This is a story about Little Travellers, where they came from and where they are going.

What are Little Travellers I hear you asking? Well, Little Travellers are a small beaded doll that can be pinned on a jacket or bag that crafters from Woza Moya economic empowerment project started making in 2002. Little did we know how life-changing these small dolls, barely bigger than 4cm, would be to the lives of so many crafters from the valley of a 1000 hills.

The Little Travellers took off at the Essenwood market; customers would buy one and the next week they would be back telling us stories of how when they were wearing their traveller on their hat or lapel or bag someone would come up to them and say “What’s that? And where did you get it?” and they would share the story.  Reluctantly they would often have to give up their little friend to go on a new journey with a new friend… later they got smart and bought in bulk so they could hand out the ones they didn’t get too attached to … so that’s how they go their name.

We loved hearing stories of how these little characters hitched rides all over the world, travelling to many countries. People started sending us photos of themselves and their Traveller companion, and at one point we had so many photos pouring in from friends and their Little Travellers in wild and varied locations that it actually broke our internet! So it began, the Little Travellers started inspiring people all over the world, from Canadians in Nova Scotia Knitting them hats because they were feeling the cold, to 2020 where one of our customers made her little Travellers face masks to protect them from Covid19.

I wonder how best to explain these little people, so here are a few of the stories that never fail to make me smile; sometimes when I look back on them they seem miraculous, the whole traveler story seems like a dream, a really beautiful dream…

Backdrop

This project that is Woza Moya started with a small bit of seed funding from the German Government for a part-time salary – my salary only. My boss at the time said I could do anything as long as it didn’t cost any money, so selling a few Travellers at the market allowed us to buy more travellers from a small number of bead workers the following week.  At that time we were working with 6 women who were caregivers in the community and had no income, we had zero money for marketing, transport… well anything that cost money. So with a little help from some friends (and my mom who worked alongside me for 13 years, many of those unpaid) and strangers, the impossible becomes possible.

Story 1 – Ilan and Medical Intervention

Ilan Schwartz arrived at the centre from Canada to volunteer with us, during which time he fell in love with the Little people and took 10 Little Travellers back to Canada… and what happened next was nothing short of miraculous. He managed to mobilise students in grand numbers to buy Little Travelers and in almost no time at all we were sending 1000s of travelers to Canada. As we didn’t have funds to send them, Gary from Churchill’s Couriers sponsored all their flights and helped us get them all to Canada which enabled us to put all the money back into the community. We went from being able to help 6 bead-workers to giving employment to over 100 crafters. We couldn’t make them fast enough… when I asked one of the crafters why it took so long to make one, she said when she’s making one, she thinks of her sister, her brother, a friend, someone she’s lost or loved, and when they are done she lays them on her couch and admires them and is happy that they will be traveling. Those words have always stuck with me.

After this mass Emigration, we developed the Little Traveller passport … So they could travel “officially”

Story 2 – The Shaps: Where do we come from? Who are we? And where are we going?

When the Little Travellers gained such a stronghold in Canada people wanted to know who made them and where did they come from? How to do this without a budget? We had an idea of giving disposable cameras to all the crafters and letting the crafters themselves give insight into their lives. Ilan and I begged for cameras from everywhere/everyone to no avail. When the last door closed I wrote to Ilan to say that this was not a possibility and that very day a young couple came into the shop and I showed them around the centre. Later that day the husband came back and asked to chat to me. He sat in my office and said he had been moved to help and what did I need? Not knowing what he did, I said I needed 150 disposable cameras… “That’s easy,” he says, “I own a photographic shop in Cape Town”. The next week I had 150 cameras.

The photos that came out of this project were nothing less than spectacular – for the first time crafters were able to document their own lives and speak for themselves. Gary Shap developed all 150 cameras and we selected 100 pictures for enlarging for our exhibition at the City Hall. We had over 500 people at the exhibition and all the crafters were there. The City hall shook with the celebration inside of it and from then on the sky was the limit for what Little Travellers could achieve.  Looking back recently at the photos, we sent pictures to crafters via Whatsapp and some of the photos that were sent back made us smile – a small child grown up, a mud house rebuilt in brick, progress because of the income from these small dolls.

It was after this exhibition that one of the journalists from the Mail and Guardian wrote about the travelers saying “Little Travellers have clocked up more voyager miles than Richard Branson” we loved that!

Story 3 Erin and Eric “Little Travellers lead to love”

Erin was sent by The Canadian branch (yes, we began to have branches! All over the world – Canada, New York, Texas, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, Sweden, Holland and Germany – groups devoted themselves to selling Little Travellers) of Little Travellers to volunteer for 6 months. She was instrumental in setting up the Little Travellers exhibit and was a Godsend when there were no funds for extra staff. When Erin returned home she was very homesick for Little Travellers and South Africa. On a very dark day she was walking down the street in Vancouver and a man passed her in a coat and on his coat was a little Traveller, she stopped and engaged him in conversation, they had a coffee and the rest is history. Erin and Eric are happily married with two children all because of a Little Traveller.  Travellers can bring light on the darkest day.

Story 4 – Karen Monk Klijnstra “Fashion and the Little Travellers”

Karen encouraged us to have our first stand at the Design Indaba in Cape Town, giving up a piece of her own stand. I loved her gung-ho attitude! I took no clothes, just a giant suitcase that was stuffed full of Little Travellers and I sold more travelers in an hour on Karen’s stand at the Design Indaba than we had in a whole month. I came back home to Durban with wads of cash and was able to order hundreds of more Travellers. The joy from the crafters reached a record high.

A few years later Karen designed a whole range built around these incredible traveling fellows that made its debut at the Design Indaba in 2007. Skirts and tops were hand-painted with Travellers by artists – nothing had ever been done like this before, and to top it all we had record sales of Little Travellers at our stand which we went on to have for 12 years! Our last year there, because of its popularity, we needed 5 people manning the stand. A customer who had bought a Traveller at our first Indaba brought it back 12 years later in a bottle as his arm had fallen off. We did a quick repair and let’s hope he is still traveling.  Still, to this day, Karen always tries to make sure almost every outfit she sells goes out with a traveling companion.

Story 5 General or the Great Explorers

Little Travellers have inspired movie makers, been a companion to someone in hospital, summited Mount Everest with The Gap team, paddled across Lake Malawi, Summited Kilimanjaro, been the inspiration for a cake baking competition in South Korea, mobilized student groups globally who raised a million Rand to help build the 26-bed Respite Unit at the Hillcrest AIDS center, but most of all Little Travellers have put food on the table where there was none.

Last month I got a call for someone in Geneva whose Traveller had fallen off her jacket and had been run over by a car – for a moment, hearing the sadness in her voice, I thought it was a real person who had been run over! “How can I get another?!” was her plaintive cry. For her passion and dedication, we sent her a deluxe box of Travellers.

Our one German volunteer helped sort Travellers and after 10 days sorting and packing Travellers we asked her if she wanted another job. She said “please don’t! I love looking at them they make me smile.”

Our local deli restaurant and coffee shop, Sprigs, have ordered and sold a box of 50 Travellers every month for nearly 17 years without fail.

The Little Travellers have helped over 160 families earn an income where there was none, helped develop homes and we are seeing the fruits of the economic progress with crafters’ children being able to go to University and accessing tertiary education. Today thousands of Travellers are ordered/ emigrate worldwide creating much-needed employment.

In celebration of Mandela day we focussed on one of the crafters, for of all the people who lovingly helped us get to where we are now, it is the crafters and the creativity they bring that is core to what we do at Woza Moya. Busi Nzama is a crafter who makes Mandela Travellers and we made a short documentary about her in celebration of her creativity and Mandela day. After watching the doccy, her words were: “I had no idea that I did all of that, I have left a beautiful legacy for my children and my grandchildren.”

Travelers come in all shapes and sizes, from Rastas to Nurses and Drs, to mothers and grannies to mermaids, superheroes, a full cosmos, a beautiful rainbow nation.

If you haven’t got a Traveller, you absolutely need one, you can get one by shopping at Woza Moya Windermere Centre, or at Woza Moya Hillcrest 26 Old Main road or Woza Moya Embocraft in Botha’s Hill, Or online at www.wozamoya.co.za if all else fails to email me on wozamoya@hillaids.org.za

To watch the Mandela short documentary use the following link on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wozamoyahactandfriends/videos/428361238119628

Thank- you Little Travellers and all those present and past for the journey. To those who are struggling with isolation and these difficult days may you find joy and peace in the small things. I have given you the highlights of the Traveller story but there were some torrid times in between we somehow seem to have come through them. May we all get through these times.