Heather Mason www.2summers.net


09 Nov 2016

I drove on a gravel road, car rattling as its tires pushed over the corrugated surface. I was headed toward a tiny Limpopo town called Mukondeni, where I would explore the Ribola Art Route, and I was making good time.

“Turn right,” the GPS voice commanded. The new road was narrower and softer, dirt tire ruts bordered by brown grass. I drove a couple of kilometers, passing farms bordered by barbed-wire fences and bemused pedestrians. The tire ruts grew fainter. The rocks in the road grew larger; thorn bushes closed in on both sides. Soon, there was no road at all. My GPS had sent me down a cattle track.

I took a deep breath and turned the car around, wincing as thorns scraped metal.

Rule #1 when traveling in rural South Africa: Leave the GPS off and follow directions from an actual human.

After careful backtracking, a few phone calls, and a thorn puncture in each of my front tires, I made it to Mukondeni where Gift, my Ribola Art Route guide, waited beside the road.

The Ribola Art Route was developed by Open Africa, a social enterprise that encourages tourism in rural areas of southern Africa. Named for a mountain in northern Limpopo called Ribola, the art route consists of a network of Tsonga and Venda artists in the area. Visitors get to meet these artists, watch them work, and learn how to create their own art if they want to.

Making Cloth at Twananani Textiles

Gift hopped into my car and we drove to our first destination, Twananani Textiles in Mbokota Village. The women at Twananani have been working together since the 1980s, creating batik-style cloth with Tsonga designs and symbols.

I spent the morning at Twananani creating my own cloth with help from Amu and Gift. First I chose my pattern, an array of flying pigs, and traced it with colored pencil onto a piece of white cloth. After tracing the pattern, we took the cloth outside and painted over the pencil lines with wax. Then I chose paint colors and we painted around the wax lines.

Gift and I arranged to return to Twananani later to pick up the cloth after it was rinsed and dried. We set off for our next destination — Patrick Manyike’s woodcarving studio.

A Mystical Approach to Woodworking

As Gift directed me down a bumpy road, the hot midday sunlight shimmered through my dusty windshield. “We’re here,” Gift said, pointing down a small hill. I squinted and barely made out a mud hut, a large tree, and a man sitting in the shade.

Our visit with Patrick Manyike was like a waking dream. The tree was hung with heavy wooden ornaments, shifting slowly in the breeze. Patrick showed us inside his studio, which doubles as a one-room house, and my jaw fell open when I saw the sculptures.

Patrick explained how he forages in the forest, sometimes miles from home, searching for pieces of wood that call to him. He chips away at the wood, using handmade tools, until the image in his mind emerges.

Patrick once left Limpopo and moved to Joburg, where he found a job cleaning floors at a casino/entertainment complex called Carnival City. No matter how thoroughly he cleaned those floors, they were dirty the next day.

“I cleaned the same floor, every day, over and over,” Patrick said. “It didn’t feel good. I decided to come home again. Now I clean wood instead of floors.”

Patrick’s eccentricity enchanted me. I bought a sculpture — a small wooden head with a jutting chin. Patrick was so pleased that he gave me a small bird crafted from a leadwood branch.

The Pottery Women of Mukondeni

After a lunch, Gift and I traveled down another dirt road to Mukondeni Village Pottery. Gift introduced me to Flora Randela and Esther Nesengani, who have been making pottery for more than 35 years. The women led us inside, where Esther lowered herself to the floor and spun a pot in less than 10 minutes.

After this demonstration, which blew my mind, we went outside and I bought a few small pots. I wish I could have bought some larger ones but my car was too full.

Music in the Late Afternoon Sun

Our final stop was a visit to woodcarver and musician Lucky Ntimani. Lucky hosts an after-school program for about 60 children, in which he teaches the kids about art, music, and dance. I watched as Lucky and his students played traditional instruments, one of which was a drum made with a wooden table and a tin plate. Lucky toured me though his small woodcarving studio, which was filled with afternoon light.

I didn’t have enough time with Lucky and his students. But the sun was sinking fast and I still had to pick up my finished cloth at Twananani. They were waiting for me, and the cloth was beautiful.

The Ribola Art Route was one of the most engaging and meaningful travel experiences I’ve had in a long time. I can’t wait to explore more Open Africa routes like this.


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