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USWE – A school for domestic workers

Judas Mosothwane wrote this letter to his teacher. Judas was telling his teacher what he wants to learn in his lessons. Judas is a learner with USWE.

USWE is a school for domestic workers in Johannesburg. USWE means Using Spoken and Written English. That is what USWE are doing. They are teaching people to speak and write English.


Learn and Teach went to speak to USWE. We spoke to Marian Clifford who works there. She told us how USWE started.

“There was an organisation called the Domestic Workers Project. They helped domestic workers with their problems.”Many people who came to the Domestic Workers Project said they had one big problem. They needed English at work.

Someone at the Domestic Workers Project decided to start an organisation to teach domestic workers English. And so in September 1981, USWE was born.”


Today USWE has groups all over Johannesburg. At nights and on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, you will find people together, learning English at churches and halls all over Johannesburg.

We spoke to people who are learning English at the OSSAC Centre. We asked them why they are learning. Thomas said he wants to read newspapers. He wants to know what is happening in the world around him.

Elizabeth and Myriam want English so that they can write down messages at work. They also want to write to their friends in English.

Victor said, “I want to understand what the doctors at the hospital say. Also at my factory, all the notices are in English. I need to know what they say.

“You need English everywhere — even when you go to the shops. The shop keepers talk in English but you do not understand. Then sometimes the shop keepers are very rude to you. You need English for everything.”


USWE says that learning English is very difficult. But Marian said, “We soon saw that people learn easily if you are talking about their lives, their problems, and the things that they know.

“So, that is what we do in USWE. People talk and write about their lives. We do not read books about Spot, the dog, and Benny and Betty.


People learn different things at USWE. But people learn what they want to learn, not what the teachers think they must learn.

Julia Tshabala lives far away from her family. So she often has to send things home. She wanted to send clothes to her children. But Julia was worried that the clothes would get lost in the post.

Julia’s teacher helped her to insure her parcel. Then Julia and her teacher made a lesson on how to send insured parcels. So everyone in Julia’s group learnt from Julia.


“Many people think that because they know English, they can teach English,” says Marian. “And people who teach in schools think it is easy to teach grown-ups. But this is not true.

‘At USWE we teach the teachers that they must listen to the learners in their groups. They must learn from their learners. Sometimes it takes the teachers a long time to learn this.”


“Our biggest problem at USWE is that people do not come to their groups all the time. Sometimes people come for one lesson, then they will miss the next four lessons. This makes learning very difficult. ‘

‘When we ask people why they do this, people say they do not have enough time. Many domestic workers work for twelve or fourteen hours every day. They are often too tired to come to their classes.

Some people come to classes on their day off. But even these people miss classes a lot. If you only have one day off a week, then often you must do other things on that day. People must use their day off to go to the doctor, or to do shopping.”


“Employers must understand their workers’ problems. Many people did not go to school when they were young. We, at USWE, feel that people must get more time off. People must get time off to do their shopping. And they must get time off to learn.

“But we know that it will be a long time before employers hear this. So, until they do, the learners and teachers at USWE will struggle on, as best as we can”


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