On the bank of the Kwando River, on the edge of Bwabwata National Park, lies a little haven. Born from the generous hearts of Dusty and Tinolla Rodgers, The Sijwa Project started in 2019 with a humble greenhouse and plastic repurposing plant. Three years later it has become a lighthouse for the local community through employment and education accredited to this African Monarch Lodges (AML) initiative. 

Having visited the project in its founding year, and then again in early 2022, it was incredible to witness the growth that Sijwa has achieved. In its infancy, the project employed eight local community members who not only tended to the garden supplying AML with fresh produce, but also filled discarded plastic water bottles with soil from the river banks which were used to construct their workshops. Walking onto the lot this time around, the walls of their glass bead workshop and sewing centre are adorned with the star-shaped bases of all those bottles, protruding in symmetrical perfection. And their team has grown to 20 Mayuni community members. It is hard to believe that on our previous visit all this was only a dream.

The Sijwa Project resulted from the ever more important challenge faced by lodges in such remote areas – their waste and how to manage it sustainably. Additionally, the communities surrounding African Monarch Lodges properties are largely subsistence farmers or without any type of employment. These two factors made for a remarkable opportunity to engage local people in income generating activities, while simultaneously reducing, reusing and recycling the lodges’ waste. 

When the construction of the workshops was completed, it was time to fill the spaces with even greater initiatives. The next phase included starting the sewing workshop and glass recycling. A group of young and ambitious community members were trained on how to create glass beads by crushing empty liquor bottles, making moulds and even building a kiln to melt and reshape the glass. Once cooled, the beads are polished by hand with sand and water. The glass beads vary in colour from dark green to brilliant turquoise, and different sizes are stringed together in the workshop to produce fashionable yet authentic jewellery and keychains. 

Dusty and Tinolla’s greatest dream is to teach the community skills. They approached The Collective Boutique and Myeisha Namibia to form a collaboration to train four local community members to sew, by providing a professional trainer, fabric and sewing machines. The incredible initiatives of Sijwa inspired another Namibian to get hands-on in uplifting the community. Then the national titleholder of Miss Supranational Namibia, Chanique Rabe visited the project and began discussions with Tinolla and Dusty about introducing a junior sewing school at The Sijwa project. Avril Payment Solution sponsored all the sewing machines required to set up the school for its 40 students. Chani, holding an honours degree in fashion design, compiled a curriculum and thus the Sijwa Junior Sewing School was founded. She proceeded to win the international Supranational title and along with the accolade came global attention to her work at The Sijwa project. A group of young women who had never held a needle and thread or earned an income prior to training here now create unique garments exclusively made at The Sijwa Project, designed by Chani and South African designer Isabel de Villiers, who trained the ladies on embroidery and how to sew her bestselling garment ‘The Isabel Kimono’. Their handcrafted items (including placemats and tote bags) are in high demand and the staff at African Monarch Lodges fashion the namesake dress inspired by the Monarch butterfly, designed by Chanique Rabe.

They are not just sewing for the sake of fashion, however. The Sijwa sewing workshop recently began producing reusable sanitary pads in an effort to destigmatise and simultaneously educate rural communities about menstruation. In many isolated parts of the country girls skip school during menstruation, largely due to a lack of access to feminine hygiene products. The reusable sanitary pads, considerately made by the Sijwa seamstresses, aim to keep girls in school and deconstruct the narrative that menstruation is shameful. Avril Payment Solutions has been this cause’s greatest supporter and managed to distribute 300 pads into the region. In total, 2000 reusable sanitary pads have been made and released from The Sijwa Project. 

Sijwa’s permaculture garden now covers the space of two large greenhouses. Other than peppadews, rocket, aubergine, papaya, beans and many others they also grow ginger, turmeric and garlic which are absolute staples in the African Monarch Lodges’ kitchens. By preparing the soil, planting and tending to the garden, Sijwa employees are given the opportunity to learn about sustainable gardening practices. Concepts like crop rotation, how to deal with flooding and essential nutrition from fresh produce are valuable lessons that they can take back from their employment at Sijwa to their communities.

The project keeps growing from strength to strength as more initiatives are introduced by Dusty and Tinolla, who maintain a keen interest in the everyday challenges faced by community members. Tackling sustainable solutions to human-elephant conflict is the next project on their roster and it is sure not to be the last. The Sijwa Project continues to provide local people with income, but more sincerely, equips them with skills that can change the trajectory and quality of their lives in tangible ways. 

Charene Labuschagne