P.E.I. teen’s blog details soap-making venture in South Africa

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 18, 2014

A Dr. Seuss book inspired 15-year-old Katherine Zember’s passion for adventure. Before going to Pretoria, South Africa, the Brackley Beach teen had done her fair share of travelling. She’d been to China, where her little brother and sister, Kristopher and Julia, were born, as well as to Belgium, Florida, the Dominican Republic and various places in Canada.


A Dr. Seuss book and an out-of-the-blue call for help added up to be the passport to a South African soap-making adventure for one Prince Edward Island teen.

In late October, 15-year-old Katherine Zember, her mother, Em Zember, who is president of the Great Canadian Soap Company in Brackley Beach, and company soap maker Josh Allen of Covehead took off for Pretoria to teach poverty-affected women how to make soap so they would be able to create a sustainable source of income.

“(The book was) Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. I’ve always wanted to travel and that was the book (that started it). I read it again and again and again because it was about adventure,” laughs Katherine, an avid writer who detailed her recent other-side-of-the-world adventures on her blog, The Green Backpack.

“I wasn’t expecting any response from it. I just wanted to let people back home know what was going on and to upload pictures ... and then it kind of took off,” she says.

The call that initiated it all came from Paul and Alejandra “Ale” Watson, directors of Hope Alive, a non-profit organization in Pretoria that is improving the lives of vulnerable people affected with HIV/AIDS.

This former Ontario couple found the Great Canadian Soap Company on the Internet as they searched for information on how to teach the parents and grandparents of students in a primary school in Pretoria how to make quality soap to sell for much needed income.

“They’d made three batches (of goat’s milk soap) and the three batches didn’t turn out and I just said in frustration (during the telephone call), ‘Oh I wish I could see it’ and then Ale, she just jumped on it and said, ‘Yes, come!’” Zember remembers.

Their 22-day teaching venture began in the final days of October when the three adventurous Islanders boarded a plane for Pretoria and places unknown.

“The first impression from the air was that it was dry. I’d never seen a place so dry. And when we got there, it was busy; lots of cars and noises. We had a two-hour drive to Pretoria, and we were on the wrong side of the road and the steering wheel was on the wrong side,” laughs Katherine.

To get the feel for soap making in that country, they whipped up two inaugural batches as a test run in the Watsons’ garage before setting up shop in a classroom at Pheladi Nakene Primary School.

Their second test batch was a disaster, and it was then that they realized the palm oil that the women had been using had gone rancid, despite the fact that it smelled just fine.

“They chose (to make goat’s milk soap) because it’s really healing. When you have HIV or AIDS your skin starts to decay, and goat’s milk is moisturizing and has a lot of good benefits to it,” says Zember, who in addition to fully funding their journey to South Africa, also purchased equipment and materials for the soap-making workshop, in which 11 women were enrolled.

The P.E.I. trio also shared how to make a natural moisturizing hand butter with ingredients such as cocoa butter and bee’s wax.

While there, Katherine spent time organizing the school library, which was chock full of donations from churches and other organizations — many of them Canadian.

She also had a blast interacting with the children, often reading them stories, one being the Dr. Seuss book that started her passion for adventure.

“They didn’t understand most of it, but I just showed them pictures, and there was all these ‘Oos’ and ‘Ahs.’ They just wanted me to keep reading,” says Katherine, who experienced South African culture on a more personal level than she could ever have imagined.

“It was really eye-opening to go there. I’ve been to a lot of (people’s homes) and meeting strangers. In different places you get a different amount of warmth. When you’re meeting strangers there you get an incredible amount of warmth. In Canada you don’t get that much, maybe a handshake; there it’s a big hug, a smile and a kiss on the cheek.”

Throughout their time there was plenty of jesting about how hard the final departure day was going to be. It turned out to be truer than any of them expected because of the strong bonds formed.

“All of the time we were joking about it so we would not have to think about it, and then the last day came and it was really sad.”

Hope Alive’s new product, Soap for Hope, which bears labels made by Graphics Communications in Charlottetown, will now be sold at craft shows, at the local market and a shop that specializes in self-Africa-made products.

Katherine returned home with an increased confidence and a better understanding of how poverty impacts people.

“I think the first time I saw poverty I just cried. I was in a mall in China (where her little brother and sister were born). I was just crying because I wanted to help them, but I couldn’t. It was very, very frustrating for a nine-year-old,” she remembers.

“So (after Pretoria) I brought back a little bit of being able to know that I gave something to them; that helped a lot.

“I can see the difference between seeing poverty and not being able to do anything about it and seeing poverty, talking to people and doing something about it. I prefer that one by far.”


Fast facts

Who: Katherine Zember, writer and homeschooled teen from Brackley Beach

What: The Green Backpack Blog which details her recent journey to Pretoria, South Africa, with her mother, Great Canadian Soap Company president Em Zember, and soap maker Josh Allen to teach women affected by HIV/AIDS specific soap-making skills to earn income: http://thegreenbackpackingadventures.blogspot.co.uk.