BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – Siphosethu Ndlovu, 28, sits on the pavement in front of a large supermarket in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. Born with multiple disabilities, she knits toilet and bathroom sets using her toes in order to earn a living.
Unable to use her arms, she holds a mealie-meal sack between her teeth and the toes of her left foot while she sews with the toes of her right foot, using a piece of thick wire as a needle. Her self-taught artistic talent shows in her finished sets – a cistern cover, toilet bowl cover and two mats made from wool and old sacks that once held mealie meal, flour made from maize.
Ndlovu says that doctors attributed her disabilities to poor maternal health care during her mother’s pregnancy. Throughout her difficult childhood, Ndlovu lacked even the most basic survival skills, like the ability to feed herself or move about unaided. On top of physical challenges, community members view disability as a curse in Zimbabwe.
“I never went to school, and I spent all my childhood years hidden,” Ndlovu says in her native Ndebele, though hearing her is a struggle due to a speech impairment she has had since birth. “I don’t think anyone who wasn’t a close relative saw me, ever.”
She grew up in rural Lupane, a district in Matabeleland North province, where she says that stigma against disability is rife. In rural areas especially, many residents lack any understanding of the causes of disability, associating it instead with witchcraft, punishment by ancestral or evil spirits or even promiscuity by the mother during pregnancy.
But Ndlovu says that her social exclusion was a blessing in disguise, as she used the time alone to practice accomplishing basic acts like feeding herself using her toes.
Then, when she was 10, her uncle took her to Bulawayo with a promise that she would attend a special school. Instead, he took her to the streets to beg.
“He would take me to the pavements every morning and make me beg on the streets,” she says as she watches a few street kids begging nearby.
It has become a common practice in the streets of Bulawayo and across Zimbabwe for families to “use” disabled members to seek alms. But Ndlovu desired a different life for herself.
Although the growth of her limbs is stunted, her legs have now become her strongest ally. Today, Ndlovu sits next to her brand new wheelchair, which she bought with the money she makes selling her bathroom sets. She has already mastered how to get down from it without help.
Ndlovu sells her wares for $7 per set. Some days she manages to sell three or four sets.
“Usually when I finish a set, it will already be booked,” she says. “So how much money I make depends on how many sets I can knit in a day.”
The social stigma attached to disabilities has led to a lack of educational and employment opportunities for disabled people in Zimbabwe. Limited