Eugenie Drakes was born in Johannesburg and is a very proud South African. She believes it is an honour and privilege to be in this country at this moment. As part of the Warrior Women series we interviewed Eugenie and learned more about a woman who has followed her heart and changed lives by being a creative change-maker as well as a business and personal mentor.
Hi Eugenie, tell us a little about yourself?
“I grew up under the apartheid era, so for me it’s been quite extraordinary being part of the country building and watching the progress, watching opportunity and particularly watching women move up and be strong.”
How did your journey unfold?
“I found myself at age 47, not having worked for 17 years, recently divorced and having to find a means to support myself. I had been contacted by the Department of Arts and Culture to organise a launch for a big body of research that they’d done for a cultural industries growth strategy. That covered film, television, publishing, music and craft and I needed to do an exhibition to showcase that at the launch.
From that beginning my journey in the craft sector began. I’ve always been crazy about creativity, creative people and believe that the arts unite people. Some of my greatest learnings came from when I was working in the dance arena. I’ve worked with the Free Flight Dance Company, PACT Dance Company and people like BoyzieCekwana – who was an incredible teacher for me and helped me see his world and my world and the two were very different worlds. We worked together to create a common understanding. As a result of the launch I was then inspired to work with an organisation who was looking at marketing crafts globally. Then I decided to go out on my own to work with people whose values matched my own.”
What makes you a warrior woman?
“Initially I thought, Warrior Woman isn’t quite me and then something that came strongly to my mind is one of the groups I work with, really incredible women, always used to call me the “warrior queen”. Also, what it is I feel really strongly I have had privilege, I have connections, I have visibility and I have a voice and many people don’t and I will use my voice for those who don’t have a voice. So I guess if that’s what you call a warrior then I am a warrior woman.”
What has been your biggest and most important battle?
“My battle had been with the programming I grew up with and also with me telling myself you can’t or you can. I think sometimes the mind for me is potentially a huge enemy. If I believe strongly enough I will bypass my mind and get it done. As women, others see our strengths more easily than we do. We tend to believe the negative things and our fears get the most of us and then we are completely disempowered.
Has my journey been not been easy – I came from not having worked for 17 years, from being a corporate wife and now having to get out into the world. It was post 94’ and I was kind of an older white woman and had to find out how and where do I fit in. But that never worried me.
The fact that I needed to earn money was one thing and what motivated me even more were these women that were producing these amazing products that people were really excited about. I could help them to be able to realise the value and the worth of what they were doing – and to help them establish themselves and see themselves as business people, rather than someone who is just doing crafts. And then the impact that it had – we were very blessed, we did things, we worked with Oprah Winfrey, we worked with Elton John, we worked with Bill Clinton, we worked with many big names. And it was the product that excited them, products made in remote, rural KwaZulu-Natal and in Venda.
I am really committed to ethical trading, so it was about a win -win -win – all along the line. It is a non-negotiable, its part of how I am and part of who I am. But for me, what was even more important was going to work in the rural areas. It was just incredible because I got to touch the cultures, experience the cultures, the wisdom, the simplicity and the sense of community. The stories were really incredible and people just opened their hearts. There is strength in those rural communities. I very much got the feeling that when I got out of my car and started walking towards the group, they had decided how far they would let me in. And I always felt very honoured, because many let me right in.”
What is your definition of a modern day warrior woman?
“Right now women are stepping up and stepping out. It is significant in South Africa as the younger generation has had the opportunity of education and that opens a world to them. It is now about being recognised for the value and the worth they bring. On the subject of feminism – I think men and women have different strengths and they can balance each other beautifully.
Also, one thing for me needs to be very clear, is to know the reason for doing what you are doing. A warrior woman does something she feels strongly about. Because – if you feel strongly about it -you can be focused, and you keep on going…. If you are doing something somebody else is asking you to do, that you do not believe in or you are not comfortable with, it makes it so much harder.
So ask what is important to you, what is driving you, what is it you want to achieve? And to just keep going, keep focused. The other thing is to encourage yourself because it can be very difficult. I am a firm believer that darkness cannot exist in the presence of light – so it does not matter how dark the circumstances are, know that there is light there. And it’s to find that light, because once you find the light, the darkness will disappear.”
Which women warriors do you look up to?
“There are so many of them, so so many of them! Maya Angelou comes to me because what she does with words is incredible. And she was strong, she was feisty, she knew who she was and she inspired many and saw the strength in others.
I look up to an incredible woman who worked with me at Peace, Beauty Maswangani. She camefrom Bushbuck Ridge, she single-handedly raised three incredible children and she lives in Diepsloot. She is part of the community, she is a leader in the community and Beauty shows a strength and a courage that just always used to blow me away. When I think of many of the women who inspire me, none of them feel sorry for themselves. They know where they want to be and they know they can get there – and they find the courage within themselves to do it.”
What type of warrior woman would you describe yourself as and why?
“I think it’s just the rebel in me and I’m now a modern warrior woman because I have replaced the word rebel with disruptor. So I’m a disruptor, so if you tell me ‘no that door is closed’ – there has to be another way to get round and in. So again it’s just not taking no as an answer. I think what’s very important is also looking at where that ‘no’ comes from. Because sometimes the ‘no’ is coming from somebody who is playing power games or whatever – then I will then discount it. But if that’ no’ comes from somebody that I really respect, I will reflect on it very deeply.
What is your intention?
My intention is just for people be their best – I have a gift, and it’s a god given gift – is to see potential. And my intention always is, to get whoever, wherever that potential is. How can I get that potential to become a full bloom of possibility.”
Thank you Eugenie – so many things to reflect on in this interview.