We Can, or Women Empowered Committed Against Negativity, is a women-led NGO, working with other women-led NGOs to strengthen family structures in communities by strengthening the women within them. This Women’s Day LAUREN O’CONNOR-MAY chats to founder Loretta Joseph about the organisation and the work it does.
Loretta Joseph is a self-confessed handful who never fitted the mould.
“I was real rebel as a child. I was raised that we mustn’t ask questions about the inequalities that were around me. We didn’t talk about apartheid. But I wanted to ask those questions,” she said.
But Loretta has managed to turn this to her favour and has used it to help women in the communities around her. She found that her personality quirks were just the right mix to help her start her own NGO.
Unlike many other NGOs that fold shortly after opening, We Can has been going for 11 years. Before that, Loretta worked in several other fields but always with women. She first started as a young housewife, in Sunbird Park, Kuils River. Her children had started school and, fed up with the lack of proper infrastructure in the area, she rallied her neighbours to do something about it.
“I went door-to-door,” she said.
This led to the formation of the Suid Afrikaanse Unie vir Huisvroue. But then the group took an unexpected turn. Somewhere the activism focus got side-tracked, Loretta said, and suddenly she found herself learning to make lasagne and doing decoupage.
“And I thought, ‘This is not what I signed up for’.”
The revelation came shortly before Loretta met another woman who would help her to find exactly what she would much rather sign up for.
“My friend said, ‘I’m going to take you to meet someone who talks just like you.’
“And I said: ‘What do you mean? How do I talk?’’’
“And she said: ‘You’ll see, you’ll see because I don’t understand you when you talk. You speak another language and she speaks just like you.’”
So the friend introduced her to a Madeline Gouvias who worked for an NGO called Delta.
“And I thought, ‘Oh my word. There is actually a place in the world of women for leaders like me.’”
Through her work with Delta, Loretta got a bursary to study reconstruction and development planning, which led to work with other mostly faith-based NGOs and she continued in this vein until one day she realised: “There’s a gap.”
Faith-based NGOs, she realised, were, for the most part, reaching women who were already part of the church.
“But what about the women that weren’t part of that structure?”
So, with a new goal in mind, Loretta promptly set about starting her own NGO and in 2006 We Can’s registration was complete.
“I started it with the inheritance I got from my dad,” she said. “There is a saying ‘erfgeld is swerfgeld’, I didn’t want to do that. The saying means that people who inherit money often squander it and then find themselves going door-to-door asking for food and money. We go door-to-door to help people.”
So using “the home I raised my children in” as its headquarters, Loretta and field workers went out into communities in Delft, Mfuleni, Kraaifontein, Kuils River and Belhar to meet with woman one-on-one and identify their difficulties and struggles. She would then use her vast network of contacts in other NGOs – which were mostly women-led – to bring in the resources needed to help the women.
Nomaphelo Tlali is one of the women that We Can has helped.
“Four years ago I came just to help,” Nomaphelo, of Mfuleni, said.
We Can were hosting a conference and Nomaphelo had come to help clean up, but she hung around in the background and observed the conference.
“The women shared their stories,” she said. “I became interested, and I wanted to learn more.”
She signed up for volunteer work with We Can, and Loretta sent her out with field workers.
“And I realised, I’m also going through what these women are going through.”
Nomaphelo continued to attend We Can’s workshops and slowly built up skills and self confidence.
“I learned that I can say ‘no’,” she said. “Women are still there, following what they learn in the culture, but we can say ‘no, I don’t want to do this anymore’.”
Loretta said when Nomaphelo first came to We Can she was shy and introverted. “But today Noma is running our parenting workshops.”
Nomaphelo learned skills from We Can that helped her to “break cultural boundaries”, Loretta said, and to find work. This is Loretta’s long-term vision for the NGO. Now that her children are grown-up and have their own homes, Loretta has moved with her husband to Caledon and the house in Kuils River has become the full-time headquarters of We Can. Loretta said she wants to turn it into a “life-long learning centre”.
“I want to get people to come in and teach here on a voluntary basis,” she said.