The dress Thulisile Bhuda wears at her graduation ceremony reflects the theme of her master’s studies, namely how Ndebele women apply ethnomathematics in their cultural life and more specific, in their art.


Proud of indigenous knowledge


Hailing from the small town of Kwaggafontein in Mpumalanga, Thulisile has over the years received several scholarships as a result her strong work ethic and academic achievements.


She obtained all her qualifications from the NWU with distinction. She is currently working towards her PhD at the NWU, focusing on cosmic influences on Ndebele ethnomathematics.


“This is the time for Africans to write their own history and tell their own stories,” Thulisile says.


“I want to remain in the field of indigenous knowledge systems in order to preserve, protect and promote this wealth of information.”



Wearing her research on her sleeve

Thulisile Bhuda, an NWU master’s graduate, stole the show at her graduation ceremony late last year.

Wearing a white dress with IsiNdebele artwork patterns around the sleeves and the faces of iconic Ndebele women on the hem, she was not just making a fashion statement.


The gown represented her research on the role of ethnomathematics in the cultural life of AmaNdebele women in the Mpumalanga Province. (Ethnomathematics studies the relationship between culture and mathematics.)


Mathematical formula revealed


During her master’s studies, which she completed in early 2019, she found that Ndebele women are ethnomathematicians. Although they had no formal schooling, they possess a knowledge of symmetrical geometry, which is visible in their beadwork and mural art.


In her studies Thulisile revealed that the mathematical concepts that Ndebele beadworkers have learned through the years are counting, repetitive cycles, doing measurements and estimating lines, angles and similarities in figures.


The shape of beauty


Let’s look at the calculations a beadworker has to make to create certain shapes



If a beadworker wants to create a triangle, she first has to decide how wide the base must be, and then divide the number of beads forming this base in two, in order to find the centre. Keeping in mind how many beads there are on either side of the centre, she then subtracts one bead on either side until she reaches the top of the triangle.


Squares and rectangles

When it comes to creating squares and rectangles, there is no subtracting or adding of beads involved – the beadworker only has to calculate the number of beads needed to form the sides of the shapes. The artist can then choose to add other shapes inside the square or rectangle when completed.


Zigzag patterns

Artists also use zigzag patterns which are found in two shapes. The first one is where the two arms meet at a sixty-degree angle before turning into a different direction.


The second type is when one arm moves in a side inclination to a required height before meeting the other arm. This results in a sharp angle of about forty-five degrees with the other arm in vertical position. In order for a zigzag pattern to lean towards the right-hand side, the artist has to constantly increase the number of beads on the left-hand side, each line having one extra bead than the previous line.



Chevrons commonly tilt at 45-degree angles on both the left and right sides. The most important measurement in chevrons is the width of the first pillar (the flat side of the chevron) because all calculations rely on it. The artist counts the beads in the first row up to where she would like the chevron to be. After changing to the chevron’s colour, she starts to subtract one bead (of the flat side of the chevron) to have the pillar tilting to the left, and vice versa.






The NWU & U


Please send us your comments, suggestions and any other contributions you would like to make, for instance photographs or news snippets.


We value your opinions and input – after all, the NWU & U belongs to us all.




Next Article

previous article



more info



Here you can see some of the shapes beadworkers use.

NWU & U  |

NWU & U  |