The gift of independence

 

Activist Angela Mai spoke to Sharon Dell about the joy of investing in people

When Germany-based political activist Angela Mai was introduced to SaveAct in 2007, the concept of savings and credit groups made “huge sense”, resonating with her belief, born of many years in development work, in the importance of giving people greater control over their own lives.

“Here was a project that offered its members not only the chance to grow their income, but empowered them, giving them the skills and confidence to achieve greater independence and autonomy in their lives,” she says.

In search of an effective and sustainable South African project in which to invest, Mai says the SaveAct model seemed to her to address the legacy of political disempowerment suffered by black South Africans under apartheid. Importantly, the model gave participants’ control and ownership over the running of the savings and credit groups – a concept similar to the indigenous “stokvel” system which is familiar to most South Africans.

Born in the United Kingdom, Mai grew up in Merrivale and was educated at St Anne’s College in Hilton Road. From 1967, she lived for seven years in Kenya where her husband Wolfgang worked for the German Development Service. In the informal settlement known as Mathare Valley – part of the sprawling slums outside of Nairobi – Mai set up a community-based enterprise geared towards the production of sturdy wooden toys.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

“Even then, in the late 1960s, the conditions in the slums were very bad,” she says. “Sixty percent of the population was made up of women-headed households; the major economic activities were prostitution and illegal brewing. While there seemed to be a great deal of training being offered, there were very few jobs available. I saw an opportunity there and after thinking about it for ages, we built a workshop on the edge of the slums, made out of packing crate materials, so it cost us virtually nothing.”

The enterprise, known as Furaha Toys, operated under the National Christian Council of Kenya, but it was effectively “left to do its own thing”, says Mai.

It was a steep learning curve. The original plan to offer workers a fixed salary had to be revised after it was found that work was much slower than anticipated and the workshop was earning no profit. The change to piece-work was very hard for workers to accept as they felt it unfair that naturally slow workers should further be penalised by earning less.

“There was a different value system in place and we had to find ways of accommodating this and still working profitably,” she says.

But eventually wages went up and by Kenyan standards those who were employed were doing “quite well”.

Mai, who was responsible among other things for marketing, had found buyers in the tourist and kindergarten markets, and from Oxfam, which enabled the business to scale up production and eventually start making a profit. There were three founding workers. When Mai handed over the project five years later, there were 46 employees.

A year before leaving Kenya to return to Germany with her husband and three children – the last of whom had been born in Kenya – Mai compiled a booklet about the project which included perspectives from workers about how their lives had benefited.

“Two responses remain in my mind to this day: the first was from a woman with six children who had given birth to the three youngest while working for Furaha. She told me that while the first three had all suffered from kwashiorkor, the last three had not – because after she started working she could afford to buy them milk and oranges.

The power to plan my day

“The second response came from a man who said having the job had given him the power to plan his life. Before working, he said he could do nothing else but wait and see what every day would bring.

“That agency and sense of control was what struck me as the major achievement of the project.”

Mai calls her belief in the importance of people being able to take control of their own lives a “sort of theme” in her life – one that is played out today in her work with refugees in her home town.

“A sort of ‘theme’ in my life is the importance of people being able to take control of their own lives and how detrimental it is if you can’t. Refugees are the same; they suffer from a lack of control and it’s very bad for people.”

Mai says SaveAct’s model readily met her thematic outlook.

“We could see that the government grant system was tantamount to handouts; that the grants needed to be accompanied by something else. And this is where SaveAct steps in. One woman told us that there was money before but it used to slip through her fingers, whereas if she saves, she is able to do more with it. That’s one benefit. But there is also the sense of agency. If people control things themselves, like the groups with their own constitutions, they are making their own decisions.

“The SaveAct model fits in with what I was trying to do in Kenya. People are free to operate according to their own value systems, which may be different to mine, within the confines of a broader, clearly defined process. The system helps to make people aware of dangers and possibilities, but does not impose an outcome. Over time, the system helps to build people up to the level of running their own enterprise – what’s more more wonderful than that? And it all takes place at a level they can cope with. There are no huge risks.”

Lessons from life

Thus, while taking ownership over one’s life is important, being able to do so at a pace that suits the individual concerned and within a supportive environment, is also important. Having a clear goal also helps. For Mai, these principles resonate not only with her understanding of human agency, but with her own personal experiences.

Orphaned at 17 after both her parents died within six months of each other, Mai threw herself into her schoolwork, but she struggled to visualise the path beyond school and had no strong inclination about her future studies.

After matriculating at St Anne’s she was sent by her grandfather to a finishing school in Switzerland – where she felt horridly out of place – before going on to study at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art then based in the Royal Albert Hall and later at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London.

After completing her course, she went to Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity, where she worked as a tutor for a year. A melting pot of fascinating people from around the world, Cumberland Lodge gave her the opportunity to meet many African students. “They were vital and alive. I realised I knew nothing about my own country, South Africa. I also made friends with South African Methodist minister Ian Bellis who taught me a great deal.”

Cumberland Lodge was also where Mai met Wolfgang, a German doctoral student, to whom she was later married, and the couple settled back in Germany where Mai gave birth to two girls. The eldest was about three when Wolfgang – then working for the German Peace Corps – decided he needed to spend some time in the field and secured the job in Kenya where their third child – a son – was born.

Anti-apartheid

After the seven year stint in Kenya, the couple returned to Stuttgart where Wolfgang worked for Bread for the World and Mai became the spokesperson for the local Anti-Apartheid Movement group, providing a platform for many visiting South Africans and organising local anti-apartheid boycotts and demonstrations. Throughout this period Mai visited South Africa regularly.

“We had met Horst Kleinschmidt, the human rights activist who worked for the South African Christian Institute, and he introduced us to Beyers Naude who saw we could be useful and got us involved,” she says. “I would come over, gain information, through Beyers. I met a lot of people, and I would go back and inform the public in Germany about what was happening in South Africa.”

Then, in what was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life, Mai got involved in the making of two films with filmmaker and journalist Gisela Albrecht who was then based in Berlin. The two women put together a 12-minute film on the life of Albie Sachs and amazingly achieved the huge profit of DM 80 – at the time enough for a celebratory dinner!

“That encouraged us, so we started a second,” she said.

Over the course of 10 years – a period marked by the illness and death of Gisela’s husband and Mai’s own treatment for cancer – Mai and Albrecht made another film called “Memories of Rain” which premiered in 2004 to rave reviews at the Berlin Film Festival and in South Africa.

After the film had been to festivals in several countries the interest died down and as in the meantime South Africa had been freed from Apartheid. “We are perfectly well-off in Germany so we decided to go to South Africa and seek out projects we think would help people both economically and in terms of their personal development,” she says.

The first of these was Project Preparation Trust based in KwaZulu-Natal and founded by Mark Misselhorn. He introduced the Mais to Gerry Delaney, a Local Economic Development expert. Mai said Delany gave her ideas and she learnt a lot from him, coming to respect and admire his approach to development. Delany introduced her to Krone and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mai, who is involved in refugee programmes back in Germany, says she often wonders why more people who have money don’t do more to help others.

“Often accumulation of more goods is not really satisfying, whereas there is huge enjoyment and gratification in using it for projects to actually help people.”

 

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