The Story of Tambani
Ina le Roux, who lives in South Africa, a country with many isolated and poor communities, started the Tambani embroidery project to help a particularly needy group of Venda women who live in the north eastern corner of the country. The idea was born in 1989 while she was lecturing in literature at the University of Venda which is situated in the small town of Thohoyandou, not far from the Punda Milia gate of the Kruger National Park. As her interest was oral tradition, some students mentioned that their grandmothers knew folktales and offered to take her to meet them.
The region north of the Zoutpansberg mountains where she found the best folk tales is an inhospitably dry and arid area. The grandmothers and children often ran away when they saw her face, shouting, ‘White thing, white thing!’ in Venda. The student who’d brought her had a hard time reassuring his family that she was no threat. Slowly, bit by bit, she managed to record many folk tales that the grandmothers could still remember. The women were disarmingly thankful for the regular payments they received for a day’s storytelling. Back at the university her students would transcribe and translate the stories.
Ina was disturbed by the poverty of the storytellers and their families. There was no electricity, no running water and no jobs, especially for illiterate Venda women, and they are the ones that mostly 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. She wondered what she could do to help. What if the women could embroider scenes from their own folk tales and in that way perhaps earn something, and at the same time keep the Venda folk tales alive.
After having spent a weekend with two women from Venda, Eni Nenzhelele, the daughter of Tambani Mamavhulo, the oldest of the storytellers, and Vho-Tshundeni a grandmother looking after her seven grandchildren, and coming to grips with the chain stitch with the help of a library book, Ina realised that Eni was having difficulty threading a needle. At the chemist Eni tried on some reading glasses and was asked if she could read the test sheet. She couldn’t. Ina suddenly realised that she could see it but couldn’t read it – because she couldn’t read. So Ina took out a needle and thread that, with some foresight, she knew would be needed, and in this way Eni was fitted out with the right spectacles. They returned to Venda with embroidery yarn and some drawings done by Ina on a few pieces of black cloth. They were excited at the prospect of hopefully earning something. Words were becoming stitches. Ina spent most of her evenings drawing chameleons, trees and Venda huts on black fabric.
On a subsequent visit to Eni at her home in Muswodi in Venda Ina was shocked to see that her spectacles were broken in half. “What happened to your brand new glasses, Eni?”
“Ah, Violet also could not see, so I gave her half of mine. We cut it on the nose.”
Eni and Tshundeni showed Ina their first attempts. The quality was very poor but it was a beginning.
Ina’s initial plan to help one or two families was crumbling under the desperate need of these women. In the parcel of embroideries that was posted to her every month 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. Sometimes there would only be a name embroidered in large letters: “Eginess Manngwe”. There was often a note on a scrap of paper sewn on to the embroidery: “Thank you for this work of embroidering. I can now buy food for my children” or “Please don’t stop this work for us.”
Ina’s little embroidery project was hobbling along nicely. Every month she received a packet of finished embroideries, worked out the payment and deposited the full amount into the bank account of Pastor Piet Mavhetha and posted a breakdown of what every woman should receive. Also in the envelope she packed new work , her 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!”
Rescued by a Quilter
The project was slowly gaining momentum. At first Ina had paid for every completed embroidery without question but soon realised she’d have to be a little more selective and demand better work. A friend of hers who week by week saw the molehill in her 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 for eight o’clock.” She wasn’t at all keen to go as the quality of the embroideries was not very good. More to the point, there was an important rugby match on Saturday afternoon between the Springboks and the All Blacks. But she packed up her embroideries, a flask of tea and her transistor radio to listen to the rugby, and set off. The church hall was a hive of activity, friendly ladies rushing around setting up tables with all sorts of gorgeous fabrics and interesting things. Many of them came to her table and actually liked the embroideries! At nine o’clock the doors opened and a stream of eager buyers rushed in. Ina didn’t get time to sit down or listen to the match. To her utter amazement she sold all the embroideries!
Paducah – the big leap
There is a limited market in South Africa for the embroideries, and furthermore its only really quilters who would use them, so it was suggested that she go to Paducah in Kentucky to a huge quilt show. And so it came about that Tambani was introduced to a variety of quilters. Curious folk stopped at her booth and showed interest in the folk tales, and especially wanted to know about the women, their lives and their families. Ina told an interested person of the pair of spectacles cut in the middle “so that we both could embroider.” The very next day the woman arrived with more than 20 pairs of brand new reading glasses. To her amazement and pleasure she sold piles of embroideries and returned home with new courage.
Soon after she got back from the US she went up to Venda to visit the women. “You are back! Tell us everything! Did the women in America like our embroideries?” They crowded round, shouting their questions. “Tell us about the aeroplane. The whole night in the plane? Do you sleep up there? Do you take your own blankets and food?’
She returned to Paducah the following year, and started looking at other shows. A pattern developed: Paducah in April, Houston in November, a couple of experiments in between. One year she joined Jean Orr in Loveland, Colorado for a show who afterwards took her to Pueblo where the Buell Children’s Museum had an exhibition of Tambani products.
Back in Venda she was constantly approached by women begging to join the project. Not only are the women uplifted by the income they receive, even the small general dealer in Folovhodwe where they buy their groceries is uplifted. There’s a new spirit of hope in Folovodhwe and Muswodi.