Welcome to Tambani

Dr Ina le Roux

Tambani is a quilting and embroidering initiative to give a group of disadvantaged rural African women an opportunity to earn something for the first time in their lives. Furthermore the embroidered folk tales, which are sold as appliqué blocks and used by quilters, knitters and crafters all over the world, is a practical way of preserving the Venda oral tradition.

The Story of Tambani

My name is Ina le Roux. I live in South Africa, a country with many isolated and poor communities. I started Tambani, an embroidery project, to help a particularly needy group of Venda women who live in the north eastern corner of South Africa, but the beginning of this whole idea actually was in 1989 when I lectured at the University of Venda in the Department of Afrikaans literature. The University of  Venda is situated in the small town of Thohoyandou not far from the Punda Milia gate of the Kruger National Park.

South Africa

One evening, after the last lecture on oral traditions, a student was waiting for me at my office. “My grandmother knows very old Venda folk tales, would you like to meet her?” Little did I know that at that moment with those few words uttered casually by a student in the village of Thohoyandou my life had changed for ever. For the next six years I spent most of my free time with Venda grandmothers collecting their stories.

The poverty of those Venda women made a deep impression on me. They were disarmingly thankful for the regular payments they received for a day’s storytelling, while all the time at the back of my mind I knew my research project would one day come to an end and what then? My research assistant, Piet Mavhetha who pastored the Church of the Nazarene at Folovhodwe, often talked about the poverty in his community. There were just no jobs.

Matodzi tells a folk tale to her many grandchildren in her kitchen hut at Muswodi

The region north of the Zoutpansberg mountains where I found the best folk tales is an inhospitable, dry and arid area. There is no electricity, no running water and no jobs, especially for illiterate Venda women and they are the ones that usually end up caring for the family. Husbands go to find work in the cities and then also find a new wife, often never to return, leaving the first wife and children destitute in Venda.

The audience

What could I do to help?

Slowly an idea took shape: if the women could embroider scenes from their own folk tales perhaps they could earn something and at the same time keep the Venda folk tales alive. I decided to help only one family at first, well perhaps two: Eni Nenzhelele, the daughter of Tambani Mamavhulo, the oldest of the storytellers, and Vho-Tshundeni a grandmother looking after her seven grandchildren.

The arid landscape of Venda north of the Soutpansberg Mountains

After I had finished my research and moved back to Johannesburg, I invited Eni and Vho-Tshundeni to come and visit me for a few days. In the mean time I found a book on embroidery stitches in the local library and, along with much laughter, we managed the intricacies of “the chain stitch”. It was late that specific Saturday afternoon, we were putting away our needles and the abominable bits and pieces we’d embroidered with crude chain stitches when I suddenly noticed Eni couldn’t see well enough to thread the needle. All weekend I’d been threading the needles, never noticing that her eyesight was not good.



Vho-Tshundeni in front of her house




Eni embroidering with new glasses

We jumped into my car and sped off to a nearby shop to buy spectacles. We picked a pair off the shelf and the shop assistant asked her, “Can you read this?” Eni couldn’t, but not because she couldn’t see, she can’t read! I quickly took out a needle and asked her to thread the needle. We found spectacles for her and then they were ready and packed to travel back to  Venda. In their bags was embroidery yarn, a few drawings I’d made on black cloth, and in their hearts a small flame of hope: to earn some money.

Words become stitches

A few weeks after our tentative start I received a message from the embroiderers: “Please we want to see your face.”
Now, I know the ploys of Venda women only too well. “We want to see your face” really means get into your car and spend a weekend with us.

So one weekend I packed my car and together with a friend we drove the six hours to Muswodi. Eni greeted us with open arms and after many handshakes and hugs she explained: “These glasses are not very good, when I look here on the needle where I embroider I can see well, but when I look at the baobab tree over there it is all blurred and my head starts to swim.”

“Eni, you must remember, these glasses are made for embroidery only and not for baobab trees. But let me have a look at the pair I gave you.” Eni fetched the spectacles I’d bought in Johannesburg and to my horror the spectacles had been broken in half.

“What happened to your brand new glasses, Eni?”

“Ah, Violet could not see either, so I gave her half of mine. We cut it on the nose. Look what we have embroidered so far.”
She brought out two embroideries. To be honest, the quality was dreadful, the stitches all higgledy piggeldy, but it was a beginning. The story of how man lost eternal life was taking shape with crude embroidering of chameleons and centipedes. Words were becoming stitches. Soon those stitches might be converted into jars of peanut butter, tins of jam, a cake of soap. Could it be possible that unemployed women might be able to put food on the table on a regular basis by doing embroidery? It would be a drop in the ocean but nevertheless it would be a start.

One of the very first embroidered chameleons

A recent chameleon

My husband Samson has no work,” Eni said, “he also wants to embroider, can you give me another needle? And my two daughters Tshililo and Mashudu, I showed them what to do, they used their own cloth to practice, give me two more needles.”

Vho-Tshundeni arrived with her bit of embroidery.

“What on earth will I be able to do with these indescribably bad pieces of embroidery,” I wondered.
“It is a beginning, Vho-Tshundeni!”  I said bravely.

 “It is indeed a beginning, nangoho –  that is true.” Vho-Tshundeni said.
Vho is the respectful form in Venda reserved for much older people, it can be translated as Mrs Tshundeni.

Eni and her husband Samson Nenzhelele

My initial neat plan to help one or two families was slowly crumbling under the desperate need of these women.
Every end of the month I received a large envelope by mail with 10 or 12 embroideries. There was often a scribbled note by a high school child: “My mother Agnes asks to join the embroidery team, here is her first embroidery.” There would be the first effort of a desperate woman carefully done on a scrap of rough fabric with all her hopes and expectations of escaping hardship expressed in crude stitches. Often there would only be a name embroidered  in large letters: “Eginess Manngwe”; sometimes there would be a long letter in Venda starting with, “I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Such a strong opening line made it very difficult to refuse the request that followed: “Please may I join the embroidery team?”

Letter from Nellie Mudau. Where she uses ‘garment’ she means cloth.

The packets of finished embroideries quickly increased to twice a month with more urgent requests, “Please send more cloth! The embroidery yarn is running out, send more yarn.”
I spent most of my evenings drawing chameleons, trees and Venda huts on black fabric. With great trepidation I inquired about buying embroidery yarn wholesale. I got the uneasy feeling that this embroidery project was running away with me?

A letter from Sarainah Mudau written by her son

But what touched my heart more than anything else were the simple letters of thanks written on scraps of paper: “Thank you for this work of embroidering. I can now buy food for my children”; “Please don’t stop this work for us.” Alice Muofhe, who came with me from Venda to Johannesburg, could read and translate the letters.

While living in Venda I had a woman, Martha, doing regular house work while I spent most of my time either at the University or doing research in the villages. She came to me with an earnest request, “I know a Venda woman living not far from me who is very poor. She needs a job. Can she come and work for you?”

I hardly had enough work for Martha, but I asked,“what can she do?”

“She is a good gardener, she can work outside, I will work inside.”

Alice and her friend working near her home, a lush area of Venda

Many people in South Africa face this same situation, you employ someone that you don’t really need but in this way you help a family. So Alice came to work for me “outside”. Alice and Martha became good friends. They did the washing and ironing together, they worked in the kitchen and in the garden chattering away like two happy sparrows.
In 1995 when I told her I was leaving Venda  Alice said she was tired of the poverty in Venda and wanted to come with me to Johannesburg. For the first time in her life she had a job, “and now you leave me. You can’t leave me like this. I am going with you.”

Embroidery of a clay pot in which beer is brewed

Many of my friends told me that they all said that but when it comes to the actual departure they turned back. On the day the movers arrived there was no sign of Alice. That evening, alone in my empty house, a terrific storm broke lose. The noise of the rain on the roof was so loud I didn’t hear the knocking on the front door. Only the dogs barking alerted me. There was Alice, dripping wet but smiling and happily drunk. “Where have you been?” I yelled at her. “Here am I,” she said. “I had to say goodbye to my mother. We Venda people say good buy with beer. So we made a very big pot of beer and then we finished the pot of beer. Now I am here.”

Alice did come with me to Johannesburg. Years later she watched the embroidery project taking shape but was never keen to get  involved.

“When I quilt my thoughts become like a deep quiet pool of water.”

Then one day she said, “Show me how this Singer machine works.” Alice and I stumbled along with the help of a book, “Quilt Making Made Easy.” One of the Johannesburg quilters saw our pathetic efforts. “Do you need any help?” she asked. For more than a year Joan came every Thursday to teach Alice to quilt.

“When I quilt,” Alice told me later, “my thoughts become like a deep quiet pool of water.”

Then disaster struck

Our little embroidery project was hobbling along nicely. Every month I received a packet of finished embroideries, I worked out the payment and deposited the full amount into the bank account of Pastor Piet Mavhetha with a breakdown of what every woman should receive. Also in the envelope I packed new work, my own hand drawn images on black fabric. As the weeks passed the envelopes got thicker and thicker. “Please send more work and more embroidery yarn!”

Selinah Mavhetha all dressed up in her traditional Venda dress arrives at my home with bags full of embroideries.

Then one morning I went to the post office, like so many, many times before, and presented my registration slip at the counter. I received the envelope but it was totally empty. A neat cut showed where someone had slit it open at the back and stolen all the embroideries. I pointed it out the clerk at the desk. “Was the packet insured?” he asked. “If not, you cannot claim anything back even if it had been registered.” Back home I phoned the clinic in Folovhodwe (it was the time before cell phones), the sister at the clinic called the cleaner and the cleaner ran to the gate and called over the fence, “Kha vade! Vho Piti” Come quickly Mr. Piet, there is a phone call waiting in the clinic for you. Piet Mavhetha ran out of his back door, shooed the goats away, slapped the donkeys sleeping at the clinic gate and dashed into the clinic sister’s office. By then the line was dead. In Johannesburg I tried again. I knew Piet would wait nearby. At last we were connected and I told him the sad news: All embroideries lost! It was a big blow to the embroiderers, their hopes for a bit of extra food or down payment on a school uniform all dashed to pieces. All those many chain stitches done in vain.
A  stitch in time would have saved nine but…better late than never! After this disaster we decided not to rely on the Post Office anymore. Either pastor Piet himself, if he could find the time, or any one of the  women in the embroidery team would bring the embroideries and take back pay packets as well as new work and embroidery yarn. It would cost me a bit more in transport money but it would be much safer. A new pattern emerged: the embroiderers, who have lived in very humble homes all their lives, took turns to bring the embroideries at the end of each month to my home in Johannesburg. Alice Muofhe, my Venda maid who was still living with me was delighted to have friends from Venda for a few days. Most of them had never been to Johannesburg or even taken a bus from their homes in Venda. There was Asnath the chatterbox, Nelly Mudau who wanted to stay longer, Florah Kwinda who was so thrilled with hot water in taps, Selinah Mavhetha (Pastor Piet’s wife) and many other women who visited my home. The first request all of them had after arrival was: “Can I please have a hot bath?” None of their homes have bathrooms, washing takes place in a secluded spot in a tin bath or in the nearby river in summer. To heat water means first finding wood in the hills, carrying water from the borehole often 200 yards away, then making a fire and waiting for the water to get hot.

What started off as a disaster resulted in increased production. More embroideries could be transported and more cloth could be taken back to the eagerly waiting women.

Rescued by a quilter

The project was slowly gaining momentum. At first I’d paid for every completed embroidery without question but that was when I’d decided to help only two Venda women. Now that more and more were joining I’d have to be a little more selective and demand better work.

A friend of mine who week by week saw the molehill in my house rapidly becoming a mountain said: “You can’t go on like this! Next week the Johannesburg quilters have their friendship meeting, I’ll book you a table. Be there at eight o’clock.”

To be honest I wasn’t very keen on going to this meeting and I had no idea what quilting was anyway. Furthermore, there was an important rugby match between the Springboks (South Africa) and the All Blacks (New Zealand) on that specific Saturday afternoon which I desperately wanted to watch. But I packed all the embroideries I could lay my hands on, a flask of tea and my transistor radio and set off.

What a lovely surprise awaited me! The church hall was a hive of activity, friendly ladies rushing around setting up tables with beautiful fabrics and all sorts of gorgeous stuff. Many came to my table and actually liked the embroideries! Let me hasten to say I’d hidden the really bad ones at the bottom of the pile. At nine o’clock the doors opened and a stream of eager buyers rushed in. I didn’t get time to sit down. To my utter amazement I sold the Venda embroideries! Everybody was interested in my embroidery project. They wanted to know the folk tale behind the embroidery, they asked about the Venda women doing the work, about their families. The idea of empowering unemployed women through embroidery made complete sense to all the quilters many of whom who were also involved with self-help groups.

 Women helping women!

Many quilters offered valuable advice on how to use the embroideries in cushion covers, bags or even in wall hangings and quilts. A new door opened up.

I’d missed the rugby match but I’d made many new quilting friends who were only too willing to come to my home to help. And I’d made a deep dent in the mountain of embroideries that filled my drawers. I’d sold so much that I even contemplated buying a whole roll of black fabric and that would get me a wholesale price.

At first I asked the women to draw pictures of their folk tales but they soon decided that they’d rather get on with the colourful embroidering. I did, however, use their efforts as a basis for our designs.

Paducah – the big leap

The odd quilt show in Johannesburg was a great help but soon all my drawers and boxes were again filled up with embroideries and the embroiderers were calling for more and more cloth like a nest of every hungry baby birds.

“You should go to Paducah,” my well meaning quilter friend, Joyce, suggested. “Paducah has a wonderful quilt show every April. Pack as many embroideries as you can and go!”

I checked on the internet where this wonderful place in vast America could be, and yes, there it was: Paducah in Kentucky. Near a river.

“It’s far too risky,” said Glyn, my partner in our printing business  in Johannesburg. “You’ll get lost or miss a plane or some dreadful disaster will hit you. There are tornadoes all the time in the USA. Or even worst, you’ll lose your handbag or South African Airways will lose your luggage.” But in the end the old pessimist came with me – just to make sure no such things happened.

“You might as well go,” my friend Delene said, “otherwise you’ll die under a heap of embroideries. Or go bankrupt.” So I bought the tickets and in April 2005 after a grueling 30 hours in planes and airports we landed late at night in Paducah.

America is a glorious experience, clean, efficient, organised. But we first had to negotiate customs on arrival in Memphis. And we had only an hour to get our connection to Paducah! Eventually the customs officials let us re-pack all the embroideries scattered over their counter and our luggage was sent off. We dashed up an escalator with our overnight bags, took off our shoes and emptied our pockets to prove we were not hijackers, got dressed again and ran and ran on and on down an endless concourse to the check-in way in the distance. We missed the plane. So we were given a chit for an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn in Memphis which included a meal in the restaurant, the most delicious burgers with the ultimate chips – sorry, french fries – and genuine Ketchup!

We tried to brighten our pokey little cubicle with embroideries of chillis

Despite the cubicle people started to come in. Note the chillis behind the customer’s head!

Having no experience of a quilt show we were hopelessly ill-equipped, we didn’t even have pins! Even though our booth was a pokey cubicle it turned out to be a great success.

Curious folk stuck their heads in and were entranced by the folk tales. I told an interested person of the pair of spectacles cut in the middle “so that we both could embroider” and the very next day she arrived with more than 20 pairs of brand new reading glasses.

South African quilter Pat Parker (left) and her sister (middle) in Paducah. Glyn and I are far right. Note the pinched faces!

Ina braving the cold, windy Paducah spring in front of the Mississippi Queen on the Ohio.

It was good to meet fellow South Africans and quilters Pat Parker and and her sister Jenny Williamson. Altogether it was a thoroughly worthwhile venture and the beginning of a new pattern. Our suitcases were empty for the homeward journey. I had good news for the embroiderers.

After my first visit to Paducah I could hardly wait to go and see the Venda embroiderers with news of how well their embroideries were  received, so at the first opportunity I drove up to Venda.

“You are back! Tell us everything! Did the women in America like our embroideries?” the women crowded round me shouting their questions. “Tell us about the airplane, one whole night in the plane? Could you sleep up there? Do you take your own blankets and food?’

At last, after all questions had been answered, I opened the box of reading glasses. Many “Oooh’s” and Aaah’s followed as I took them out one by one and passed them around.

“Can we keep them?”

The Venda women were so thrilled with the spectacles that they all, including the children, put on a pair for a picture.

“Of course you can!” The older women had first choice and to see the joy on their faces when they looked down at  their laps was an absolute pleasure.  To share something of their happiness they all, including the little ones, put on a pair of glasses for a group photo. Many quilters all over the world keep on sending spectacles which are much appreciated as they do get broken, eyesight deteriorates, new women join the group.

We have also received embroidery needles, thimbles, yarn, fabric, wool and a vast selection of embellishments.  A box of thimbles brought gasps of pleasure from the embroidery group when I showed them what they were for.

Opening the box sent by Troop 227 in Albuquerque

The Girl Scout Troop 227 from Albuquerque sent a box which we opened one day around the the cooking fire in Eni’s kitchen hut. We are truly indebted for all the thoughtful and generous gifts.

 There is often a letter in the parcel, “I hope the embroiderers can use this…” Oh yes, all gifts are used and most welcome. Many times gifts  arrived “just in time”. If only the generous givers could see the women sitting around a kitchen fire or in the shade of a baobab tree embroidering away.

Expanding my market

The following year at Paducah, first thing on the very first morning, a woman walked in and said, ‘Next year I’ll come and help you, you won’t have to worry about a second air ticket.’ And true to her word she did just that. Jean Orr has, over the years, become my representative in America. She joins me for most of the shows I attend and goes to many I’m unable to attend, small shows that wouldn’t justify the travel expense all the way from South Africa.

Paducah 2008

Chicago with Lizette, a South African friend

Back in Venda I was constantly approached by women begging to join the project. and seeing the depression and lassitude in the little villages and seeing the joy the little work I’d been able to create had brought, I realised I needed to expand my market! I scoured the net for quilt shows and attended a couple that didn’t work for Tambani, some that did and so a pattern developed: Paducah in April, Houston in November with a couple of experiments in between. One year I joined Jean Orr in Loveland, Colorado for a show and she took me took Pueblo where the Buell Children’s Museum had an exhibition of Tambani products.

With Jean Orr at Loveland, Colorado

With a wonderful bunch of quilters in Tampa, Florida

Next, a website had to be developed, a huge expense but necessary, and bit by bit we’ve been able to have more and more Venda women join the embroidery team until at the moment there are about 60 women embroidering. Not only are the women uplifted by the income they receive, even the small general dealer in Folovhodwe where they buy their things is uplifted. There’s a new spirit of hope in Folovodhwe and Muswodi.

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