Article The Future

A good yarn

A blanket project that has gone viral is bringing people together in a way no government could do

67 Blankets (A poem)

Now that it is here I have nothing to fear from you winter, because 67 blankets is where I belong. I know it, I feel it so strong. Nothing has been clearer that it is your warm, comfortable feel that I hold so close to me. Deep inside is the cry of my heart, to make more warmth for others less fortunate than me.

I never want us to part ways, I am comfortable and warm this winter, because of you, 67 blankets. You are doing the best you can to keep us warm. I don’t care about coke and muffins, it’s you 67 blankets, it is only you that I want in my life. A prayer I know God will grant. I love the warmness you bring to us during winter…

Poem reproduced with the permission of Athimangali Kwinde

My journalist’s antenna was on high alert when I came across a Facebook post inviting people to a Knitathon and the launch of a blanket project on Robben Island on 12 April 2014. The invitation to join the Facebook page and attend the launch of 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day required only that you knit either a single bed blanket or a cot blanket and to come prepared to knit or crochet on the day.

My interest ran high – not only was this a potential story, but as luck would have it, being a compulsive knitter and crocheter I had just finished a cot blanket and I couldn’t let this opportunity slide. Besides, who wouldn’t seize the opportunity for a trip to Robben Island that was going to be filmed for SABC’s lifestyle programme, Top Billing, and mix with the glitterati?

South Africa’s beloved former president, 95-year old Tata (Father) Nelson Mandela had only recently been laid to rest in his hometown Qunu, emotions still ran high and a knitting and crocheting movement in his memory intrigued me.

The idea was born a year ago when actress and philanthropist Carolyn Steyn was challenged to make blankets for 67 Minutes for Nelson Mandela Day on 18 July 2014. The idea has grown into a movement that has gone viral, bringing people together in a way no government could do. More than 6,000 blankets were distributed around the country this year, made by South Africans from all walks of life and supporters from as far afield as Australia, the US, Canada, Germany, Cyprus, India and Great Britain.

“One year ago today (19 December) on my husband’s birthday, the idea for 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day was born. The seed was planted when my friend Zelda, who had been Madiba’s trusted assistant for so many years, challenged me to make 67 blankets for Mandela Day. It was just light-hearted banter and I really didn’t take it too seriously,” says Carolyn. It was only when her sister Sharon arrived on Christmas Day with a bag of wool and a crochet hook that Carolyn was reminded of her pledge. After inveigling family and friends to try and make blankets Carolyn turned in desperation to Facebook.

“And look what happened! We are now a (global) movement as I believe most people want to make a difference in this world, which is why so many people hooked into this initiative and are doing something good in the name of Nelson Mandela.”

A story of social cohesion bound together by yarn

This really is a story of ubuntu (an Nguni word that translated means “humanity to others”. It also means “I am what I am because of who we all are”), of friendships and relationships that have crossed social and racial barriers that the democratic government has not yet been able to achieve. It is about a movement that started as a “do good” campaign, but one that is changing the lives of those who have taken up the challenge, as they join groups of like-minded knitting and crochet fanatics, taking the movement into schools, churches, old age homes, prisons and communities across South Africa. It is a story that touched many of their lives.

”67 (blankets) turned my life from dark to light and moved me from zero to hero, because now I know and see the importance of doing things to others, or to change other’s lives. It also changed the way I think and live, because 67 Blankets members live one life, one spirit and one family of love and responsibility,” says Timmy Easey B.

Athimangali Kwinde, aka Timmy Easey B, was so taken by the movement after he witnessed the growing number of blankets arriving at the premises of his employer, Carolyn Steyn, that he asked to join so that he and his friends from his home town in Limpopo Province could also crochet blankets.

He says he has learnt something good from the friendships he has made and that it doesn’t matter what colour you are or what language you speak, as love and care (for each other) is the best. “Tears just flow down my face.”

Bay Primary School in Fish Hoek near Cape Town started a knitting, crocheting and looming skills programme at its junior and senior campuses and incorporated 67 Blankets into its social awareness programme. It was so popular that the staff and headmaster, mothers, grannies and friends started adding their squares to the growing number that the children were making.

As the piles grew bigger so the need to find helpers to sew and crochet the squares together became more urgent. This is when the school project became a community project as people were drawn in, particularly from Masiphumele, the nearby informal township where women eager to learn new skills started to knit and crochet and put the squares together into single bed blankets.

With an added donation of 2,000 squares and several blankets from one of Cape Town’s largest auditing firms, more than 120 blankets were given to needy people in the Fish Hoek valley.

“67 Blankets created awareness of using creativity to benefit others. It brought cohesiveness – bringing families together with grannies teaching children and handing down their skills,” says Steph Goosen, one of the mothers of the children at Bay Primary.

She adds that the project fits in with the school’s Eco-Warrior social responsibility programme, allowing it to penetrate and extend its social awareness into the local communities. “We are not only learning from these communities but we are also giving them back skills they haven’t used for years.”

As for me – the glitterati and TV crew didn’t faze me, I’m used to cameras, famous names and glitz and I’m usually the one that writes about them. But I was excited by the trip to Robben Island. My husband had strict instructions to look like he was knitting if confronted by cameras and I was taken in by the sheer enthusiasm of everyone, including the tourists who were on the island, as the movement was launched in great style with champagne and canapés in the courtyard of the former prison.

This is the same courtyard with the unrelenting sun beating down on the concrete where Mandela and his fellow political prisoners would exercise, surreptitiously talk to each other or pass notes under the watchful eye of wardens. In their stark cells they studied for degrees and kept themselves busy by knitting. No sumptuous food for the prisoners, but this is 12 April 2014, knitting on the Island has once again become popular and celebrations are in order for this good cause.

By the middle of June I was caught up in the movement and with my fellow “yarners”, who were now known as Knitwits and various other names like Happy Hookers and Stitch and Bitchers, we were feverishly making and finishing blankets, having drawn in our own supporters to lend a hand.

And then it was Mandela Day. By this time our group in Cape Town had already given blankets to families evicted from informal settlements during the coldest and wettest winter weather, cheered the hearts of children at Tygerberg Hospital’s children’s oncology unit and now we were delivering blankets to orphans and abused children at care homes in Ottery and Khayalitsha.

We received an urgent call for a blanket to comfort a grieving mother.

The day was also fraught with heartbreak as we responded to an urgent call for a blanket to comfort the grieving mother of 10-year-old Jaylin, gunned down in crossfire by gangs a few days earlier outside his house in Mitchells Plain. A sombre entourage from 67 Blankets arrived at the house where his distraught mother Dalene and shocked relatives and neighbours received us. We were able to give Dalene and each member of the extended family a blanket.

I was very emotional and wrote the following on Facebook; “Very emotional day for me - today was about reaching out to the community… I thought of Jaylin, his grieving family, his distraught elder brother (running away from us and found lying face down on his bed, crying into his blanket) and his grandmother who is a rock to the family with her faith and her prayers - praying for us! My plea today is to focus our eyes, not on the world outside our borders and get angry, joining the hubbub proclaiming death and destruction to perpetrators, but to the crumbling world around those thousands of vulnerable children that need our love, compassion and comfort - to help them make a way into a secure future. Is that possible?”

Like Timmy Easey B and Steph Goosen, the many friends that I have made through 67 Blankets and the thousands of other people who joined the movement, making a blanket or two for a good cause once a year is not enough and we have continued making blankets, not only for the 2015 Blanket Challenge for Mandela Day, but in other initiatives to meet the ongoing needs of the vulnerable in our own communities.

In one year, 67 Blankets has multiplied beyond Carolyn’s wildest dreams. On the eve of the first anniversary of Madiba’s death 67 Blankets was launched at Zonderwater medium security prison outside Pretoria, where inmates have been making brightly coloured blankets to commemorate the anniversary.

“A lot of the prisoners want to make a difference. They want to do something for Nelson Mandela,” says Carolyn.

Her dream of breaking the Guinness Book of World Records with a colourful sea of blankets around the feet of Nelson Mandela’s statue at the Union buildings in Pretoria in April 2015 might just come true – her original request for 9,000 blankets looks like being beaten.

The blankets have become a symbol of love and hope, reaching out beyond boundaries, breaking down invisible barriers as each thread unites to bind one to another in the spirit of ubuntu.

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