Sani Mudau

Sani Mudau when she first joined the embroidery team

My name is Sani Mudau. Mudau is a well-known surname in this area. We are vhalanda, ordinary Venda people, people of the land with no status. I do not know when we started living in this dry area, my parents lived here and their parents too, as far as I can remember. I am married and have seven children. My husband is over sixty and still tries to find work but as you can see there are no lasting jobs in this area. Everyone is so poor. In the past, when we both were young my husband often spoke of getting a job in Johannesburg, but he never even traveled as far as Polokwane. He could never find a job. How we all survived I do not know. My life has not been easy. But then Ina came with the embroidery and things are different, we have work.

Sani sits quietly and embroiders

Sani sits quietly and embroiders

My mother would be so happy if she could see me now. I am sitting here, in my own home, with my grandchildren playing outside, and embroidering beautiful things. She did not have such an easy life.

My father had three wives. Sarah was his first wife; Maria was his second wife, she was my mother; Anna was the third wife. With so many wives there were many children. We lived on the farm of John and Sannie Harden. The job of my father was to take care of all the cattle and goats. Once every two months the master and missus would come from Pretoria to spend a weekend on the farm. He would then call my father, “Silas, how are things here on the farm? Is there enough water for the cattle? Are they healthy?” My father would say, “Yes boss, there are no problems.”

The missus would call all the children into the kitchen. She would give us each a sweet and an orange. She also gave our mothers old clothes and a bag of old bread. At the end of the weekend they would go back to Pretoria. They left us a bag of mealiemeal. That was my father’s payment. Our mothers would then confront my father,
“Did you tell the boss, this bag of mealiemeal is not enough for two months?”

A bag of mealiemeal

A bag of mealiemeal

“I did not get time to talk to the boss.”

“You were too scared! Why didn’t you speak up?”

“The boss is looking well after us.”

“He does not look well after us! We have not enough food and we have no money to buy from the shop.”

“We need also to get money for the work we do!” said Anna, the youngest wife.

There was a new farm worker on the neighbour’s farm, a young man. Every weekend all the farm workers came together on a Friday night to dance and listen to music on
the radio. This new farm worker said, “How can this man pay you only with mealiemeal? You should also get money.””

“Yes,” Anna said, “We can’t just work for old clothes and mealiemeal.”

He also said, “Why don’t you all leave and go and live in Nenzhelele location?”

My father said, “I like that idea, let’s move. I’m tired of this farm.”

My mother said, “No! What will we do in the location? Here we have water for a small garden for spinach and tomatoes and the mealies are growing.” The other two
mothers agreed with my mother. They also did not want to leave.

But in 1966 my father got a truck, packed all our belongings on the back of the truck. He sat in front with the driver and there we all left the farm and went to Nenzhelele. We found a plot of land and built three huts. There was no food. Everywhere in Nenzhelele people had nice gardens with tomatoes and beans and spinach. We had just three huts. My father said to his three wives, “Go and find work. Go to the people with the gardens and tell them that you will work in their gardens.”

“No! You brought us here, you go and find work!” My father looked at us hungry children and his angry wives and did not know what to do.

My father asked a neighbour, “What can I do? My children are hungry, my wives are cross with me and I have no food and no money.”

“Go to the mines at Musina. You can sometimes get work there.”

The next morning my father left us and went to Musina. He travelled two days to get there. At 6 o’clock he was waiting at the gate for the mine manager. “There is no work today, come tomorrow at 6 o’clock.” My father waited the whole day and slept at the gate, but again he said, “We have no work today, come tomorrow at 6 o’clock.”

A tin of mealimeal

A tin of mealimeal

My father again spent the whole day at the gate. When the miners knocked off he saw that they stood in a long line and every miner was given a tin of mealiemeal, a tin of dry sugar beans and a bottle of soured milk. He also heard the miners grumbling that they got no fresh food. They had plenty to eat but they were craving fresh food. My father had an idea.

He came back to Nenzhelele, borrowed some money and bought lots of tomatoes and spinach. He begged a man to lend him his donkeys and cart. Two days later my father arrived at the mine. “No, I don’t want your money,” he said to the miners when they knocked off, “Give me a tin of mealiemeal and I will give you 5 tomatoes.” The men were so happy they nearly knocked over the donkey cart. By the end of the day all the spinach and tomatoes were gone. “When are you coming again?” they asked. He came back home with the donkey cart full of mealiemeal and beans and paid back all that he owed with the mealiemeal and beans. We had a feast that night.

My father very soon saw that donkeys were too slow and the spinach got dry in the heat. He found a man with a small van. He could now pay with mealiemeal and beans for the man to take him to the mine. Later my father could buy a second hand van and he never stopped going to the mine with fresh vegetables for the miners.

So we had enough to eat in Nenzhelele.

Sani with her grandchildren and neighbour's children at the time she joined the embroidery group.

Sani with her grandchildren and neighbour’s children at the time she joined the embroidery group.

Later I got married and had children but there was no work. Then one day, about 30 years ago, I found work in the kitchen of a white lady who lived on a farm nearby. I do not know how it happened, but there I stood one morning in the kitchen with a doek around my waist, the lady called it an apron. That was the beginning of the happiest time in my life.

“Can you cook?” the lady asked. And I had to admit, I could only cook porridge.

That morning I learnt the proper way to cook pumpkin.

First you peel the pumpkin carefully with a sharp knife and then you cut it into small pieces. Then comes the tricky part: you put the pumpkin pieces in a pot with very little water on the cool side of the stove, and you listen very carefully how it simmers gently. Keep the lid closed. When your pumpkin is cooked, find a beautiful dish, pick the most beautiful dish in the house and place the cooked pumpkin in this dish. Sprinkle well with sugar and spices. There used to be a wonderful bottle of sweet smelling fine brown powder in the farm kitchen but I have forgotten the name of that powder. Then you cover the pumpkin well with the sugar and spices. Before you place the beautiful dish in the oven, remember to put many chunks of farm butter on top. Leave the pumpkin to bake in the oven. I used to sit in front of the oven listening to the pumpkin with the cat on my lap. For twelve years I worked in the kitchen and that was the happiest time in my life, the sweet smelling pumpkin and the soft fur of the cat.

Sani on a recent visit to Napier. We went to Arniston where she saw the sea for the first time. She took a bottle of sea water and a rock back to Venda with her.

The lady died and her husband moved away. We were very poor and with seven children life is a struggle. One day I went to pastor Piet Mavhetha. I could not say too much, I just sat there crying. He called his wife and told her “Teach this woman how to embroider.” My life changed a little bit. I leaned to embroider well and now I can support myself and my children who are grown up but still without jobs.

Note from Ina: Sani is the best embroiderer I have. When I have a new embroidery she is the one to whom I explain exactly what I want. She is quick and intelligent and  speaks excellent Afrikaans which makes communication so much easier. I don’t know what I would do without her.


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