Why you should care
Because it’s a beautiful place where beautiful things are made.
On the outskirts of Katutura, the largest township in Windhoek, Namibia, a dozen women in pink, hand-embroidered dresses clap, sing and dance exuberantly. Behind them, a gentle breeze ruffles the surface of a placid lake, and the unrelenting Namib sun creeps ever closer to the sparsely vegetated kopjes that ring the horizon. This idyllic scene may be common at Africa’s luxury safari lodges, but what’s happening in this urban haven is anything but common.
Penduka — a women-only nongovernmental organization (NGO) whose name translates to “wake up” in the local languages — has helped more than 1,000 disadvantaged and abused women make a better life for themselves through craft. Forget the gorgeous setting; the real magic lies in the women’s batik, pottery, beadwork and embroidered creations that visitors can purchase at the onsite store or — provided they book in advance — even learn to create themselves.
During my visit, I watched a group of German tourists learn how to make batik cushion covers under the patient guidance of Martha Shigwedha and Victoria Hailapa, women who are now sharing the talents that Penduka unearthed in them. The corn flour paste comes off in the wash, leaving dazzling white outlines in between the bright colors. In another room, a group of talkative women paint childlike, but fashionable, animal motifs and street scenes onto ceramic bowls.
She took us through the entire process of pounding, melting and sand-polishing the glass — in sign language!
In another building, bathed in brilliant ocher sunlight, Olivia Kanime explains how she and her deaf colleagues turn old beer and wine bottles into beautiful glass beadwork. The best part? She took us through the entire process of pounding, melting and sand-polishing the glass — in sign language! Visitors can also learn how to make beads and batik, and how to do basket weaving or make potjiekos, a traditional stew.
Christien Roos, a Dutch national who came to Namibia at age 21 to work at a center for disabled people, founded Penduka with Martha Muulyau in 1992 to focus specifically on the country’s most marginalized women. For Roos, who’d always loved fashion and design, textiles were the obvious choice, but she wasn’t sure what they could make or where they could sell it. She showed the women how to do a few basic embroidery stitches and encouraged them to express themselves. She was instantly taken by the designs they produced. “I showed them to some friends back home, and they loved them too,” she says.
Penduka has grown a lot since those early days — moving its home base a few times and adding new skills and styles to its arsenal all the time — but the basic concept of building a bridge between disadvantaged Namibian women and consumers in econmically advanced nations has remained the same.
During my visit to Namibia, the only souvenirs I bought were from Penduka. But I made a point of not buying any batik … I’ll be back to make my own.
GO THERE: PENDUKA VILLAGE
- How to Get There: Visit Penduka as part of a township tour, or get your hotel to arrange a reputable driver (map).
- Cost: Phone or email ahead to arrange a half-day ($18) or full-day ($31) workshop.
- Stay There: At Penduka’s waterfront bungalows, there’s a restaurant onsite, or you cook your own meal in the “bush kitchen.”
- How to Buy: There are stores in Namibia, the Netherlands and South Korea, and its online store ships globally. 100 percent of the profits are returned to the women who made the items.