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Zimele: Helping Women Help Themselves

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I was born with a destiny, but it took me years to understand that destiny.

Today, my life impacts the lives of more than 1,200 women. They are women who, in the midst of poverty and misery, discover their inner strength and begin to live their dreams. As the Arabic proverb says: "Throw your heart before you -- then run and catch it." In other words, follow your destiny.

My story begins with discovery and disillusionment.

My childhood on a remote farm in the Karoo in the middle of South Africa was carefree and happy. From childhood we were taught to work hard, shoulder to shoulder, with the black workers on our farm. During weekends and school holidays, the children of the laborers were my friends. Together, we would ride on the donkey cart when their parents went to collect firewood. And when my father drove into the bush, driving fast on the winding gravel roads, all of us children would stand, without holding on, happy and brave on the back of the pickup. We were free in the wind. There was much laughter. We trusted each other and had respect for each other. And yet, somehow, we also knew that we were different because of the lifestyle of racial discrimination in South Africa known as Apartheid.

As a child I could not tolerate injustice. I questioned discriminatory rules, cultural habits and procedures. I seldom followed the advice of others, but always chose to explore things on my own. My father could not understand why I did not just choose to go into teaching or nursing, or become a secretary like most other girls in my metric class. Instead, after school I moved to Pretoria to study art.

It wasn't long before South Africa was burning because of the struggle against Apartheid. At night we lay in our beds, fearful, counting the gun shots. My husband, a medical doctor, decided it would be better for us to emigrate to offer our children a safer future. We were all just scared of the riots, the violence and the crime.

My marriage could not be saved and I moved to the Northern Cape to be closer to my parents. The end of our marriage was inevitable, damning and very, very painful. I lost everything: my identity, my self-esteem, my security, my faith in my peopl ... the Afrikaners. I walked out of my marriage as an unemployed woman with a meager allowance for my three children and a social security number.

It was time to create my own dream and get back on my feet.

As an unemployed mother of three children with no money, I gave private art lessons to keep alive. We just made it. I cried when I was alone. To my children I just said, "It will go well with us, wait and see."

One day, a stranger knocked on my door. He had seen my ad in the newspaper and wondered if I would be interested in training previously disadvantaged people. His words were music to my ears. He said his organisation focused on unemployed youth and wanted training opportunities for his students. I was so excited! This was an opportunity to give back to the people who had suffered under Apartheid.

My emotional healing was unexpected and happened in a very strange way -- when I was finally able to discover the 'child' in me.

One day during lunch at my new job, the villagers started to play 'tag'. I could not believe my eyes! I found it very funny and I started to laugh and laugh until the tears ran. I laughed at the discovery of the child within me and I wept for joy over the liberation that it brought. They climbed into a tree and I joined them -- laughing, crying, full of joy and gratitude for healing and recovery. It was the first time I had been able to laugh in years.

I was free from my worries and was able to focus on the many new skills I had to learn, like how to be a single mother, how to operate a computer and how to speak English.

I discovered a passion for the Zulu people in rural areas and realized that working with them was my destiny.

When trying to help the poor, we often disempower them. The turnaround in my life was the day that an orphaned child said to me he could have as many children as he wanted to have, because someone from overseas would take care of them, pay their school fees and deliver a food parcel to the house every month. I was shocked. It was people like me that kept people who are trapped in poverty from growing economically independent.

I designed a very simple but highly effective program of personal development, working with individuals so that they believe in themselves and have a strong focus on business and finance. I provide them with the opportunity to access markets.

I find it's important to remember that the process of helping others reach their independence is not about you; it is not your journey. Therefore, don't advise people what to do. Help them find their own way.

Well, it is six years later, and my company, Zimele, works with more than 1,200 women who have discovered their own strengths. These women have built new support structures in their communities and have implemented their own care programmes to orphaned children, as well as their dying parents. The women have built pre-schools and a computer centre, and they continue to save more and more money that they invest in their growing business. THEY have become the agents of change in their own communities.

Now THAT is sustainable change.
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Rosetta Stander is the Executive Director at Zimele Developing Community Self-Reliance, and will host "Learn a South African Jewelry Making Tradition & How It's Empowering Women Out of Poverty" on June 19, 2012 during S.H.E. Summit Week. S.H.E. Summit Week, taking place June 18-24, is New York City's first "women's week," with 35+ events designed for, by and about women to inspire each other in work, life & everything in between. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit shesummitweek.com.