Mogalakwena: Craft village with soul


To Elbe Coetese, the founder of Mogalakwena, “the bird in the open cage is homage to freedom, creativity and imagination, the three principles behind what we do…” Founded in 1994, the purpose of Mogalakwena is to create employment opportunities for previously disadvantaged women and young school dropouts living in villages under the authority of traditional Northern Sotho tribal chief, Kibi, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. The whole concept encompasses a game reserve, a lodge, a research center and the Craft Village located near the lodge and conceived as an artist’s retreat where designers and artists can spend several weeks developing a specific project with the option of involving the women from the Craft Village, sharing with other artists, and enjoying the breathtaking landscape of this region.  The Craft Village aims to promote the traditional craft/art skills once central to rural communities, but which have now become dormant due to poverty, and to enable more members of the community to become self-sufficient and less dependent on unemployment benefits and government pensions.
Getting to Mogalakwena requires a long journey of mystery and magic.  The first stop is Johannesburg, followed by a short airplane ride to Polakwane and a four-hour car ride through the African savanna very close to the borders with Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.   The baobabs are the native trees of the region and they define the landscape with their root-like branches and bottom-heavy proportions. Some of them are full of nests that male herons build for females, who choose one she likes for the nesting season.   But that species is one of many, as this part of the savanna is a bird sanctuary. An alert watcher will see African Finfoot, the Crimson-breasted Shrike, the Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, the African Scops Owl, the African Yellow-bellied Greenbul and a variety of kingfishers, ducks and other water birds.
The founder of Mogalakwena, Elbe Coetesee, is often called Masechaba, her African name, which means mother of the nation; the name fits both her essence and her role as a leader and founder of the Craft Village. She is convinced that “empowerment goes both ways and there is one sun for all, while we are travelers on this earth.”   The idea behind the craft village evolved from Elbe’s relationship with Pedi women who communicated with her visually using embroidery to narrate tales of their daily life, the food of the region, their healing practices, leisure and sport, dress and adornment, education and work. Their embroidered documents were eventually gathered into art books that are now part of collections around the world and valued for their beautiful style, their bold expressiveness and the tactile quality of the work.
This embroidery-based cultural documentation began at the right place and time.  Bapedi, Bahananwa,  Batlokwa and Babirwa  (Northern Sotho) cultures had begun to experience a transition toward urbanization with the introduction of electricity some tim ago. The introduction of cell phone service has accelerated the change. At this point in time, the area bears witness to the stark contrast between modern urban and traditional rural values. The strong interplay between the old and the new not only provides a culturally rich environment, but still welcomes the older ways.  Perhaps the work of the Craft Village will ensure that there will always be a vibrant place for traditional arts and crafts.
Today, the Craft Village provides a source of income for 40 women that walk two hours to and from their villages to arrive at this oasis of creativity, where they sing and share their life and culture with artists and designers from all over the world. They work on limited edition pieces that involve bead work, basket weaving, clay and embroidery.  Sales happen at the village’s shop at Mogalakwena and at their gallery in Cape Town.  Some goods are also sold through international retailers who are looking for authenticity, quality and soul.
The bridge between cultures represented by the Crafts Village is made even richer by asking artisans to develop Pedi language texts that explain the meaning of their work. After a collective review and group approval of the words, the texts are translated into English.  In Elbe’s words, ‘if one can understand “the other”, it is possible to connect with them.”  A great part of what happens at the Craft Village involves sharing and co-creating with artists and designers who can stay at the beautiful rooms in the retreat or at the lodge, accessible by a twenty-minute walk.  The house has a common area with different atmospheres and tons of books about African art, anthropology, archaeology and wildlife.  The rooms, all different and built around the house, facing the outside, share the rose garden and a swimming pool.
“To motivate and inspire” are Elbe’s mantras for the Craft Village, because, “Only with a common starting point where we understand and respect each other, can we start thinking about innovative ideas for a world in need of great change” or in Florence Dibell Bartlett’s worlds, “the art of the craftsman is a bond between the peoples of the world”. Mogalakwena is an experience for travelers interesting in feeling and exploring the essence and depth of Africa.
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