Emmah Vhengani

Ema Vhengani

I bought mugs and plates with my first embroidery money
The door of the kitchen hut

I  joined the embroidery team a long time ago, and all I can say is that I really enjoy it. The colours are so beautiful and I recognize pictures from our own Venda folk tales – we call them ngano. These are the stories that our grand-mothers told us in the evening around the small fire in the kitchen hut.

Venda women work very hard. On this photograph you will see my kitchen hut – I built that myself, it is very hard work. First you fetch the clay, then you make the bricks and you let them bake in the sun. When the bricks are dry and hard you start building. The nice part is to decorate your house. I used charcoal to make black paint  and brown clay as you can see. Do you see the low brown walls leading from the kitchen hut to the bedroom hut? See how nice and smooth I plastered them with my hands. We call those walls guvha walls, they connect all the sleeping huts of the women with the kitchen hut (a Venda man can have more that one wife) and these walls show that we are a connected family. These walls are very useful, we use them as a low shelf, we can sit on them and children and hens play on them. It is wonderful to stand back and look at your finished house – then you say to yourself: that house I built with my own hands. I write my name Ema on my embroideries, now you know who I am.

I was born in a small village called Ha Gumba near Masisi. When I think back of those early years I can remember that we were happy children and we had enough to eat. Every night we had a good meal. My father worked in a mine nearby, and in the afternoons I waited for him at the stop where the truck dropped off all the mine workers. Even today I can remember how happy I was when I waited for my father at the truck stop. There my father climbs down from the truck, he waves at the driver and walks towards me with his bag. Inside that bag is a tin of maize meal and a tin of beans.

Ndimadekwana” – Good evening – I greet my father. He smiles and takes my hand. My brother grabs the bag and runs ahead, home to where a pot of boiling water is waiting for the maize meal and beans. I thought our happy lives would never end. Then something happened that made me even happier – I started school. I got a school uniform, a white shirt and a black gym with a belt. The gym was very big but my father said I will grow. My big brother bought me a long new pencil. “You must look well after this pencil, don’t bite it. You will not get another pencil in primary school. “ We did not have a school bell, but under the marula tree hung a heavy piece of metal and a little while before  it was time to start a boy would take another piece of metal that hung on a chain and hit the metal, clang clang clang. That meant hurry up school is about to start! All the children would run faster, but not me, I was already in my classroom waiting for school to start.

I can’t remember this but my mother said that in the mornings I was up and washed before the sun came up, waiting to go to school. Many times my brothers had to bring me back from where I walked along the footpath in the dark going the school. “It’s too early, Ema, the school gate is still closed, you can’t go now. Wait for us, we’ll all walk together.” “Come back Ema, you can’t go to school today, it is Saturday, take off you school uniform. There is no school on Saturdays.”

During school holidays I cried and cried at the school gate. “Open this gate, I want to go to school!”

Then one day a terrible thing happened, the mine truck arrived in the middle of the day. “There was an accident this morning, the coal mine caved in. I am here to pick up family members. Only close family members!” But everybody cried and rushed to get onto the truck, many people stumbled and fell, some even got hurt.  Most of the men were saved, but my father and another man were never found.

Now we were very poor. My mother had to feed 7 children. Many nights we did not have food. My eldest brother was living in Tshakhuma where he worked in the gardens of Agriven. He tried to help but he got a small salary. Our happy lives had changed.

I still loved school but when I started grade 3 my school uniform was above my knees and the white shirt was so small that I could not fasten the buttons. The pencil was as short as my little finger. At the end of grade 3 my mother spoke to me, “You cannot go back to school next year, there is no money for a school uniform and look, your pencil is finished, you can’t even hold it, it is too short.”

One day my big brother arrived with good news, “They need tomato pickers, come quickly, Mama, there is a small truck waiting outside.” Many of our neighbours also jumped on the small truck and off they went, so happy. Tomato picking is not a permanent job but after the tomatoes were finished they needed women to pick mangoes for two months. We were so happy. But that was not the end of the good news, my brother sent a message that there was a job for me. His boss needed someone to look after his two small children in the afternoons. His wife had got a job in the office and now they needed someone to take care of the children after school. It was a wonderful new beginning for me because those two little white girls just loved to play school. Every afternoon I was the pupil and the two children were teachers. They loved to teach me to read and to write, they showed me a map of Africa and I had to learn the names of rivers and mountains and cities. I had to count to a hundred and back and to make sums until my head would break. And I did not need a gym or a white shirt or my own pencil.”

Always a big smile!
"For many years I clothed and fed my family with the embroidery money, then one day I bought something for myself."
“For many years I clothed and fed my family with the embroidery money, then one day I bought something for myself.”
Ema on a recent visit to Ina.
Ema on a recent visit to Ina.

Ina: Ema is now one of the mainstays of  Tambani. She is a planner and understands that you need to think ahead. She’s the one who packs the box of finished embroideries and takes it all the way to Musina to post. She then texts me the tracking number. She also sends me a list of yarn with their code numbers when stock is getting low. It’s Ema who again goes to the post office in Musina to collect a box of lappies for embroidering when I tell her it’s there and send the tracking number. Even though she only speaks tshiVenda we manage to communicate very adequately. It’s a joy to see this woman blossoming into quite a admin person!

Ema lives in Muswodi and works closely with Eni, the supervisor of the Muswodi team.

2 thoughts on “Emmah Vhengani

  1. My name is Heike and I am an 64 old woman from Germany.
    In 2018 my husband and I were travelling in Southafrica and spent some days in Madi a Thavha Lodge. We enjoyed the stay so much and I was so impressed when I saw the beautiful embroidery work of the Venda women. Specially one piece – the hippo swallows the girl-was so beautiful.
    I thought about this nearly one year and as I am an painter, I did the motive in painting.
    Grateful I want to say a big THANK YOU for the inspiration.
    Wishing you all the best!
    Regards from Heike Frank

    1. Dear Heike, I am sorry I answer your letter so late but I am not very good with the workings of the computer. Thank you for your kind words about the embroidery of the hippo that swallowed a little girl. I would love to see your painting!
      Kind regards,
      Ina le Roux

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