A literacy programme for Zulu staff at the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC), initiated by Sue Hedden, then BRC staff member, brought her into closer contact with the people of Chibini community and their plight. This prompted her to approach Kittisaro and Thanissara Weinberg, semi-resident teachers and Chrisi and Louis van Loon, owners of the BRC, to find a way to respond appropriately.
In 1998/9 whilst running the kitchen at the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) Sue Hedden was often called upon to assist in meetings between the Buddhist staff and the Zulu speaking staff at the centre, as a translator and mediator. Because Sue was able to communicate in isiZulu, the workers also would go to her with their problems and issues facing them in the workplace. The workers often mentioned their desire to learn English. Having been trained in adult literacy, Sue decided to follow this up and see if it would be possible to start classes at the BRC.
After getting permission to go ahead from Chrisi and Louis van Loon, Sue made contact with an NGO in JHB who donated Adult Literacy materials. There were about 35 Zulu workers at the BRC in 1999. Sue began by doing an initial assessment to gauge each person’s level of English and divided everyone accordingly into 3 classes of elementary, intermediate and advanced!
These classes soon became the highlight of the week. As classes progressed, Sue became increasingly aware of peoples’ lives in the greater community of Ufafa surrounding the BRC. ‘We ‘Buddhists’ on the hill were living in blissful ignorance, whilst all around us, in the valleys of Ufafa, people were dying like flies, as a result of HIV and AIDS’ Sue recalls.
Of course no one actually mentioned the words HIV and AIDS in these adult literacy classes. There was widespread ignorance; fear, denial and myths were rife, with everyone believing witchcraft to be the underlying cause of all these deaths. One well known story was that passengers, on a weekly flight that passed over the Ufafa area, were sprinkling bad medicine from the skies above, affecting and killing, especially the young, people.
Sue was shocked and deeply disturbed by all the stories and even more so by the level of ignorance displayed by the workers from the Ufafa community. A great human tragedy was unfolding on the BRC doorstep, without anyone in the Buddhist community realising this.
A few weeks after these classes began one of the gardeners working at the BRC died as a result of HIV and AIDS; soon thereafter, another person closely associated with the BRC (an ex-employee) also died as a result of AIDS. The AIDS pandemic was moving even closer to home for the BRC.<
Sue approached Kittisaro and Thanissara Weinberg, who were semi resident teachers at the BRC, at the time, to ask for their help. Their response was immediate; something needed to be done but what and how. The 3 of them approached Chrisi and Louis van Loon and with their approval, began to explore further how best to respond.
Sue had an old school friend, Debbie Matthews, who happened to be the National Executive Director of the Aids Foundation of South Africa (AFSA). Debbie had also grown up on a farm very close to the BRC. She was the obvious person to make contact with. Sue called Debbie and her response too was immediate and professional. Debbie laid out clear procedures to follow and guidelines on how to do this:
- identify the main stakeholders in the Ufafa community (such as traditional leaders, counsellors, teachers, parents, students)
- arrange focus discussion groups with a cross section of people in the Ufafa valley, in order to learn from the community, what the issues were facing people and how best to respond
- reach consensus on the most effective and appropriate way forward
Sue followed Debbie’s expert advice; it soon became apparent that there was indeed a great and urgent need for some sort of programme to be initiated to address the AIDS pandemic that was ravaging the community of Ufafa. The Chief, Headmen and other stakeholders present, all began meeting with their various communities, taking these same discussions out to their people.
Kittisaro and Thanissara vowed to raise the funds to initiate a project. They contacted their friends in the US, Eugene Cash and Pam Weiss of the San Francisco Insight Meditation Centre (SFI). The SFI together with Kittisaro & Thanissara began a series of very effective and heart-warming fund raising events. The SFI provided all the funds for the first year of operation (almost R100, 000!) and 5 years later funded the Woza Moya Community Centre.
Chrisi and Louis offered Kittisaro & Thanissara’s house at the BRC to be used as a project office and as accommodation for Sue. Kittisaro & Thanissara seldom stayed at in their house anymore, so it was an easy arrangement for them all to share this facility, up until 2005, when Woza Moya relocated to the community of Ufafa.
Debbie introduced Sue to a small and very courageous group of Zulu speaking people living openly with AIDS in the city of Pietermaritzburg; this was extremely unusual in 1999. Sue met with Jabu Molefe, the leader of this group and they immediately struck up a close friendship that continues today, 10 years on.
Sue persuaded Jabu to come back to the BRC with her. They began visiting people in the Ufafa community, where Jabu spoke openly about her HIV status, much to the shock and literal disbelief of community members. Sue remembers some people shouting at Jabu accusing her of lying, wanting to know how she could be so plump with the virus, others stating that she was being paid to say these things.
Jabu and Sue’s first big formal meeting was in the community of Lusiba, held in the church building. The Chief and Headman had encouraged people to attend and a large crowd had gathered. Both Jabu and Sue made presentations, which were followed by a general discussion, coordinated by the Headman. 15 volunteers were then chosen to go forward with this project.
As soon as the meeting was over, a vibrant woman named Jane Nxasane approached Jabu and Sue. A more reserved, but equally enthusiastic friend, Benedicta Memela, accompanied her. Jane came straight to the point. She thanked Jabu and Sue for coming to her community and said in a most resolute way ‘We are with you’! Her immediate and unwavering commitment was astounding and beautiful to behold. Jane added that they do not mind that there is no money (this had been made clear in the presentations). Jane and Benedicta wanted to learn how to help their community; their families, relatives, friends who were all dying in their droves and they felt helpless. They were amongst the first 15 people who the community had voted for.
Sue recalls feeling an instant kinship with Jane, one of those rare and auspicious meetings. This special relationship has deepened over the years and been central to the success of Woza Moya. Benedicta grew to occupy a vital part of this 3-way relationship, forming the dynamic leadership team that exists today, with Sue as Director and Jane and Benedicta as Co-Managers. Sue recalls Thanissara having been another key player in this dynamic team, albeit from a distance then and now no longer involved with Woza Moya.
Sue, Jane and Benedicta have come a long long way together. The magic between these 3 women is palpable characterised by the many roads travelled together. The highs and lows, moments of great joy interspersed with difficult and sometimes painful struggles, have created an unshakeable bond between these 3 leaders of Woza Moya Project.
Name of the project – WOZA MOYA - Written by Sue Hedden
Sue instinctively knew what the name of the project was going to be!
The name WOZA MOYA came into being as a result of a very personal experience. On the 3 August 1987 my fiancé Dave Everett took his own life. Dave was well known for always signing off with the words WOZA MOYA. Dave was a writer and a poet.
I explained to Kittisaro and Thanissara the many meanings of the word MOYA – wind, air, breath, spirit - and how apt it was for a project starting in a Buddhist context. They instantly loved WOZA (come) MOYA (breath, wind, air, spirit) and the name of the project was born. (I shared my more personal motivation for choosing these words with Jane, a bit later)
As Dave’s poem below illustrates, this project has been akin to me having had my first and only child - MOYA! The birth and growth cycles and life of Woza Moya has been a deeply personal journey for me, coming all-inclusive with both the great joys and painful struggles of raising a child!
In the Zulu language there is a word that I love
to me it has a beautiful sound
and has different meanings
i love the way it means
wind and spirit
at the same time
Emoyeni, Woza Moya, Shaya Moya
i’m sure you love the sound of the word too
i remember a lady on the bus
mother of the boy who
with his skabenga friend
stole my jam, p-butter, etc
& Alias’s tinned food
too young to read
Anyway i liked the mother
very chatty on the bus
before the sun
driving down the winding road
over the Bashee river
grinding up the curves
bumping past kraals
and coned silhouettes of huts
and solemn aloes
stretching their arms upwards
glowing red and waving
in a break in conversation
stopping to pick up old ladies
and wizened men
the first children going to school
she said we should call
our first child – MOYA
(p.s. Alias was the name of our dog)