More than a Project

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A couple months ago I was looking into the different textiles that are indigenous to Africa. I was wanting to learn more about them and understand what skills have been acquired and passed on throughout the decades. Within my Google search, a result appeared about an embroidery group in Africa and I quickly clicked the link.  I read all about a group of women in Venda, Africa and the incredible woman, Ina, who started the project.

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The wheels in my brain began turning and I knew I wanted to connect with her. I reached out with a business plan, documents with inspirational pictures, and more about how I wanted to join efforts with her and the women she works with. I quickly learned that while my ideas were good and inspiring they were not exactly feasible because of the Venda women’s situations, it didn’t sadden but more was an opportunity to learn and understand.

I knew I didn’t want my communication with Ina to end so soon so I reached out asking if she would be a part of a Q&A for my blog and she graciously accepted. Below are Ina’s answers to a few questions that will be inspiring to anyone who wants to be a part of something bigger and more impactful.

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Would you mind giving a little background about your life’s journey so far?

After completing a BA, BA Hons, MA (literature) I developed an interest in oral texts. I studied Sanskrit in order to read and study early Indian oral texts. As a lecturer at the Venda University, I then turned to African oral texts and did a P.HD in Venda oral tradition. Over a period of 6 years, I collected more than 50 Venda tales, translated from TshiVenda into English.  During my research, I became very concerned about the reality that the Venda have such a rich cultural heritage but live in abject poverty hardly managing to feed their families. I asked myself whether I could in any way use their unique heritage to help them earn some income. The idea of them embroidering their folk tales took shape and the storytellers and I  started by making a few drawings illustrating a folk tale. There were 2 objectives: (1) to ensure the perpetuation of this oral tradition and (2) to provide regular income and financial empowerment. Today many quilters in the USA and Europe are familiar with these tales and use their embroideries in many ways.

What have been the most rewarding parts of creating work and a program for these women?

The most rewarding is to see the development of self-esteem, the growth in confidence, the acquiring of new skills. I have three supervisors taking responsibility for many tasks: Eni Nenzhelele checks the quality of the embroideries before sending them to me and she also keeps and hands out embroidery yarn, Sani Mudau teaches and checks quality and Ema Vhengani orders yarn from me and she sends off finished embroideries to me from Postnet in Musina. Sending off a box of embroideries takes a full day: Ema has to walk from her home along a dirt road to a bus stop under a baobab tree, there she would wait for a ramshackle bus to arrive. Another hour in the bus to Musina. Late in the afternoon, she would arrive back home. “But I don’t waste time,” she tells me, “when I am on the bus or waiting under the tree I work on my embroideries. I don’t waste time.”
Their days used to consist of getting up, sweeping around the hut, walking distances to collect firewood and queueing to fill water containers. Now this group of women do embroidery all day long sitting in groups chatting, taking care of children, “we don’t have to leave our homes and go and work far-away” Alice tells me

What has been the most difficult?

The greatest difficulty is marketing. There is a limited craft market in South Africa. I have a few helpers who sell in Europe, the UK and the USA and I go to the Houston show every Oct/Nov. I do have a website and folk can order online but I am always looking for a bigger market. It is for me very sad when I have to send less fabric to the keen embroiderers because the demand is not so great.

What do you believe could be (or is) the most beneficial way to provide aid to developing areas of Africa where the people struggle for work, nutrition, etc.?

The most beneficial way to provide aid in developing countries would be to discover a sustainable, reliable market (for whatever) before training starts. African women will surprise you!

What do you believe the greatest opportunities are for women in Africa, who are in less than desirable conditions, to improve their lives?

In South Africa, these seriously disadvantaged, deep rural women, who are still crippled by cultures that discriminate against women,  could be taught skills e.g. embroidery, knitting, weaving,  or be helped to adapt their traditional skills  e.g beading, pottery and wood carving to high-quality products with a “handmade “label. (as opposed to mass production in the East). But once again Market comes first,

What do you see in the women you work with that inspire you and make you continue to grow the Tambani Embroidery Project?

I am inspired when I see the excellent quality of work that these women produce, I am humbled when I see how keen, diligent and honest they are.

What are some of the positive changes you have seen in the women since they have received work, bank accounts, etc.?

A while ago one of the embroiderers told me “I now have a reason to get up in the morning, the work is waiting for me in my embroidery basket.”

Nearly all of the women buy an 80 kg bag of maize meal with their embroidery money. This is the first thing they buy so that they can provide one meal per day for their family (anything from 7 – 12 people.) It is very little food, but many Venda women try to keep a vegetable garden going for spinach, tomatoes, and onions. The embroiderers who have a bit of extra cash can afford a bag of chicken feet, one chicken foot per person is the usual daily meal.

The embroiderers mentioned to me that the embroidery money helped them to buy school uniforms for their children. Without a uniform, a child cannot go to school. Mothers could buy sanitary pads for girls, without that girls were absent from school for a few days per month.

There is a dramatic increase in confidence and a sense of self-worth in a woman who has her own cash and bank account

What do you see African women trying to pursue the most in their lives?

I cannot speak for all African women, but the Venda women that I know would like to move out of the poverty cycle, have adequate food and education for their children.

What advice could you offer to someone wanting to start a business with a similar mission as yours?

Tambani is not a business as such; it is a job creation project, a women for women thing.I assist them. They work for themselves under my mentorship.

I also chose not to register as an N.G.O as I prefer not to be controlled by others. This is probably the harder route to go. As a NGO you do qualify for state assistance but in our country state assistance is unreliable.

I would suggest that anyone who would be interested in starting such a project under whatever terms first do considerable research to establish if there is a viable potential market for what one has in mind. There are many such projects all over the country, some do well, and some fold after a while because they cannot sell their goods.

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I am also so excited to say that I am going to begin selling the embroideries in the United States, please reach out if you are interested in purchasing one. I will have more images once they arrive in the mail! So stay tuned!

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