I remember walking the streets of Soweto with my grandmother selling doilies and cakes. I was oblivious to the seeds of entrepreneurship that were being planted. At the time, as an eight-year-old girl all I wanted, was to spend time with a woman who made me feel extra special. My grandmother had a very distinctive gift of turning the mundane into an adventure. For example, she could turn a meal of pap and cabbage into a gourmet experience. Contrary to what you may be thinking, there was nothing really special in her cooking. Her specialty was in her words. According to her, the cabbage was not just any cabbage – it was a sweet and sour cabbage that was relished by her Jewish bosses for whom she used to cook for as a domestic worker.
Laying the Foundation
In her inimitable way, she made door-to-door selling an exhilarating experience. Makhulu would start creating the excitement from the night before, as she was adding the finishing touches to her doilies. With a smile she would describe the intricacies of the whorls that she was sewing and the different colours of binding she was using to make her doilies spectacular. She was very attentive to detail, and would proudly inspect each item to ensure that every stitch was perfect.
She would tell stories about the people that we were going to meet who were “naturally” going to love her doilies. I remember how she would describe their houses, curtains, and vases as well as how these were going to match her bespoke doilies. Makhulu was an optimist and expected her customers to love her work. With caution warned me about the dirty houses and say – “do not eat anything from that house. If they offer you something, take it and say thank you, however, do not eat it”. We would laugh at her stories.
By the time I went to bed I would be in a frenzy of excitement about the next day. Of course, on those nights I would sleep with her in her bed. For some reason, her bed seemed to be more comfortable and warmer than any other bed I knew. That in itself was a treat.
The next day she woke up at the crack of dawn, made the fire, boiled the kettle, washed and dressed up. Then, she would wake me up to wash with warm water as she made the bed. She then spread my clothes on her bed for me to dress up and thereafter we would have tea and rusks and then set off. She would gossip about the “lazy” people who are still asleep as if waking up at dawn was wonderful.
Master of Choice and Persuasion
I am not sure if she had a system of choosing which house to go into. Some houses we did not even attempt to knock. Other houses we would knock until they opened. I would marvel at her behaviour in those houses where we were allowed inside. During her sales pitch, she would remove their old doilies and replace them with her new ones. She did this with such confidence and zeal that all those who watched her would be enthused by her workmanship. At that point, she would start negotiating and close the sale while the doilies were still being neatly displayed. Even though some people would be sad when her new doilies are removed from display, the sense of loss created, positively sparked a burning desire to buy.
Of course, as with every adventure, the end was equally as marvellous. The whole trip would end in the afternoon with a celebration of us eating fat cakes either bought from a shop or from a relative who used to sell them from her house.
These are the foundations that carved my entrepreneurial journey. I am truly grateful to her for the lessons learned, which I will share and unpack in future writings.
Author: The Oil Lady, Nomvuyo Bengane