“Amanda Little meets the woman who suffered the trauma of her father committing suicide but who is now dedicated to helping others by selling festive decorations to help fight poverty in Africa.
Claire Shepherd’s idyllic childhood growing up in South Africa was filled with love and laughter. Christmas was always the most special time of the year, with turkey and all the trimmings, presents under the tree, and family and friends dropping by throughout the day to share in the celebrations and listen to the Queen’s speech to remind them of home. The best bit of all was her beloved dad Tom dressing up as Santa, complete with big, bushy white beard, handing out gifts from a huge sack he carried over his back.
Then, in 1999, when Claire was 28, her life changed forever when her dad suddenly committed suicide. “I was an only child and the apple of his e ye, ”says Claire. “There were family problems that were getting to him and he was very stressed and, unfortunately, it was a decision he took.” The emotional pain and trauma never goes away, but for Claire and those who have lost loved ones, it can be even tougher as the countdown to Christmas begins, especially as the festive season is all about families getting together. She recalls Christmas shopping trips when she would see others choosing gifts for their dads, and she would run out of a shop because it would remind her of that devastating time.
Every Christmas Day she puts on a brave face so she doesn’t spoil the celebrations for her family, but behind the smile there is an overwhelming sense of loss. But this year is going to be different for Claire, who admits that for the first time in the last 15 years she is looking forward to Christmas as the magic has returned to the festive season.
The 44-year-old has turned her grief into something positive by channelling her energies into helping those less fortunate than herself. For the past 18 months Claire, who was raised in Durban, has been selling beautiful handcrafted Christmas decorations made in impoverished communities in the Kwazulu-Natal Region. She set up the Zuza Trading company, based at her home at Dubwath, Bassenthwaite, in February this year, importing decorations and selling them at craft fairs and over the internet, with the profits going to help communities affected by Aids and HIV. Brightly coloured ornamental Christmas trees, angel tealight holders, reindeers, snowmen and hanging decorations for the tree, made from traditional African beadwork, are changing the lives of around 40 families who would otherwise be unable to afford healthcare, education and food. “I feel the sparkle has come back for Christmas, ”says Claire, who runs a guesthouse with her husband Stephen. “My dad made such an effort to make Christmas fun and enjoyable for people that I think, if there’s a little bit of him in me, it’s to help other people. “I was back visiting my mum in Durban when I saw these local artists and crafters making the decorations and I decided I was going to get some sparkle back and help these people. “Somehow it makes me feel connected to my dad.
Last year at the Christmas table, people were admiring the handcrafted reindeer that I’d brought back from South Africa. It started giving me an idea of what I could do and a growing feeling of spreading cheer, optimism and happiness.” Claire’s life, growing up in a smart Durban suburb, was very different to the township of Kwazulu that she now helps. Her parents Chris and Tom Dunbar emigrated to South Africa from Glasgow when she was two – as her dad wanted to escape the strikes of 1970s Britain –and got a job working for Toyota. An aunt, uncle and cousin joined them and the family settled in very quickly.
The only downside was growing up under the apartheid system –a regime Claire and her family found so abhorrent she still remembers the sense of outrage she felt at the racism around her. She attended a white-only, all-girls school and the injustice of apartheid was all around her. “My father was open-minded and we had black and coloured friends that we grew up with,”she says. “I remember on one occasion we were at the beach. It was a strictly whites-only beach and we were playing with a black family. An Afrikaner kid came over and said, ‘what’s this black kid doing on our beach ? ’I shouted, ‘he’s not a black kid, he’s just very sunburned so leave him alone’.”
After studying business at university, Claire discussed with her father coming back to the UK to do a post-graduate course at Edinburgh University. When tragedy struck and her father took his own life, she discovered he had left a small legacy so that she was able to afford her dream of studying back in the UK, where she has settled after meeting her future husband in Scotland. Each Christmas has been spent with her in-laws in Blackpool, where Claire became adept at hiding her true feelings and putting on a smile. “We would sit watching depressing storylines featuring suicide on soaps and I thought to myself that I’d lived through that,”says Claire. “Even though everyone was lovely, understanding and supportive of me, it was very hard and I would go out and walk the dog to escape the hustle and bustle. “After Christmas, just Stephen and I would come to the Lake District for new year. It was a sanctuary for me, where I was able to chill and regroup after the sadness of Christmas. We even married in the Lakes and ended up buying a guesthouse in 2010.”
Claire’s unique Christmas decorations are proving hugely popular, and every sale is making a real difference to the lives of people in Kwazulu-Natal . “The rate of HIV in Kwazulu-Natal is one of the highest in South Africa, and life expectancy is very low,”she says. “There is a lot of unemployment and people are destitute or caring for a loved one with HIV or Aids. “One of the handmade decorative Christmas trees costs £12.50, which would feed a family-of-four on Christmas Day in Kwazulu-Natal. “The Zulus are very proud and they would rather earn money than rely on handouts, so they see producing these decorations as their income. There’s a big push for self sufficiency in Kwazulu-Natal, and this is making a real difference.”
— Cumberland News, 14 November 2014