‘If a tea-bag can be given a new lease of life, I think a human being can’. Lynette Torbit.
Tucked away in Hout Bay, just along the road from Imizamo Yethu is a heritage Cape Dutch property. Set back from the road, it’s not so noticable, but inside magic happens. Lives are transformed along with the tea-bags, rubbish becomes art, creativity and confidence surge, and the unthinkable becomes reality.
It all starts with Kathleen. Like nearly all of the workers at T Bags she lives in Imizamo Yethu. She sat with a big plastic bag of used dry tea-bags at her side. Crumpled, brown and discarded. She opened them deftly, emptying out the tea and putting the bags to one side. Round ones. Long ones. Square ones. Just tea-bags. ‘I think I do about a thousand a day’, she told me. Her fingers never stopped. Swift and sure. I fumbled and tore the odd one. ‘Well, I’ve been doing it for ten years,’ she said when I remarked on her rhythm. Kathleen also irons and paints a background colour on the bags.
After her mother died, she began cleaning for a Muslim family. She was ten years old. ‘Some jobs you don’t feel welcome. You can tell by the body language. Here I feel wanted. I’m the first person here in the mornings. I sit and wait for people to come. I don’t care as long as I’m here. When I’m at home, I’m just sitting there. When I’m here, I’m alive’. I asked what she thought about while she was emptying the tea bags. ‘Oh, I can shout across to the others or listen to the radio, and I love meeting people. Even if I don’t know your name, I’m glad to meet you’.
Kathleen said she couldn’t believe what could be made from a tea-bag. ‘Now I can’t get enough of the pretty things. Sometimes I stand in the shop and just look’. It does boggle the mind. The tea-bags are painted, then incorporated through decoupage onto a variety of products, glass lights, trays, coasters, purses….each is unique. Inspiration comes from clothes, fabrics and TV. Elaine told me ‘We decorate with love and passion and caring and then a coaster is not just a coaster but a piece of artwork that we’ve made’. Everyone is encouraged to try, and to keep on trying; to develop their own skills and ideas. Nomsa said ‘My first ten tea-bags was really horrible – it was so bad’. But she persevered and now owns her own house. ‘I’ve got a house through painting tea-bags’.
A few of the staff design and make their own products, which T Bags buys from them and then sells in it’s outlets. Russell, a big man with a smile that seems to fill his whole face was an art teacher in Zimbabwe, and is now T Bag’s head of production. He sells his own art in Hout Bay market with his wife. ‘It’s important for us to do this, even if we don’t sell much, we learn something from it’. Russell is one of only two men working at T Bags. I asked him what it was like to work with so many women. ‘I like it. They just get on with things. I am one of six boys. Boys, you know, when asked to do something, always try to push it onto someone else’. Working at T Bags is allowing him to put his son through school.
Like Russell, Rachel also came from Zimbabwe. She started working at T Bags part-time, cleaning and making the lunch. Then she began sewing. ‘I wasn’t that perfect at doing sewing. I never thought of doing anything with sewing. It was just something we did at school.’ Now she is head of the sewing department. And she designs her own bags and a tea cosy – at home with a machine she bought herself. ‘I just try. See what works. Take an idea to Jill*’. Her daughter also makes a bag and a tea cosy and her son is a dab hand at clothes alterations. ‘I was surprised. I thought – where did you learn to do this’. They learned by watching her – and it was not only her skill, but also her entrepreneurial spirit that they picked up on. Rachel also bought an ice cream maker, and her family sell ices at ZAR 5 a piece. Her husband works in the building trade, and finds it hard to get regular employment, especially in winter.
I asked her what she thought was the greatest benefit of working at T Bags. Without hesitation she said: ‘Confidence and knowledge. When I worked in the guesthouse I hardly dared ask anything. I would always send someone else to do it for me. These things, no-one can take away from me. Material things you can loose. I also put food on the table and invested in my children’s education. That’s important. But to think, I made that, makes me very proud. I used to think, what was the point of me going to school? I did my things, worked on the land, sold a little. I thought that’s my life, there will be nothing more, but with Mugabe I got a chance to grow. My sister-in-law tried to explain to me about T Bag, but I couldn’t understand it. I thought that’s a South African thing. It’s not my thing. Now it is my thing. My bread. And all because I learned sewing at school.’
Everyone at T Bags feels part of a team, feels listened to, supported, encouraged. They grow because everyone believes they can. ‘Jill is like a mother to us’, Elaine told me, ‘My workmates are like brothers and sisters. There is a lot of laughter here and stories’. Rachel told me: ‘All who work here, help each other – if there is a problem with a child…anything’. Russell said: ‘If someone has an idea, we all think how we can help’. Elaine’s husband died unexpectedly twelve years ago, leaving her pregnant with her seventh child. She thought about killing herself. Talking to Jill helped her to cope. ‘She doesn’t know it. I have never told her. But she saved my life’.
Empowerment. From the humble tea-bag.
* Jill Heyes – founder of Tea Bag Designs
Visit: Workshop and Shop Klein Kronendal 144 Main Road Hout Bay. Tel: +27 (0)21 790 0887 Take the Blue Tourist Bus – Mini peninsula tour – and get off at Imizamo Yethu township. Walk 200 yards or ask for a guide from T Bag. Also reachable on MyCiti bus.
Open Monday – Thursday 09.00-17.00. Friday 09.00-16.30. Closed weekends.