It’s night time in the Bushveld and I sit under a canopy of stars. From the foliage alongside my verandah, a chorus of insects provides the backdrop to the frogs that croak melodiously from the banks of the Mogalakwena River, flowing silently not far beyond the boundary fence. Far across the treetops comes the call of a nightjar, and behind me, high in a tree, the intermittent, soft tones of an owl. The night orchestra is joined by the occasional bray of a donkey and superimposing it all, come the lyrics of “Mandela”, blasting from a transistor radio in the nearby village. The balmy air brushes my skin gently and I sit here in the darkness, breathing deeply, wallowing in the sensation of a night in the African bush. I don’t want to move, for this is balm to my soul, so I linger a while longer before disappearing under the mosquito net and drifting off to sleep. At three in the morning, I surface briefly and hear the distant throb of drums coming from the direction of the village. It is a comforting sound that I know well from my childhood, living on a Zimbabwe farm.
I awake in the morning to a cacophony of bird calls; little brown jobs twittering outside my window, and the screech of a Woodland Kingfisher as it swoops from tree to tree. Not far off, there is the distinctive chatter of Guinea fowl and Natal Francolins going about their way. I blink at the sun that is pouring in through the window and when I hear the tinkle of cow bells and the swish, swish of someone sweeping the driveway, I become alert and realize that a new day has begun at the Mogalakwena Artist’s Retreat and that I’d better get up to see what’s going on.
As I gather my things together, I hear the sound of the gate being opened and the voices of laughing women.
I am excited, for this is what I have been waiting for… a chance to meet these women and see the work that is being done at the Mogalakwena Craft Art Centre, which is situated just across the garden from the retreat. The farm, Mogalakwena is owned by the Coetsee family, and is situated near Alldays in Limpopo Province, South Africa. There are various sections to the farm, and apart from the art retreat, they offer accommodation at their luxury river lodge and bush camp. From the time that I first read Craft Art in South Africa, authored by Dr.Elbe Coetsee, I have been intrigued by the work being done by this remarkable woman, and I look forward to meeting both her and the women who work at the art centre.
It is most fortuitous, therefore, that my friend Petra Terblanche, with whom I am traveling, is currently living in this tranquil paradise and what’s more, she is directly involved in the project and is documenting and collating the creative work being produced on the farm.
I learn that Elbe established The Mogalakwena Craft Art Development Foundation in 1994, in an effort to improve the lives and living conditions of the local communities. With a PhD in social entrepreneurship and a deep interest in the craft art business, she was ideally positioned to set up the foundation and the craft art centre from which the women could work. Her main aim is to create sustainable, value-adding employment opportunities for disadvantaged women and to restore and develop traditional craft art skills that for various reasons have to some extent become dormant or lost. She is actively involved in the product development, raising standards so that the goods are suitable for the international market. The products produced at the centre are sold through a variety of South African outlets and can be viewed and purchased from the Mogalakwena Gallery, which opened in Capetown in 2008.
Another important aspect of Elbe’s work is the research, documentation and preservation of African oral history, traditions and material culture. Her foundation promotes research with the aim to further not only the understanding and knowledge in the field of anthropology, ecology and social entrepreneurship in Africa, but also to establish a national and international awareness and appreciation of African culture.
I am shown around the craft art centre by Alletha, whose task is to see that everything runs smoothly whilst Elbe is in Capetown running the gallery. Although the women produce a wide array of goods, the work that most captures my attention when I enter their workshop are the delightful embroideries that document the local African traditions. These beautifully rendered embroideries are physical documents of traditional beliefs and customs that can be passed on down through the generations. It is Petra Terblanche’s task to photograph them all and to create a written and digital record of all the work produced, ensuring that these valuable stories will not be lost.
To view some of these embroideries, click on the thumbnails below:
On many levels the work being done here is of interest to me, for not only am I a fibre artist with a passion for textiles, I believe that it is important to journal and document the rich stories of our lives, be it for personal, therapeutic purposes or as a record for future generations. I am also admiring of women who are committed to helping those who are less fortunate. I believe that the empowerment of women is essential in this modern society and I applaud women like Elbe and Petra, who are giving so much of themselves to help others.
Three days later, we have crossed the Mogalakwena River, and are making our way along a dusty road towards the magnificent Soutpansberg Mountains that are beckoning us from the horizon, and I am musing upon the fact that despite this country’s problems, there are many good people beavering away, doing their bit towards creating a stronger and healthier society.
In my next post, the final in this Limpopo series, I will be sharing the work of yet another amazing woman…!