Joana Selebi and Aleta Selebi – “mphe mphe eya lapisa motho o kgonwa ke sa hae”. “Work is better than Charity”

Aletta and Joana Selebi

Aletta and Joana Selebi in Verkykerskop. Pic: supplied

These days, the little village of Vêrkykerskop is rather hip, but in the generations-old sheep and cattle farming community surrounding the village probably little has really changed since Joana Selebi grew up there 60 years ago.

Now Joana and her daughter Aleta call Makgolokoeng home. With little formal schooling, they still practice skills learnt from mothers and grandmothers – farming with cows, growing food, weaving grass mats and making mapharwa (cow dung fuel patties) to fuel the stove. When Joana first arrived in 1995, her husband built a home from stone and thatch, all materials gathered from the surrounding hills. This little building is still in use, alongside the rest of the extended homestead built of traditional mud bricks, and is a favourite refuge on a hot summer’s day. Joana recalls that the weather was much better when she was growing up and more predictable. “Now it is not right. When it was winter it was winter. When it rained we still went without clothing because it was warm.

Now it is just changing all the time.” Traditional food is still a favourite, bringing memories of the old days – maqebelekwane (steamed bread) with tea and mnqushu (samp and beans). With 20 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren, there are certainly are many mouths to feed on family occasions.

They are very happy in Makgolokoeng “we know this place now. Abatho – we live well together and help each other, the spirit of ‘ubuntu’ is here.” In 2009 a family member Sibongile Miya, told them about the Tsa Lapeng (translated from Sotho as to “work from home”) project founded by Rheola van den Bosch. As they were living off their meagre pension and child care grants, they decided to
join the group and add craftwork to their other skills. Joana is adamant that her life has been great but emphasises the difference learning handcrafts has made.

“It makes you feel proud to see the beautiful finished product.” Rheola concurs “I have observed the womens’ self-confidence grow. So much so that a few who never thought they would find mainstream jobs have been able to.” Over the years Rheola has shared many different skills with them – from fabric painting to embroidery, decoupage, beading and knitting. These women were creative anyway, before they became involved with Tsa Lapeng – Aleta shows off an embroidered table cloth and Joana unfurls a grass mat used to sit on when they have many visitors.

Despite the fact that there is no electricity or running water, life is simple but good. The spring rains have meant that potatoes, mielies, beetroot and spinach have been planted. Ash from the fires made from the mapharwa is spread on the field as fertilizer. The herd of 10 cows have produced five small calves. They are kept safe in the farmyard, near Spot the dog, until they are old enough to wander
in the hills with their mothers. Peach trees are a feature of most homesteads in the area, bearing well during Summer. The excess crop is bottled in syrup to enjoy later in the season. Working from home means they can keep an eye on the children, chickens and the cows and even have friends over for a chat, as conversation and crochet go hand in hand! Both laugh at thought of a new man in their lives and decide that they are better off single.

Rheola, who designs, teaches, supplies the materials and markets the items they make, says “These two women are stars in our group. They always complete thetasks I give them on time, are meticulous about quality and enthusiastic about trying new things. Working with them is very rewarding.”

Around Harrismith and Makgolokoeng, there is always a view of a flat topped hill on the horizon. With one’s eyes constantly drawn upwards perhaps it is little wonder that the women on the Tse Lapeng group have such positive spirits and are constantly striving to improve their knowledge. Some have taught their daughters how to crochet too. “I love this work” concludes Joana, “especially
learning to recycle things and make them beautiful.” Funnily enough that is just what is happening in Vêrkykerskop nowadays too.