Tears of the Dragon Chinese pearls help Zulu schoolchildren

Frances Benton
Frances Benton

A TRIP to Umlazi township, a poverty stricken, largely Zulu community on the outskirts of Durban in South Africa, changed for ever Frances Benton’s attitude to charity fund raising.

Among the many jobs, consultancies and roles Frances manages to juggle (which has included marketing manager and chair of the trustees at The Maltings theatre in Berwick at a time when it was on the brink of closure) she has also run her own pearl jewellery business for the past 25 years, giving all the profits raised to charity. But her visit to Zwelibanzi High School in Umlazi gave her focus for the money raised by her Tears of the Dragon jewellery business and since committing to one community and channelling the money and energy into helping provide the children there with a good education, amazing results have been achieved - one of the boys from the school is now a law graduate from Pretoria University and Frances has high hopes that he will one day become a major political figure in South Africa.

Having got The Maltings Theatre back on an even keel Frances returned to her fundraising background and took over as head of fundraising for Bernados, Scotland. The move from Berwick to Edinburgh involved a change of school for daughter Lucy who joined the James Gillespie High School and quickly got involved with the school’s Africa twinning project. When Lucy signed up for a visit to the school’s twinned school in South Africa it was only a matter of time before Frances was called on to put her expertise in fund raising to good use and she agreed to join them on their trip to Umlazi.

Since then £10,000 of money raised from selling pearl jewellery at talks and events in and around north Northumberland, the Borders, Edinburgh and further afield has gone to the South African township school which has benefited from a new library, music room and soup kitchen.

Her first day at Zwelbanzi High School had Frances hooked. “It blew me away. There’s no other experience that has affected my life as much as going out there.

“You aren’t just shocked at the poverty etc but the thing that blew me away was that these kids, who are mainly Zulu, have a self esteem and pride, despite the terrible oppression, which has brought people together.

“When the young people from the school visited Edinburgh they arrived in snow with no shoes and only wearing shorts but they brought something with them - a spirituality that helps them against adversity. They couldn’t understand why people over here wanted to spray paint trains, or why they had to have a tick on their shoes.

“It’s commitment that’s needed and I committed to two children, one of them the head boy Sibo Shezi.”

One of the many improvements James Gillespie school fundraising was able to make was to create an internet connection for Zwelbanzi High School and it didn’t take Sibo long to see its advantages. He discovered that when foreign visitors to South Africa left the country a collection would be made on the plane of all the loose change they still had from their visit and this money was returned and given to good causes.

In a move that is perhaps a foretaste of his political prowess, Sibo approached Frances with a proposition. He asked if they would be travelling back home on a plane that collected the loose change and if so would they consider collecting it before they got on the plane - his plan was to use the money to pay for lunches for the 100+ pupils at the school whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for them to attend school and have lunch and he promised to keep records of how the money was to be spent, creating a rota system so each child got their turn to have lunch.

Having spent day after day at the school Frances hadn’t realised that the children who stayed in the classrom at lunchtime were the ones whose parents could just about afford to send them to school but couldn’t pay for lunch as well and rather than make them suffer by being with the children who were eating lunch, they were kept separate. Stunned by this revelation Frances soon collected together far more than what would have been the left-over loose change but this wasn’t going to be a long term solution.

When she arrived back home and told her father, a retired headmaster, he couldn’t leave things there either, his view being that if the children were hungry they wouldn’t be able to learn properly. He made a generous donation towards the building of a soup kitchen and now every child in the school has lunch whether their parents can afford it or not, some of the mothers working in the soup kitchen as their contribution, and the local farmers gain too, through greater demand for their corn to feed the children.

When Sibo managed the unthinkable and gained a place at Pretoria University to study law, Frances followed his progress carefully, without directly funding his studies. As the son of a Zulu chief Sibo needed to do it himself and worked hard to earn his own money while studying, but Frances was able to help in round about ways - by paying for his mother to do a bee-keeping course which meant that she could then start to keep bees and sell the honey, providing the family with extra income which meant they were able to help him out.

Frances’s response to a school trip is typical of the energy and enthusiasm she puts into everything she does, although she is well aware that for those who don’t know her meeting her for the first time “can be like being hit by a tsunami”. But it’s that enthusiasm that has seen her develop successful businesses, being named Businesswoman of the Year in 1984, and has helped charities, arts groups and many others achieve what to many of us would have seemed the impossible.

Now living in the Burgundy region of France and running a business development and fundraising consultancy Frances still retains her connections to Berwick and the Borders, and has been in the area this month giving a series of talks and demonstrations of her popular pearl jewellery, which involves her going to China to buy the pearls, making the jewellery then selling it at a fraction of the cost it would be in the shops but still making enough of a profit to help the Umlazi children.

Never one to do just one thing when she could be juggling several different things at the same time, while she’s in this part of the world Frances is also wearing her marketing consultant and director’s hat and is promoting the Arts Foundations supported Avison Ensemble concerts. The Avison Ensemble, a Newcastle based 18th century period instrument orchestra who take their name from the composer who championed music for the masses, are playing at Berwick Guildhall tomorrow, Friday, November 18, starting at 7.30pm - the programme including Corelli’s Opus 5 sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo and J S Bach’s 6th Suite for violoncello.