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Meet Barbara Lephunting

Aug 26 2021

Wow. Where do I even begin with the story of Barbara…

It all started on a Friday morning when she came to my house as I had booked her through a cleaning company. This isn’t something I’ve ever done before, so I was a bit apprehensive in the beginning. I remember cleaning the whole house before she even came in, because I felt so strange that someone else was cleaning my house.

So, with that said she came in, face bright and so friendly and started cleaning. It started off a little awkward each minding their own business – so I came into the kitchen and started a conversation with her. I asked her if she wanted tea and her face was perplexed. I remember this clearly, because afterwards she actually told me that she was so taken aback by the conversation and interest that we had in her life and me actually offering her tea. This has never happened to her before. (crazy, right!?) And that moment, funny enough – changed my life. And hers.

The day went by and as she left we were almost like longtime friends. I invited her to church and gave her my number. That was it.

Two weeks passed and she sent me a message saying she is on her way to church. I was firstly shocked, because for a moment she even slipped my mind, and secondly excited. She is joining us for church with her little one, Bophelo. When she arrived at church, they were both in awe and shocked at the people, the building, the worship, the whole experience. Everything about that was completely different to what she has grown up with. She lived in a small shack in Dunoon – an informal settlement just down the road from us in Cape Town.

It’s mind blowing. One moment you are in a completely developed community with parks and shopping centers and schools and 5 minutes down the road, you find yourself with a polar opposite picture of poverty. Moms walking kilometers with buckets of water on their heads and a baby on their backs, kids running in the dirt playing with tires and make-shift cards, lines queuing waiting for the truck to bring them water so they can wash their clothing. This was her reality.

Sunday came and went and it was the start of a beautiful story unfolding… Every Sunday she joined us for church with her two kids. Weeks went by and she started inviting friends to come along. Every Sunday we had a new friend joining us and it came to a point where people didn’t fit in our car anymore. She started paying taxi fares for her friends to join. Anything to get them there. People saw something different in her and they wanted it too.

As the months went by she went from strength to strength, however still battling with the reality of life, needing finances and a secure job to provide for her kids. She tried everything- waking up in the wee hours of the morning to bake and sell muffins in her community, selling secondhand clothes on the street, house cleaning, construction cleaning. Every job was just a means to survive and keep her head above water.

But deep inside she carried her dream with her all the way. Her passion to make clothes and own her own business. This was a desire of her all her life and although she pushed it aside, she had never forgotten it. It was always there in the back of her mind – constantly nudging at her, but reality always reminded her that it was a dream out of her reach.
Then the day came. March, 27 2020. The COVID pandemic. South Africa went into a national lockdown. Barbara and her community were stranded. Thousands left without jobs and food. Fear and anxiety crept up in the communities. The need was real, urgent and confronting.

This reality pushed us to think outside the box and we came up with an idea. I messaged Barbara and asked her if she ever heard of a scrunchie. The silence on the other side of the phone was a clear indication that she had no idea what it was! (Haha!) So, I sent her a picture and before knowing what she said yes to she just said.. “Let’s do it!”

That day I posted on my social media platforms, asking friends to support Barbara and her family through buying hand-made scrunchies. Many people reached out and said that they would love to support her. We got some material and a secondhand machine donated and she started that evening teaching herself how to make scrunchies. She and her son Marvelous (matric that time) sat together and made 100 scrunchies… all wrong! Haha – not even kidding! So, we sat together, trained and started again- this time looking way better!

Weeks went by and orders came in – people were loving it! All unknowing that she was actually busy outworking her dream… A month went by and we started getting more and more people involved. One day, as I was on my way driving to a friend’s house, my phone started beeping. Notifications came through every few seconds and as I picked up my phone looking at what’s happening, I saw order after order coming through. Perplexed, I tried looking at what happened and I realized that a social media influencer saw Barbara’s Instagram page and shared it. From there it went viral! She went from 100 followers to over 2000 in just a few days. That is where it all started snow-balling…

Barbara’s scrunchies became well-known among people as it went from a side-hustle to a full time job. I will never forget the first night that we sat and packed the orders together in my house. We got so many orders we had to close the online shop. We made scrunchies and packed orders till 3am that morning, while Bophelo fell asleep on the couch watching a movie. This was surreal. She kept saying: “I will never complain about work. This is a gift. I am so thankful. I am so blessed!” No matter how hard it got or what challenge she faced, she pushed through, knowing that no dream worth pursuing will ever come easy.

As the months went by, so many miracles unfolded. People donated sewing machines, contributed money for material and shops reached out to stock her scrunchies- even as far as the UK and Canada. (How amazing is that!) Even radio stations reached out to her where she was hosted live and told her story, encouraging others to pursue their dreams. At one point, ETV News (our local news station) reached out and came to do a live interview with her in her home in Dunoon. At this point she had already appointed 2 ladies in her community that helped her.

Throughout all her successes, there were many ups and downs along the journey. The reality of living in a township was very real. The danger was very real and eminent for her at some stage and unfortunately the reality of her family and background was still very much a challenge, however she somehow always came out on the other side.

She pushed hard to create a better life for her and her children. She was determined to be a change in her community and made sure she always gave what she had. One of my favorite moments was at Christmas time last year where she gathered her friends and joined us to hand out food parcels and presents for the kids in her community. She would arrive with an old car and a trailer every day for a week to pick up food parcels and drive around the community to hand it out. Wow, that was a special memory…

All in all to say that it is now more than one year later and she still has her business and it is flourishing. Her son, Marvelous passed matric and got accepted to University on a scholarship. He will be the first one to graduate in her family. Her little girl, Bophelo is in grade 1 and is adjusting so well to her new school. She keeps helping every person with whatever is in her hands, and to some degree I really think this is why she has been so successful.

She has always told me “Whatever I have been given, I want to give. I know what it feels like to have nothing. I don’t ever want to keep what I have just for myself.”

I love that. What an inspiration.

From a stranger walking through the doors of my home – to a leader, a business woman and a really good friend.

P.S. You can see Barbara’s work at barbaralephuthing.com

This article is part of our Artists Still Live Here online magazine (Issue 3). You can download the full magazine here.