"I Can Make Choices"

Interview with Ella Mahlulo, Emzini Tours, South Africa

Ella Mahlulo (40) is one out of many. She is one out of very many people in South Africawho have suffered in the past. But she is one out of not so many who have faith in the future and have taken the initiative to make a difference in their community. Together with Penny Mainwaring, Ella runs "Emzini Tours" in Knysna, a popular tourist destination on the Garden Route, about 425 km east of Cape Town. "Emzini" means "home" in isiXhosa, and Ella and Penny not only make their guests feel "at home", but also provide a safe home for women and children from the township who escaped from domestic violence, abuse and neglect.

TW: Ella, will you tell us a bit about your background which has led you to do the work you are doing today?

Ella Mahlulo: I grew up with my parents in the Eastern Cape. Both my parents were alcoholics. They got divorced when I was six. When my father kicked us out of the house, my mother went to work on a farm. Whenever she could not work, I had to step in, so that we could continue to stay there. I started to work when I was 9 years old. I liked school because the work was so hard and we were not treated nicely. But the school was far away and going there without shoes in winter was horrible. When I was 17, I dropped out of school because I could not pay the fees. Then I worked on the farm until I was 23, when a missionary came and told me that God loves me. I had doubt. Why then did I have to go through all this? He told me that I had to respond to God's love, and so I became a born-again Christian. I joined the Baptist church and the church helped me to go back to school at 24.

Trusting God, knowing everything is possible, I believed a school would take me. At age 24, I had to be like 17/18. I was the best "teenager" in my school and finished school when I was 25. After passing my matric, I came to Knysna, hoping for a job. I had a University Pass Certificate. I stayed with a friend of mine and looked for work, hoping for a nice job. But it was hard. I started as a dishwasher and they trained me as a kitchen assistant and waitress. I also worked as a domestic worker in holiday homes, and with a wedding planner who trained me as a receptionist. The salary was good then, but the job was boring.

TW: How and why did you come to start "Emzini Tours"?

Ella Mahlulo: I met Penny in 1999 at the Baptist church and we became friends. I asked her to start this business together as partners. It took some time, but in September 2008 we started the township tours in the KnysnaTownship, where I live. I am now a registered tourist guide for the Western Cape.

We started "Emzini Tours" to uplift the community. Our aim was to give people a platform to help those in the township with food, clothing, confidence, self-worth and safety. Coming from an abusive background myself, I wanted to help women and children who are suffering in the same way. So we started our projects. In 2009 we started a soup kitchen in a shipping container. This has now developed into a proper building behind my house.

We had Germans who helped us build a safe house for abused and abandoned women and children. We have a family of four staying in our safe house and we have ten extra children staying in my house in the township, with myself, my mother and my daughter.

TW: How do you conduct your tours and what is it that gives them a personal touch?

Ella Mahlulo: Our tours are not staged or prepared. Each tour is different from the other. We might go to the local library or visit a local shop. We meet many children on our tour, as they all know our Emzini bus and come to greet whoever is in it. If they are in trouble they will come to us and tell us what the problem is. We also go to my home on every tour, where we have tea and sing and drum with our guests. If it is in the afternoon, the visitors can say hello to the children in the soup kitchen and meet all the little ones that stay with me in my home. If it is in the morning, we take the guests to one of the pre-schools and the children love to sing their songs for everyone and you will receive enough hugs to last you a lifetime.

Our tours are not only for people from overseas. They are for everyone, for people in South Africa, people in Africa. There is a big gap between the people living in the town and the people living in the township. We want to bridge the gap and we want people to see and to know who we are and where we stay. We also have trips for the people in the local hospitality sector. We invited them on the community tour. Some of them had never been here. They started to see that things have changed a lot. They see the love they get and the fun they have meeting people. And local people also got involved and help to supply clothes and food for the family in our safe house and for the children who come to the soup kitchen.

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