. At this point, my friend left the area, and unable to do this alone, my husband, Mike, resigned his position as General Manager of a large agricultural estate, to help further and enlarge the project.
In 1980 Tekwane’s Nest was sold, and Ilala Weavers was born, starting life in a home-based farm shed. This was a difficult time in South Africa’s history, being in the heart of the Apartheid era, and with sanctions in place, it was almost impossible to export any of the crafts, despite numerous enquiries. However, due to the fact that we were helping grass-roots artists, the USA finally agreed to allow our products in, provided each shipment was accompanied with a sworn declaration stating that we were in no way sponsored by, or connected to any Parastatal organisation. In the late-1980’s we moved to our present position when an old farmhouse became available on the outskirts of Hluhluwe village.
Fast forward to 1994; a High Point in the history of South Africa, with the advent of our first successful Democratic Election following the release of Nelson Mandela. This generated a lot of interest in South Africa, and Tourism expanded dramatically, which in turn generated a lot of interest in the handcrafts of the country, which further boosted the growth of Ilala Weavers. We experienced several high-points of our own during this year, the first being when our son Craig joined Ilala Weavers after completing his university education. Also in this year, Ilala Weavers was awarded the SBDC Trophy for “The Most Innovative Exporter of the Year”, as well as the Sunday Tribune/Coopers & Lybrand “Exporter of the Year for SMME’s” ……WOW!!
In 1996 the opportunity arose for us to purchase the old farmhouse and surrounding property, and we undertook a major renovation/facelift, with new offices, extended storage and packaging area, plus a retail “Gallery”, Restaurant, and Museum, the latter to showcase the many awesome and unique antique Zulu artefacts collected over the years. During this year, Craig’s twin brother, Jeremy, joined the ranks, yet another high-point for us!
In 1998, Craig married Jackie, who had been a team-member of Ilala Weavers for the past 4 years. ….. There is no need for me to say what an invaluable member of Ilala Weavers Jackie is! – And today, Craig and Jackie make a formidable managerial team together, whilst Mike and I try very hard to slow down!
Having experienced so many “highs” over the years, we sadly experienced the worst possible “low” on the 30th August 2000, when our dear Jeremy was shot and killed whilst on a field trip to collect and pay for lampshades for an order. Suffice to say, this occurrence affected us all, including all the crafters, who had a great deal of respect and affection for Jeremy and came in their droves to pay their last respects. As is customary in the Zulu culture, gifts are presented to the bereaved family at a funeral, and we were overwhelmed with gifts of woven baskets, mats and money. The monies were used to purchase trees, which were planted in Jeremy’s memory, and which, today, are beginning to provide shade for the crafters when they visit Ilala Weavers to sell their wares, as we no longer make field trips, but instead pay for their transport to us.
Ilala Weavers keeps going and it is hoped it will continue to do so for many years to come.