Walking with Claudia

Wupperthal, a small village embraced by the majestic Cederberg Mountains, was nurtured into existence first by the Rhenish missionaries from 1830 - 1965 and after that by the Moravians.

In 2004, a group of local women received a grant with which to establish a rooibos soap-making facility – and Red Cedar Cosmetics was formed. After the women were given training they settled into their new way of life and as their confidence grew, so did their sales. They started by making rooibos glycerine soap. The product range was soon expanded to include shampoo, shower gel, hand wash, foam bath, room spray and body lotion. By the end of the year they will also be making body butter and lip balm. The training continues, not only in manufacture, but also in how to run a successful business.

When it was decided that the story of one of the Red Cedar women should be told, the group chose Claudia Goes. Claudia lives in Martinsrust, a substation of Wupperthal. To get to work, she walks 22km every day along the rugged road which snakes its way up and down the mountain and overlooks the valley.

I had met Claudia twice before – during a training session and when the group came to Cape Town to celebrate Red Cedar’s 3rd birthday and to visit their suppliers and markets. Claudia was approachable and open, but a little shy. I didn’t want to set up a typical ‘interview ‘situation - I wanted talk to her in a relaxed setting and to experience in some part what her life is like - to feel her story. And so I asked Claudia if I could walk home with her after work one day. We set off at 4.00pm. I hoped fervently that the sun would bake down on us with less intensity than it had done at midday. This was not to be, and I soon found myself welcoming even the slightest movement of air and wishing that the sun would sink behind the mountains. On the uphill, looking back, I could see Wupperthal shrinking into the distance, and then we headed down into the valley again.

As we walked, we talked, and so Claudia’s story was told.

Claudia was born in Wupperthal and raised by her grandma. When she was eleven she left her school and the ease of village life and joined her parents in Mannenburg, as they were both working in the Cape. She continued with her schooling but pulled out at the end of Std 8 because political unrest had set in and many people were avoiding school. Her working life started in a cooldrink factory and from there she moved to a company where they made products from beeswax.

She met Desmond, her husband, through mutual friends from Wupperthal. After they married they moved back to Martinsrust, where they stayed with his parents. Desmond worked as a builder and also made money through seasonal work on farms. He would often be gone for weeks at a time. Claudia did seasonal farm work too, with her firstborn son strapped to her back. When her daughter arrived, and later another son, she decided to stay at home to look after them. The children have, over the years, all attended the school in Wupperthal, living at the boarding school and going home on weekends.

Desmond developed emphysema and found it difficult to continue working, especially in the winter. The situation was tight. “Where would the money come from?” Claudia heard about the soap-making project through the church and filled in forms, applying to become part of the team. She was surprised and delighted when her application was accepted. Together with the rest of the team, Claudia now makes all the products. She is also involved in various aspects of running the business – such as filing, invoicing and general office work. She never misses a day unless it’s raining so hard that the rivers along her way swell and become impassable. She embraces the walking, saying it keeps her fit and trim, although she does dream about a quad bike. We joked that if her dream were to come true serious lessons would be in order to deal with the precarious twists and turns of the mountain pass.

The income generated by the soap factory puts food on the table and helps the family survive. Claudia is very proud of her work and acquired skills. She enjoys a friendly connection with the rest of the group, and finds this a very satisfying aspect of her job. She looks forward to the growth of the Red Cedar business.

We passed dried up rivers, loud-mouthed donkeys, bleating goats, curious baboons and a few isolated houses along the way. Eventually, the small sub-station of Martinsrust appeared in the distance. All six houses are cupped together and seem to lean towards the mountain for protection. Below the houses, the soil is more fertile, and a strip of land there is used to grow vegetables – a feast of potatoes, tomatoes, melons, beans, cucumbers and onions. Baboons watch the gardening activities from a distance, and when their food supplies run low in the mountains, they move in and help themselves. According to Claudia, potatoes are their favourite.

Claudia introduced me to her village. I visited her home and admired the panoramic view from her outside kitchen. By now dusk was drawing in, the air was cooler, and it was time for me to leave. We said a warm farewell, after a long day and a long walk.