Hlekweni Rural Training Centre
Hlekweni was the Quaker founded rural training centre outside Bulawayo, in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, run by Zimbabweans, under the auspices of Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting (now Southern Africa Yearly Meeting) and supported by Quakers around the world. It opened in 1967 and closed in 2014.
Hlekweni’s mission was to give practical expression to Quaker testimonies in the most impoverished communities of Zimbabwe. There was a special focus on promoting reconciliation and nonviolence, and encouraging agricultural practices that enhance environmental sustainability. The Hlekweni community aimed to embody a commitment to equality, through welcoming people from all backgrounds, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. In particular, the Centre strove to empower trainees with the skills and confidence to become initiators of development in rural communities, by meeting local needs for essential products and services with locally available resources and appropriate technologies.
Hlekweni – the Place of Laughter – was founded in 1967, two years after the white minority government made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from British colonial rule and two years into the bitter guerrilla war that followed. Its founders, Roy and Irene Henson, described it as "an expression of hope and faith in the future while all around was evidence of death". Many Quakers worldwide supported it both financially and through volunteers. ‘Friends of Hlekweni’ (see link below) became the channel for support in the UK, for example.
Initially Hlekweni was aimed at boys leaving primary school who were unable to go to secondary school or to find work to teach them rural skills such as animal husbandry to help them make a living off the land and enrich village life. Hlekweni quickly grew into a community, encouraging all to take an interest in their cultural roots.
At the request of the local community, Hlekweni began running courses for ex-detainees in building and other skills. Girls joined boys to learn home-making and agricultural skills. Livestock expanded to include sheep, goats, poultry, dairy and beef cattle. Samathonga primary school was opened, initially for community children. Hlekweni also provided training for church leaders from other parts of the country. All this was done against the background of the violent struggle for liberation from white minority rule in Zimbabwe. The centre made a clear stand in favour of liberation. By the late 1970s, the government was imposing curfews and strict racial zoning, making outreach work difficult. Although some work continued in defiance of the restrictions, the centre focused on development of water conservation, livestock improvement and coping with drought conditions.
After Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980, internal struggles between the former liberation forces of ZAPU and ZANU continued to create security problems. However, Hlekweni benefitted from some of the funding that was pouring into independent Zimbabwe.
By the 1990s, as the political situation in Zimbabwe deteriorated, Hlekweni struggled to survive. However, in 2002, a change of management and a fundraising initiative gave it a new lease of life, despite operating under great pressure. Between 2004 and 2008, due to ongoing tensions within Zimbabwe, Hlekweni endured farm invasions, cattle thefts and fires; the centre was often without power and with inadequate water supplies.
Since the early part of this century, Hlekweni helped run a feeding programme for the children at Samathonga school, funded by British Quakers; this is now continued by Friends of Hlekweni. This has undoubtedly helped the school achieve good results, and kept it functioning even when children and teachers were otherwise going hungry.
The Centre closed in 2014, the concern having been laid down by Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting due to the unsustainable financial model for the centre in a country with major economic and political issues. The campus has been acquired by the Zimbabwean Teachers’ Association (ZIMTA), who have renamed it Ehlekweni; ZIMTA intend to continue the training, and started with a small cohort of students in 2016. The broiler chickens and market garden are thriving.
Many hundreds of young people in Matabeleland were trained at the centre, and there remains considerable affection and respect for the work.
Friends of Hlekweni continues support for focused education, training and peacebuilding in southern Matabeleland.