About Hlekweni - History and Contexts

history abstracted from The Importance of People


Hlekweni was founded in 1967 as a partial response to problems facing young primary school leavers in the late sixties unable to go on to secondary education or find formal employment. Training in appropriate rural skills was hoped to assist them living in their villages, and help uplift rural life generally. It was also born out of struggle and repression in the years of the Smith regime's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain, starting as "an expression of hope and faith in the future while all around was evidence of death", according to one of its founders, Roy Henson.

Roy and Irene Henson
Roy and Irene Henson
Roy and Irene Henson had spent 14 years as missionaries at Hope Fountain, Dombodema and Inyati. Roy spent six months working with Gandhian workers in India, which inspired the idea which became Hlekweni. They set out in 1965 to buy a farm on which to set up a small training centre where their new ideas could be developed.

However, it proved difficult to set up a multiracial centre in the context of increasing polarisation between black and white communities. It was not until 1967, with the assistance of British and local Quakers, that Valindre Farm was purchased. Several different stories are given to account for the name Hlekweni, 'place of laughter', including that one of Lobengula's sons had set up residence nearby, and enjoyed life to the full.

In the early years the staff Roy and Irene Henson, Andrew Ndiweni, Vivian Ngwabada, Stephen Hussey, Sithembiso Ndebele, Canaan Mangwanya and Ben Henson were learning all the time from the trainees. The staff had the training, but the trainees had the experience. Every effort was made to help the trainees realise their own potential, to rely on themselves.

Learning how to care for the animals and how to utilise the fruits of labour were both important, but Hlekweni offered something equally vital: the evening and weekend activities: concerts, sketches, quizzes, music and dancing. Formal education offered by state and mission was not usually aimed at promoting respect for the people's own culture, whereas Hlekweni did its best to revive the childrens interest in their own traditions. Thanks in part to Andrew Ndiweni's outreach work, the feeling spread that Hlekweni was not an institution, but a friendly place that belonged to the people.

The centre grew rapidly. Community consultations led to building and other rehabilitation courses for ex-detainees, and rural youth workshops, which had to close during the war of independence, began again. A homemaking and agricultural course for girls was started, and initial concerns about introducing girls into a masculine community were allayed through discussion. Sheep, goats, dairy and beef cattle were added to the poultry unit, useful for demonstration purposes and to provide improved stock to trainees. Work was in hand to produce an improved variety of indigenous poultry. Samathonga Primary School was born from the small community of farm workers who had been living at Valindre Farm.

Up to 1970, some Government Departments made use of Hlekweni's facilities, but this did not mix well with ex-detainees also using courses on site, and the Departments eventually withdrew. In their stead, more Church leaders and Priests came for training, making courses more rewarding as they joined in the spirit and service which was the basis of Hlekweni life.

All this time, the centre made its attitude clear towards the war of liberation and political situation, being wholeheartedly behind the Nationalists and their struggle for independence from the Smith regime, which represented the minority white community. Increasing government restrictions in the late '70s, including dawn to dusk curfews and enforcement of racial zoning, meant that the important work outside the centre had to be curtailed. Many of the staff were prepared to defy the authorities and continued with as much extension work as they could, in difficult circumstances. However there was also a tendency to become more inward looking, with considerable building activities undertaken at the centre, as well as work developing systems for water conservation, cropping under drought conditions, and livestock improvement programmes.

Eventual liberation and independence in 1980 was soon followed by internal political conflicts between PF-ZAPU and ZANU-PF, creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in Matabeland, with all extension work in rural villages coming to a halt. Management disagreements and staff shortages at the centre, together with increasing donor reluctance to fund projects in an uncertain political environment, all led to difficulties at Hlekweni.

The '80s were also a time to reassess Hlekweni's roles and objectives. The original focus on equipping rural home-makers was not meeting the needs of young ex-trainees who did not return to their villages, instead looking for formal-sector employment in towns. (The war of liberation, making rural areas unsafe, added to that trend). Post-independence expansion of the education system, and new prospects for rural development and adult education also changed the centre's parameters of operation.

As the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorated in the '90s, the centre suffered from mismanagement. Courses were halted in 1996 but some extension work continued. By 1999 the Board were selling assets (tractors, vehicles, livestock) to pay staff, and the centre was on the brink of collapse. Things did not significantly improve until 2002, despite several changes in leadership and repeated efforts by Board and staff members.

A fundraising initiative by the treasurer raised 35,000, which helped keep the centre afloat. After the sudden departure of the co-ordinator and training manager in May 2002, remaining senior staff took more of an active leadership role. A change in leadership style led to a gradual improvement in staff morale.

Activities were put on a more sustainable commercial footing, with the commencement of self-financing training courses at the centre, letting of pasture, rental of empty staff houses and transport hire to Bulawayo Monthly Meeting for food relief. An appeal through Quaker networks worldwide led to the appointment of an interim co-ordinator.

Despite all the external challenges, Hlekweni is now getting back on its feet again, thanks to the inputs of staff, Board, the Quaker community worldwide and our donors.


The physical context provides an important backdrop. Matabeleland has a very dry, fragile environment, subject to erratic rains, rapid degradation and erosion of the soil. Increasing population pressures are developing together with a breakdown of traditional social structures and poor access to small urban service centres. These contexts have influenced the training focus of the centre.

land rehabilitation in Matabeleland South
land rehabilitation in Matabeleland South

As a "place of laughter" within the repressive situation of the Smith era, Hlekweni tried to be a ray of hope - amid the problems of a divided country Hlekweni was supposed to be a centre where such things as race, religion and standard of education were unimportant.

"The first business of Hlekweni is people" reads an early report on the centre, and this encapsulates the philosophy behind Hlekweni at its inception in 1967. Perhaps the most important factor influencing early training was a recognition that there was very little future for the people in the modern sector and that, therefore, the work of the centre should be geared towards the improvement of rural livelihoods. This surprisingly consistent philosophy of serving rural development has guided a dedicated group of trainers, trainees, donors and friends in their efforts to make a positive difference to life in rural Zimbabwe. Almost all training included a strong basis in agriculture, and was taken as far as possible to the people at their homes. The education Hlekweni offered was not for jobs but for living, as founder Roy Henson put it.

Gradual but incomplete processes of urbanisation and rural electrification have led to more requests for employment and job-orientated training. The centre is trying to encourage environmentally sustainable entrepreneurial skills in a context of extreme natural resource depletion. The collapse of the agricultural sector and resulting food shortages highlight the continuous importance of training in small-scale sustainable rural agriculture.

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