had a long walk from South Africa since leaving during the apartheid
regime in the 1970s.
Her journey to the Caribbean has taken her to Europe and Israel and as far afield as India.
In that time she has helped open a hospital in Jerusalem, attempted to smuggle her small son out of Israel, headed a design team in India and worked as a supplier for fashion designer Ralph Lauren.
When Helene first traveled overseas, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island and liberal South Africans were leaving their country in search of a life elsewhere.
Mandela was laid to rest in December 2013, revered as one of the greatest leaders of the modern era after emerging from 27 years in jail and becoming the first democratically-elected president in South Africa.
Helene watched from Cayman with quiet pride as world leaders gathered to pay their respects to the “father of the nation” who had preached forgiveness to avoid a bloody war of vengeance when blacks took majority power from the ruling white elite.
And it was a time of reflection on her own life for Helene, who now lives in Grand Cayman where she designs pretty parasols.
“My parents wanted their kids out of South Africa and the apartheid regime,” she recalls. “This was not unusual for white South African parents (for their children) to get an education and leave for a fairer political regime.”
From an early age, Helene was interested in art and design but reluctantly followed the family tradition into a career in medicine.
“I was desperate to go to art school to do a degree,” she says. “I was a child of the 70s but I think my mom was terrified of her ‘baby’ going to art school, and her vision of drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll got the better of her.”
Instead, Helene studied radiography, working in the heart unit run by Professor Chris Barnard, who is famed as the first heart transplant surgeon.
This led to locum stints in Europe and then an invitation from a South African radiologist for Helene to assist with the opening of the re-built Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital in Jerusalem.
It was during this period that she met and married her now ex-husband, who had a t-shirt printing business.
“It was my Arabian adventure/fairytale come true,” says Helene. “In our free time we slept under the stars in the Sinai desert or hopped on a plane to Istanbul or Mykonos for the weekend. We watched Aida perform at the pyramids, Joan Baez in the amphitheater in Caesarea and swam in the Dead Sea.”
Sadly, although the couple built up a successful boutique clothing business, Helene’s fairytale life was not to last and she became embroiled in a bitter custody battle for their son Gal.
“It was at the time of the first intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of their territories) and all I wanted was to get back to South Africa,” says Helene. “We all knew Mandela was going to be released – it was a matter of time – and I, as a young mom, wanted an infrastructure and my family.”
Legally, the little boy could not leave Israel without his father’s consent so Helene attempted to exit the country by undercover means.
“I tried illegally; I smuggled him into Lebanon and then waited for papers, didn’t get them and had to smuggle him back,” she says. “It sounds quite ridiculous now, but it was awful. I tried to buy a passport several times from Bedouins, and many more outrageous things.
“I sold my business, car, etc. in a last minute effort to bribe our way out. It didn’t work, and I let my now five-and-a-half-year-old go to his paternal grandmother and left Israel, hoping to fight for him from South Africa.”
After 14 months, Helene was reunited with her son and so began a new chapter of her life as a fashion buyer, including time spent in India heading up a design team.
She also started her own children’s clothing range which sold in Cayman, among other places, where her parents were by then spending six months of the year with her sister Shelley.
“By this stage, Madiba was our president and I was happy to be part of the new South Africa,” says Helene.
During her moves, she refurbished several Victorian houses so began producing a “home-wear” line as well.
“I was, and still am, inspired by the creative possibilities in India,” she says. “In India the natural vegetable colors mixed with the architecture is so inspirational to any creative person it’s like food for the hungry. In Jaipur nothing can beat a sunrise elephant ride up to the Amber Fort for inspiration.”
Having moved to Grand Cayman full-time in the 1990s, Helene’s mother Joyce sadly lost a battle with cancer in 2006 while Helene’s father Danny needed help after falling in 2009.
Helene arrived in Cayman from South Africa to look after him and, it turns out, she has since remained. Her son, now aged 30, has moved to the island to work in financial services, while her sister Shelley has been residing here for nearly 30 years.
“When one lives in South Africa, to get anywhere is many hours of travel so to be with the family is great and was a good decision for all of us, especially my dad, who retired from medical practice last year at the ripe age of 93,” Helene points out.
After a stint working in down town George Town, Helene decided to go out on her own with something unusual, creative and quirky.
“In my time in Cayman, I became obsessed with getting out of the heat and knew I was not alone,” she says. “With my knowledge of the East, I thought about parasols. In the Far East, ladies are fixated by keeping themselves out of the sun and protecting their fair skin. In South Africa, we are very aware of the ozone hole and sun exposure.”
Helene’s eco-friendly parasols are popular not just for their whimsical appeal as sun shades, but also as accessories at weddings and other special occasions as well as design accents in the home.
Made from rice paper, bamboo and cotton thread, Helene’s designs are brightly-colored, featuring the Cayman flag and stingrays, while she also customizes parasols for particular events.
While some feature the slogan “I love Cayman”, others incorporate many African designs, which she hand-paints using a laundry basket as an easel.
“I believe that the parasol could become your everyday accessory, especially on an island like this where so much time is spent outdoors and on the beach,” says Helene.
“It really looks amazing to see a bikini-clad lady walking her dog along Seven Mile Beach holding her parasol.”