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When in Crisis: Don't Forget the Milk.

Isabell Bernal

The day I met four women who would change my life. 

Three months after meeting everyone. The day of the neela photo shoot and two days before I would have to say goodbye and leave South Africa.

Three months after meeting everyone. The day of the neela photo shoot and two days before I would have to say goodbye and leave South Africa.

It was 5 a.m.  I was terrified.  Pure unadulterated anxiety had kept me up all night.  I was alone in a guest house that I had rented on AirBnB as I got ready for my first day at work.  Only a couple of miles away from me was a slum where four mothers were also getting ready for the day.  Getting the children ready for school and out the door by 6 a.m. and getting themselves ready for work.  For two of them it was the first morning they had ever spent getting ready for work. 

I took all the supplies to the studio space the Saturday before.  It was stocked with a big beautiful dining room table, office chairs, a bright blue sofa and rug.  Cute mugs and lamps and a kitchenette I had stocked with snacks, tea, and coffee. 

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The office needed two things: people and milk. 

I went to the convenience store on Sunday and grabbed the freshest milk they had.  I brought it back to the AirBnB and kept it in the mini fridge there.  On the door of the AirBnB I had left one sticky note.  "Don't forget the milk."

Knowing myself, I anticipated being stressed in the morning and forgetting the milk in the fridge.  So I HAD to have that sticky note. 

Thankfully I remembered the milk. Because neela provides breakfast each morning before work. And I make the ladies coffee and tea each day.

Thankfully I remembered the milk. Because neela provides breakfast each morning before work. And I make the ladies coffee and tea each day.

I wasn't stressed as much as I was scared.  I had met the women in March and it was now August.  I told them I would be back to start the business in June and it was August.  It took me a long time to learn about making handbags, source materials, save money, and get everything together.  I was worried that they would be mad at me for showing up late. 

I was scared because I was here to empower women.  But what's empowering about being taught a business from a 20 year old? Who am I to run a women's empowerment project when I still consider myself a girl?  I was worried they would be upset about my age and find my presence offensive. 

Who am I to come in and try to help? Especially about a craft I had literally just learned.  There are so many more qualified women who are older, smarter, and more experienced.  If only they were here instead.

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But they aren't I kept thinking.  "These four women are waiting for you, Isabella and you need to remember the milk and show up." 


Don't forget the milk was my mantra that morning.  It gave me something to focus on and think about to keep self doubt and fear at bay. 


I met the women at a charity organization where their children all attend.  This was the charity that introduced me to the mothers back in March.

They were standing together outside, under the mango tree where I had met them for the first time.  Each wearing bright and beautiful tote bags made from traditional African prints. They had made these bags at the two week sewing machine course I had sent them to after meeting them in March.  I ran and to them and hugged them.

feminist mug and Nabuhle working hard in the background

feminist mug and Nabuhle working hard in the background

There were only four, not ten that the NGO told me they had found and that I had met in March.  These four were the ones who by August still wanted to come and work.  They were dedicated and committed.  And a couple of them persistently asked the leaders of the NGO when work would begin every day for the past couple of months. 

I hugged everyone and we ran through names again.  It occurred to me that I had passionately worked on neela tirelessly for the past few months all to start a project to benefit women whose names I didn't even know.  We chatted for a few minutes about their lives and how they were doing and piled into a van owned by the charity. Paid the driver, and he took us on a thirty minute ride to the studio.

our first studio. Dobsinville, Soweto.

our first studio. Dobsinville, Soweto.