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Working together, learning together

In the tiny rural village of Mbhokoda, women from two co­operatives have decided to go back to “school”. They are learning to read and write with the help of the Intermediate Technological Small Industrial Development Unit (ITSIDU)….

They say you can find beauty and success wherever you look. But in South Africa’s homelands, these are not so easy to find. Mostly, the homeland villages are just dry, dusty-and poor.

The village of Mbhokoda near Louis Trichardt in Venda is no different. But out of the ugly poverty, the women of Mbhokoda make some of the most beautiful things you have ever seen!

In 1983, some of the women formed the Twananani Textile Co-operative. The co-op makes colourful duvets with matching pillow cases, as well as the latest fashion in shirts, skirts and trousers. All the material is painted by hand. Not only do the women make the goods, they also sell them and manage the co-op.

Two years later, the Athlari Textile Co-operative was formed. This co-op makes lovely bangles, belts and necklaces. Both co-ops have gone from strength to strength.

There was only one thing stopping the women from being an even bigger success – they did not know how to read and write. The women decided to do away with this problem. Since 1986, they have been learning with an organisation called Intermediate Technological Small Industrial Development Unit (ITSIDU), a project that works in Venda and Gazankulu.


On the day Learn and Teach visited Mbhokoda, a group of women were sitting in a classroom. With them was a young woman called Nomsa Ndzimande, who has been their teacher for the last year. That day, the women were learning how to fill in a form for the Post Office.

One of the learners, Ma Margaret Nkuna, told us why they were learning to fill in these forms. “We sell most of our goods to shops in the big towns, and we often have to post things to our customers,” she said.

“Sometimes we have to sign for the money our customers send us. Most of the post office clerks are not sympathetic to people who cannot read and write. They harass us a lot.”

Signing and filling in forms are not the only problems. The women also need to know how to speak good English because most of their customers are white people. Ma Mphephu Kubayi explained: “We do not speak the same language as our customers. So we find it difficult to market our goods because there is a communication break-down.”

In class, the learners practise speaking English. For example, one learner acts as a rude clerk in the Post Office. Another learner acts as someone who cannot read and write. She must ask the clerk for help. Or, one learner acts as a customer asking questions about the goods. The other one has to answer the customer’s questions. All this helps the women to improve their business.


Nomsa, the teacher, told us that the learners decide for themselves what they want to learn. “Each group is different. They want to learn different things. So they tell me what their problems are and we work out the lesson together.”

We asked Nomsa if she enjoys her work. “I love it!” she said with a big smile. “But it is very hard. You see, I am the only teacher for all my groups. Literacy organisations in the cities have lots of teachers and books to teach from. But I have to prepare all the lessons myself.

“On top of that, my classes are mixed. Some people have never been to school at all. Others have got Standard One. So I must do two lessons in one!

“There is also the problem of time. Sometimes the women tell me that they can’t come to class because it’s month end. The end of the month is when they sell the most. This frustrates me a lot but I have to stomach it because they make their living from selling.”


We asked the women what it was like to go to “school” at their age. Ma Mphephu, who is not too sure of her age but thinks she is 51, answered. “It’s just fine! You know, you’re never too old to learn. Most of us never had the chance to spend even one day in school when we were children. Here, we are learning and sharing our knowledge all the time.

“We are like a big happy family! If one of us makes a mistake, we just laugh. We know mistakes can happen to anyone,” she said with a shy smile.

The class came to an end. Many customers were waiting to buy from the women. We said goodbye and got ready to leave. Just then, we saw a copy of Learn and Teach on a table. We were pleased. We were even happier when Nomsa told us it was one of their favourite magazines. “We often read the stories in your lovely magazine,” she told us. “Especially the ones about the rural areas.” –

On the long drive back to the bright city lights of Jo’burg, we asked ourselves about the evil system called apartheid that took away this important gift from our people-the right to read and write. Then we thought about the determination of the women of Mbhokoda-and we were filled with admiration and pride.

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