Treasures from Pondoland

Cultural treasure in remote South Africa

South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province carries powerful reminders of recent history. Nelson Mandela was born in Qunu, a village near Mthata. An important district is named O R Tambo for the late Oliver Reginald Tambo, former President of the African National Congress. Gavan Mbeki’s (father of the current President of South Africa) account of the Pondo Rebellion in the 1960s evokes the bravery of the Pondo people.  Nyandeni is still the home of the Pondo tribe’s royal family where Queen Bhongolethu, Swaziland royalty herself, and widow of the Pondo king, holds the throne as regent for her son.
Travel brochures call this district the “Wild Coast” for its steep headlands replete with waterfalls thundering down into the sea from massive rivers: the Unzimvubo, the Mngazi and the Great Fish River. The interior contains biodiverse woodlands, vast grasslands and cattle ranges dotted with the pastel rondavels of the Pondo people.  And with the warm Pondo welcome and the distinctive Pondo costume, it’s an adventure traveler’s dream with lodges, camps, safaris but no condominiums – at least not yet. 
Spectacularly beautiful, it is also one of the poorest regions of South Africa. The OR Tambo district program, in one of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “zoom sites”, was originally focused on agriculture and land use. Finding a wealth  of artisan tradition in the region was an unexpected benefit and ATA’s expertise in artisan development is now part of Kellogg’s innovative focus on arts and cultural industries. 
During ATASA’s (Aid to Artisans South Africa) assessment of local artisans and their economic potential we found folk art of remarkable skill and originality, such as George Nqondo’s rustic “bugwood” fish carvings, Julius Mfete’s delicately detailed hardwood carvings of rural life and among the many groups of women beaders, elaborate techniques of beadwork that were thought to have been lost. 
Julius Mfete carves wood from fallen trees for which he has a permit and as ATASA staff member, Kate Chisholm, wrote “ the size of his pieces (small) and pace of his carving (slow and finely detailed) mean that is is a sustainable resource.  He uses Msimbithi (milletia grandis)  for accents, a reddish wood called Mutwa or Natal Plum and  White Stinkwood (Celtis Afrikaner) for the larger parts.  He has standing orders from collectors for his vignettes of rural life, enough of a backlog that now he needs an apprentice to help with basic preparation.  He will be challenged to make and set aside enough for his appearance at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.
George Nqondo and his family live and work on a dirt road that runs along the bank of the Umzimvubu River, the main road to the coast. They work Bugwood (solanum mauritanum,) taken from forestry projects aimed at eradicating the species.It’s an invasive fast-growing tree with high water content.It’s available. It’s free - except for the labor of collecting it.  Not a traveler goes past his shop, the Nonhlo Pheko Project, without scooping up his rustic wooden fish – which were best sellers at the New York International Gift Fair in August  2007. Bugwood has its problems: it will crack and develop mold if sealed into a shipping carton prior to proper drying.  
Women’s groups throughout the region are famous for beading — clothing, shoes, pipes, necklaces and, in the case of Mrs. Mapetshane, proprietor of Masande Beadwork & Cultural Services, Billy Cans, tin cans lavishly beaded as purses.  Masande is housed in a converted shipping container and is clearly a market-ready enterprise. Mrs. M is a born entrepreneur, speaks English, has several sewing machines, electric power, a copier and a  digital camera.  
Although many beaders are older women, like the cheerful women in the Makukhanye Old Age Project, Mrs. M., looking to  the future, is passing along beading skills to young women. Looking to  a  future of more tourism, the best  of Pondo handcrafts will be in great demand.

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