14 December 2010 by Julienne du Toit

The Merry Wives of Weekend Gumede

A decade ago, Weekend Majindi Gumede and his 10 wives were not a happy family.

The Gumede clan lived on the Kwa-Jobe Road within the area of the Greater St Lucia, now renamed the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The park was still to be declared a World Heritage Site (a process that was formalised in 1999), and the local communities were historically marginalised.

Apart from Weekend’s measly pension, there was very little money except when his wives sold vegetables and homemade sorghum beer.

When we met them six years later, their lives had turned around. Nine of the wives and two of the daughters worked together in a family cottage industry, weaving bright baskets and making a fair wage.

The wives, starting with Bongi, had been trained in a special initiative by the Greater St Lucia Wetland Authority, which was creating the park from the ground up and helping uplift surrounding communities at the same time.

They wove baskets and place mats using traditional, sustainably harvested ilala palm leaves, reeds and grasses, some dyed funky colours on the advice of design consultants.

“Because of the money we are earning now, life has changed a lot,” said Bongi. “We receive many benefits. We use the money for craftwork for sending our children to school, to buy clothes and food.”

In addition, some wives had bought cell phones, deep freezers, fridges, sewing machines, beds, radios. One had invested in goats.

I asked if any of it went to Weekend, and there was much raucous laughter. No, no, they said. We just tell him how much we earned.

“Sometimes we buy him something nice,” added Thembekile.

For me, the Gumede family remain one of the clearest examples of how eco-tourism and conservation can help uplift communities.

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