As October is Black History Month, I got the chance to delve into the archives in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre. Here I came across the Abasindi Co-operative – an organisation based in Moss Side, established by and to benefit the black women in the community.
Founded in 1980 by Kath Locke and Elouise Edwards, amongst many others, the Abasindi Co-operative was born out of the idea that “Black women need to organise projects staffed and controlled by women in order to most effectively identify and develop strategies to meet their needs,” as explained in a newsletter published in 1985 by the co-operative themselves.
It was felt after some consideration that Abasindi’s predecessor, the Black Women’s Co-operative, as it was mostly run by men and state-funded, should reform to “show itself to be clearly autonomous and self-determining”. This way the women would be able to organise projects that would benefit themselves and their own unique experience. The name itself was chosen as it is a Zulu word meaning ‘survivors’, epitomising what these women had been through, fighting against racism and discrimination, and what they stood for.
Initially the co-operative was set up as a “social, supportive base for Black women”; a community resource centre where they could meet, learn new skills and discuss any issues and ideas for personal development, in an environment of mutual support. This quickly grew and within five years Abasindi was running lots of different projects out of the Moss Side People’s Centre.
These projects covered a wide range of activities, including a drop-in centre for the elderly, an organisation to examine and address health concerns within the community, such as Sickle Cell Anaemia, and a Saturday and Summer School for young people – the former mostly focussed on English and Maths, whilst the latter was more about culture, dance and drama, as well as arts, crafts and music.
Culture and arts were important to the members of Abasindi, which is why ACULT, Abasindi Cultural Theatre Workshop, was established, to give expression and develop creativity in all areas of Afro-Caribbean performing arts – from dancing and singing to playwrighting and poetry.
Abasindi was run entirely by volunteers, and so certain projects doubled as a way of funding the co-operative. These included hair plaiting – servicing a demand at an affordable cost, whilst also being a place for women to meet socially; and a craft shop, which was a resource for local people, giving access to traditional craftwork, clothing and jewellery.
Another of the co-operative’s projects included the collection of oral histories, recording the lives of Black people in the city. In the 1990s Maria Noble, a member of Abasindi, remembered the Roots History Project, and managed to locate boxes of tapes and transcripts of interviews carried out in the 1970s primarily by Sarah Porter, Louise Hooker, Diana Watt and Georgina Strachan. Maria had these transcripts typed and began the task of editing, and interviewed several more of the older members of the Black community, creating the Roots Oral History Project; in the introduction of which she writes: “if we as communities don’t record and conserve our histories and experiences no one else will.”
It was using one of these oral history projects, ‘Exploring Our Roots’, that I found out more about Elouise Edwards, one of the founding members of Abasindi. Born in Guyana in 1932, Elouise came to England reluctantly in 1961, following her husband who travelled to study lithography. On moving to Moss Side, Elouise became part of an organisation which looked at the things lacking in the British system to cater for the needs of those from overseas, as they had found most existing organisations were very racist. Meetings were held in her home, which became “the place that, if you had a problem, that’s where you came to get it solved. If you wanted support you came to our house on Platt Street.”
Elouise, known as Mama to members of the community, received an MBE for helping set up various projects in and around Manchester, including on issues of housing, education, social services, employment and the Afro-Caribbean Mental Health Project, to name but a few.
Another inspirational woman who paved the way for the successes of Abasindi was Olive Morris. Born in 1952 in Jamaica, she moved to Brixton with her family in 1961. Olive dropped out of high school to join the civil rights movement, joining Britain’s Black Panther Movement as a youth member, and setting up the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Through her hard work and activism, Olive was offered a place at the University of Manchester despite not having any qualifications. Whilst in the city, she helped found the Black Women’s Mutual Aid and Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative – laying the foundations for Abasindi before her early death at the age of 27 in 1979.
Researching these inspirational women and how they came together to help each other and the Black community in Manchester has been a fantastic way to celebrate Black History Month. Make sure to visit the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre in Manchester’s Central Library if you’d like to find out more.