Welcome to the blog site for our Elmira College travel class to South Africa. We will update this blog regularly with posts about our travels and experiences. We'll upload photos when we have the chance. Check back regularly to follow our adventures!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Very lovely, very rural Venda

We are in a very rural area for the next few days. This morning, we left our hotel at the hot springs quite early to get on the road. We stopped at a citrus stand (we can see lots of citrus fruits, avocado and banana trees, and guava trees all along these roads). We bought fresh-squeezed bottles of orange, mango or naartje (tangerine juice) juice and got on our way. We passed back through the mountains on the narrow winding pass, and drove way way way out into the countryside.

Our bus bounced around on a red dirt road pitted with holes and bumps, beeping away cows and smaller vehicles. The houses around us were very small, mostly one room brick or stucco homes, and we began to see more and more roundhouses with thatch roofs (rondevals). The rondevals are the traditional homes of people in this area, and people still make them out of local mud, by hand. Most of the houses were actually clustered into small compounds, about the size of an average yard in the city of Elmira. In one yard, we might see a small handmade fence for chickens around the perimeter, packed red earth for the yard, with corn and other plants or flowers in a small garden. In the yard might be two or even three one-room houses, right next to each other--perhaps two one-room rectangle houses with tile roofs, and one rondeval. I guess this is the modern way to live traditionally.

We made our way deep into the countryside to visit a very important traditional Venda potter in the tiny town of Mukondeni. The potter, Sarah Munyai, is a very old woman who learned the traditional methods and designs of Venda pottery from her own grandmother when she was a girl. Sarah, who didn't speak a word of English, demonstrated how to make a traditional pot. She first put down a special mat in her yard (again, the yard was hard packed red dirt). On this mat, she set out her materials, each in a special spot. Then she sat down with her legs straight out in front of her, with her traditional woven skirt hitched up. Before she began working the clay, she ululated quite suddenly and loudly! It was a striking sound, almost like the call of an animal. It is part of the pottery ritual, a sound of celebration and anticipation. This is how every pot starts out. She built the pot right in front of her on the ground, by hand, using a special scraping tool to help make it rounded. When she had the shape of the pot right, she quickly, without even seeming to think about, etched perfectly sized lines into the design. She then took her finger and dipped it into watery graphite and painted the graphite onto the pot design using her hands. The graphite will turn black. She also used her fingers to paint red iron oxide onto the pot design. When she was finished, she said a ritual prayer to the ancestors, to her home, to her family, and to the pot. From ululation to prayer, that's how a traditional Venda pot is made! Later, after we left, the pot would be fired in a very hot fire (no kilns here).

Sarah herself was fascinating. She was 86 years-old, and very traditional. She was wearing a bright pink turban and a traditional woven dress over a yellow polo shirt advertising the ANC (from some previous election). She wore a black cell phone case around her neck like a necklace. Around her wrists and ankles, she wore traditional Venda coiled metal bracelets which had been given to her by suitors when she was a young woman. Traditionally, Venda girls go through three ritual steps of adulthood, culminating in learning all the parts to the Domba dance, where the women all link arms like a snake and dance the parts of the life cycle. After becoming an adult by learning the Domba, a Venda woman become marriageable. Her suitors give her the bracelets as a proof of their devotion, and no matter who the woman ends up marrying, she wears the bracelets for the rest of her life. Sarah had quite a large number of bracelets; she must have been quite a young woman! Nowadays, she's even more amazing. She not only raised her own children, she now raises 6 young grandchildren and is responsible for the welfare of almost her entire family, sending the kids to school and feeding everyone. As one of the few traditional Venda potters, her work is in much demand, but she refuses to leave her tiny town.

After Sarah showed us how to do traditional Venda pottery, we had the chance to try ourselves. Many students did try, although some were distracted by the very cute and friendly small children who were trying to get our attention. These kids were speaking to us in English, with limited vocabulary, but were thrilled that we would actually talk with them. Some of our students started taking pictures, and the kids began to clown around. Our students began to clown with them. Pretty soon it was a giant playground and a lot of fun.

We had brought a picnic lunch, and we shared the food and drinks with all the people in Sarah's compound. It was fascinating to see the strict order in which people ate. First was the host, Sarah, and then the guests, us, and then each person according to their age. The children came last and picked through the remaining food carefully looking for the best remainders. In our culture, we typically feed children first, but not here. In poor communities, this has been a terrible problem, in fact, in that children often eat the least in any given family and sometimes come to school so hungry that they can't study.

After we left Sarah's house, we bumped back down the roads towards another small town, Itsani. This town is slightly less rural than Mukondeni, in that there were a few shops and some of the roads were paved. In Itsani we went to visit a spiritual healer named Betty. She has her own church and followers, and uses the power of prayer, along with healing herbs and the ability to communicate with the ancestors, to heal people. When we arrived at her church, a one room brick building with open holes for windows, we sat down and waited for Betty to arrive. When she came in, she was wearing a white robe with a large blue cross on the back, and a white wimple. She looked like she was about 40. She went down on her knees to great us, crawling one by one on the floor to shake each hand. This was a sign of great respect that she was showing us. It was an astonishing thing to see!

Tonight, we were at our guide, Traugott's, house, up on a hillside at Thoyandu. Some of us helped him make African-style pizza (tomatoes, cheese, sausage, oregano and banana! etc). Others of us sat out on the veranda looking down over the lights of the city. It was gorgeous, and the food was amazing, and it was a really nice evening. We are all back at the hotel now, getting ready for bed and ready for tomorrow. We have some more exciting things planned, including working at an arts center to help get it ready to open for a women's craft collective. We will also get a private concert and dance lesson from Betty's church choir, who will also be cooking dinner for us. Before we do any of that, though, we will have a hike through the bush.

It was another amazingly lovely day in Africa today!

By the way, before I go, I wanted to mention that we have all heard the news about Osama Bin Laden. Just so you all know, we are perfectly safe, as there doesn't seem to be any kind of local feeling about this even one way or the other.

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