There would be few more challenging places to create beauty than an African township where most families are affected by the HIV-AIDS epidemic and unemployment is rife. Yet this is where Sheila, in partnership with the women of the community, established Kopanang Community Trust in 2001.
Sheila’s path to becoming a Dominican was a little unconventional. She attended a non-Catholic secondary school in England, and recalls, “Our parish priest said there was a weekend for youth, did any of us want to go? We said, ‘Yes – away from home for the weekend!’ He neglected to tell us it was actually a course for Catholics in non-Catholic schools....I was enraged that we were taken there under false pretences!” The Dominican motto is Veritas – truth, so there’s an irony in the fact that the young Sheila was so disturbed by this casual disregard for the whole truth.
She continues, “By the end of the weekend, having learned about St Dominic, I was totally smitten, really on fire with the possibility of what good news can do for others.”
Fast forward some years and Sheila is a Dominican Sister in Rome, signing up to participate in a course on “the sacred in art” given by Brother Stanis McGuire CFC. Sheila quickly learned that ‘sacred art’ extended well beyond angels and icons. “It was in the context of so many other kinds of art that it just blew my mind. I hadn’t had any professional training since I’d entered the convent, so I felt I would like to explore the possibility of art being a vehicle for good news. The course opened me to the whole gamut, and being in Rome – oh, the art, the history!
“I was asked to go to South Africa, which had always been close to my heart. I had been in the anti-apartheid movement, so there was a sense of a path unfolding. I had to work to support myself before I went to art school so having arrived in South Africa I ran the Methodist counselling and church centre, and the following year, 1990, I began my art training as a mature student.
Studying art in Johannesburg, Sheila realised that African children didn’t have the access to art training that the white children had. At the time, tertiary institutes were required to reach out to the community to receive subsidies, so the question arose in her, ‘What can we do?’ I felt strongly that we needed to offer teacher training in the arts for the majority of the rural black teachers who have no art training whatsoever. With the support of the Dean of Studies in the Fine Art Department of Wits Technikon (now the University of Johannesburg) where I was employed, I began training teachers in art two days a week in the rural area of Winterveldt.” Little had she realised that pursuing art training in Rome would lead to teaching art in South Africa!
Sheila tells a moving story that has never left her consciousness of why she does what she does, despite enormous challenges. “Driving one day from Durban to Jo’burg, a seven-hour journey in awful conditions, I pulled in under a bridge, having noticed two women who were there taking shelter. I offered them a lift, to which one replied, ‘We don’t want your lift.’ I realised they were sex workers and I said to them, ‘Do you know what risk you’re running?’ One said to me, ‘Do you know what it’s like to hear your child crying in the agony of hunger?’ I said I would never know that experience. I couldn’t do anything for those women, victims of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, but I knew I was being called to do something for other women so they could make different choices.”
That ‘something’ is Kopanang (a Sotho word meaning 'gathering together') Community Trust and it’s in its fourteenth year of operation. The emphasis is very much on promoting independence and self-sufficiency. “The women asked for help – their lives were badly affected by HIV-AIDS, unemployment and domestic violence. We said we wouldn’t set up a place but we would help them to do so.”
Kopanang is part of the Sithand’izingane Care Projects (Sithand’izingane, a Zulu word, meaning ‘we love the children’) based in an abandoned farmhouse donated by the bank that owned it. It is a drop-in centre for children, and over the years it’s expanded to provide after-school care and 400 meals daily for orphan children. The heart of Kopanang is the income-generating project which empowers and encourages women to develop their skills in such arts as embroidery and bead-making. Not only does their work generate income and promote independence, it creates beauty in a place many would see as devoid of beauty.
Sheila tells of one woman who resisted being hurried to finish a project for an exhibition. “Mama Sarah said, ‘I don’t want to hurry my work – every stitch I do, I do with love.’” Sheila is quick to acknowledge the wisdom and strength of these women who could easily be bowed down by their circumstances. “I can’t see it as hopeless. The people are still segregated because they’re too poor to move. Poverty binds them to the ghettoes. They live in shacks. Bereavement is a constant, poverty is a constant.
“And yet, these women are our teachers. I couldn’t do this without them, without God being my anchor. My nourishment comes from reflecting on the Word of God, embedding myself in that...I know I’m less when I don’t have that quiet time...”
Sheila’s art, in the form of sculpture and printmaking, has been her constant companion, and for the women to whom she ministers, a path to healing. “When the women tap into their creative selves, some healing happens, in spite of all. They see their own glory.”
To see the gorgeous art works produced at Kopanang, please visit www.kopanang.org.