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Lions, and Tigers, and Thembi, Oh My! My North Stars: Interview with Thembi Mdluli—Part 2

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

By Annie Newcomer:

Don't forget to catch up with Part 1 of this series!

A safari at Lion Sands Game Preserve in South Africa for my husband and I was a trip of a lifetime. Each day, our small group of about 16 university alumni traveling with the Flying Jayhawks from the University of Kansas ventured out into the wild—once in the early morn as the sun swam in, stroking the environment to life, and then again at late midday when the darkness began to slowly creep in, leaving only a hint of ambient light.

One particular evening, we tracked an exquisite leopard in a land rover that was specially designed for tourists. As the vehicle's headlights spotlighted the powerful creature, we could see one of his paws brushed with blood, reminding us that we were not at Disneyland but truly out in the wild.

Thembi Mdluli

I sat quietly, enchanted by nature, my mind in overdrive, processing experiences that at times felt overwhelming. So when we returned back to Lion Sands later, engulfed in the dark, I was exhausted. I only wanted to head back to our cabin and be alone with my thoughts. However, our guide asked us to wait as he parked in front of the entrance. I remember squinting into the unseeable as he introduced us to the outline of a person he called Thembi. It was too dark to clearly see anyone, but I recall her gentle, passionate voice as I formed an impression of her even through the dark, inviting us to accompany her to her village the next day. There she intended to introduce us to the children at her preschool, the young adults at her Aids Community Hall, and to show us the project she and her community leaders had developed in order to bring clean water to her village.

No-one in our group declined this offer from a gentle woman who displayed the courage, determination, and strength of the powerful leopard we had just seen.

This is how I met Thembi Mdluli.

AN: Thembi, do you ever wonder how (because I do) that with all the people you meet from all over the world, our meeting turned into this friendship that has stood for nearly 20 years?

TM: When we met, I was also writing poems in my mother tongue (Shangaan), and I learned from our conversation that you are a poet. I immediately felt like I found someone who understands my interests in life. You will recall that during my years in community involvement, since I meet a lot of people, I often write people's names down so that I do not forget them. But I never needed to write yours down because I remember your name and your smile as if we met yesterday. And, Annie, we are both people of faith.

AN: Yes, just like with you, my faith defines my essence. And you are so correct about poets connecting with other poets. Sometimes I think that the real reason I write poetry isn't really the poem at all. Rather, for me poetry brings a hope of befriending a certain type of creative person so that I can expand my thinking. So, Thembi, I am glad to know that poetry helped bring us together. Let's take a moment and have you share one of your poems that you wrote and that holds meaning for you.

TM: Certainly. First in my native tongue, and then I will translate.

Vava vanga bombelani vuntshwa

Byi bombeleni masikwin ‘ yenu,

Vuhlangi bya n’ wina byo nandziha,

A byi nandzihe hambi mundzuku

Mundlwana a fane ni namuntlha.

Kunene mi sasekile vana,

Mikarhi ya n’wina i rihlaza,

Masiku ya n’ wina i masana,

Marhama ya n’wina i marhanga.

Na mahlo ya n’wina ya tsayıma.


My children, enjoy your youthful state,

Appear nice in your days,

Your childhood is pleasant,

Let it be pleasant even tomorrow,

The day after tomorrow should be like today.

Truly you are beautiful children,

Your time is green,

Your days are the sun to bask in,

Your cheeks are like squash,

And your eyes are glittering.


AN: In the poem that you shared, I love that you see children with "cheeks like squash and eyes that glitter." This make me smile.

When asked to give the talented poet Jane Kenyon advice on her poetry, respected American poet Robert Bly recommended that she select and translate a foreign poet as one of the best ways to develop her craft. I think this is because listening to words expressed in unique ways that foreign poetry provides opens the floodgates of creativity. In pre-pandemic times, everywhere we traveled I asked my husband to stop at local libraries so that I could learn how other cultures expressed themselves through poetry.

TM: Thank you, Annie. Did I ever tell you that my favorite subject in school was English? Yes, because English helped me connect with the world. Without my English-speaking donors, I would not have achieved any community projects.

AN: Tell us a little bit about your schooling.

TM: When I started school in 1980, we attended classes under a tree, because the only mud-built classrooms were meant for the upper grades. Because we had no stationary, we wrote on the sand—classwork and exams. Yeah! There was no homework. We always stayed home during the rainy seasons. This never bothered us, as we thought that was how education was meant to be.

My dad bought me my first pencil as a gift when I started 3rd grade. I asked my mom to tie a string around it and wore it as a necklace for everyone to see it. I only used it at home since there were no books at school.

When Henna Pre-school was started, our children still attended classes under a tree. There was no stationary or toys. I was already in grade 10, and I asked God to help me with the wisdom to develop my community when the time would present itself. I did not know when this was going to happen, but this was always in my everyday prayer.

AN: How did the Lion Sands Wild Life Preserve become involved in your community work?

TM: When I joined Lion Sands as the Front of House Manager in 2002, I asked Mr. Nick More to allow me to introduce my village to our guests. He told me that he was going to think about my request and get back with me after a week. Guess what? He called me back to his office after an hour and gave me permission to take guests to my village on one condition: that my duty as the front of House Manager was never interrupted and remained my first priority. Finally, God answered my prayer. That was the beginning of my walk, my journey in creating happy faces.

AN: Thembi, I think that it would be interesting for our readers to know that you have been involved in the creation of not just one but two different preschools. Is there significance in how you named each?

TM: Yes, two different schools: Henna Pre-school and Jabez Pre-school.

The name Henna was given to the preschool to remember our late Induna (Head of our Community). When walking past his people, he said "Henna" as his way of greeting. He passed away in 1989 when the preschool was started.

You will recall from the Bible that Jabez was given his name by his mother because she bore him with pain. In 1 Chronicles 4: 9–10, Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, "Oh Lord, bless me indeed and expand my territory."

From the day I started with Community Projects, I put this verse in my mind. I faced a lot of challenges in the communities I served. Being a woman and trying to change things in my village was a threat to men who always believed that women can never be leaders. It took me about 2 years just to get an approval to start Jabez Pre-school due to delays with the leadership of Justicia village where the preschool is located. To add on top of this, getting the land was more difficult. I was not getting any financial assistance from anyone, and this was tough. I did not give up, but I always asked God to expand my territory.

AN: Thembi, I look forward to writing the next installment of this article with you. Is there anything that I have left out about the preschools that you might like to share before we complete this segment?

TM: Annie, I want to be clear that while both Henna and Jabez offer the same services, they are in separate villages. Both allow easy access for the village people. Henna opened in 1987. In 2015, I started Jabez Pre-school in Justicia Village, about 15 minutes driving distance away from Henna in a small village that has more than 3,000 people but no school or health facilities.

I want to share that in addition to the preschools, in 2008 I started New Beginnings Day Care because there was a high rate of teenage pregnancy. I sent the young mothers to school and made sure we encouraged them to continue with education and not fall pregnant until they were educated and ready to start a family. I set this up as a 10-year project. In 2017, we only had 1 baby from a teenage mother compared with when we started with 12 babies. Due to this achievement, we closed down the Day Care and moved the babies to Henna. The facility was then renovated and made ready to start a skills development center as soon as we have funding available. Please understand that the Day Care was for babies from birth to 2 years of age.

So I want your readers to know that we have a well-thought-out plan for our services as we are committed to making a positive difference in our community.

AN: Thank you, Thembi. As always, so enlightening dialoguing with you. I look forward to further discussing your projects and collaborating for our next piece.


Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Pointa place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing. Annie also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!

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