I drove on a wide gravel road, my little car rattling as its tires pushed over the corrugated surface. Dust billowed behind me. I was headed toward a tiny Limpopo town called Mukondeni, where I would explore the Ribola Art Route, and I was making good time. I glanced at my iPhone’s GPS: The blue line was solid, assuring me I was headed in the right direction.
“Turn right,” the voice commanded. The new road was narrower and softer, dirt tire ruts bordered by brown grass. I followed the GPS for a couple of kilometers, passing farms bordered by barbed-wire fences and two bemused pedestrians. The tire ruts grew fainter. The rocks in the road grew larger; thorn bushes closed in on both sides. Soon, despite that persistent blue line on my iPhone, 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, point by point, wincing as thorns scraped metal.
Rule #1 when traveling in rural South Africa: Save your smartphone battery and your sanity, and leave the GPS switched off. Follow directions from an actual human.
I nearly panicked and lost it there. But after careful backtracking, a few phone calls, and a thorn puncture in each of my front tires (I had the leaks patched later), I made it to Mukondeni where Gift, my Ribola Art Route guide, waited patiently beside the road.
Gift Mkhari, an Open Africa guide on the Ribola Art Route, poses with an Instax photo at Twananani Textiles.
The Ribola Art Route
I learned about the Ribola Art Route while I was in Magoesbaskloof, through a friend of a friend who is a consultant for the initiative. The route was developed by Open Africa, a social enterprise that encourages tourism in rural areas of southern Africa. The Ribola Art Route, named for a mountain in northern Limpopo called Ribola, consists of a network of Tsonga and Venda artists in the area. Visitors to the route 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.
Amukelani (right), one of the artists at Twananani, and Gift show off one of the cloths. Amu calls this pattern “the Big 5”, although I noticed later that there are seven animals represented.
I spent the morning at Twananani creating my own cloth — an interactive experience that costs R350 (about $25) — 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.
It’s hard to paint with boiling-hot wax and take photos at the same time. But this is what the cloth looked like post-waxing.
Then I chose paint colors and we painted around the wax lines.
Painting. We made a huge mess but it was fun.
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
Summer hasn’t set in yet in northern Limpopo. But it’s already sweltering and the ongoing drought has turned the landscape into a dust bowl. As Gift directed me down a bumpy dirt road, the midday sunlight shimmered through my dirty windshield. I felt delirious. “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.
Patrick at the gate to his home and studio, which appears to rise from the dust.
Our visit with Patrick Manyike was like a waking dream. The tree was hung with heavy wooden ornaments, shifting slowly in the hot 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 massive 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 demonstrates his carving techniques with a metal tool fashioned from a discarded butter knife.
Patrick’s eccentricity enchanted me. I bought one of his sculptures — a small wooden head with a jutting chin — for R300 ($20). Patrick was so pleased that he gave me a small bird crafted from a leadwood branch.
The Pottery Women of Mukondeni
After a lunch of grilled chicken and pap, and a brief delay during which my car refused to start but then magically righted itself, Gift and I traveled a few kilometers down another dirt road to Mukondeni Village Pottery.
Gift introdced me to Flora Randela and Esther Nesengani, who have each been making pottery for more than 35 years. The women led us inside, where Esther lowered herself to the floor and made a pot in less than 10 minutes.
Crafting the clay by hand. Once Esther forms a basic shape, she spins the plate with her free hand until the pot is smooth.
Carving a pattern into the pot. Esther will let the outer part of the pot dry in the sun before adding the base later.
After this demonstration, which blew my mind, we went outside and I bought a few small pots. Flora and Esther sell their smallest pots for about R20 (less than $2) each, which is insane. I wish I could have bought some larger ones but my car was too full.
Flora and Esther with their pots. Their two styles are quite distinct.
We finished the visit with an Instax photo session.
I felt a real connection with these women. I wish we could have spent more time together.
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.
Lucky Ntimani in his light-flooded studio. What is it with men named Lucky? They all seem to have smiles like this.
The children were trickling in as Gift and I arrived. They put on an impromptu concert for me.
Gift plays a traditional Tsonga percussion instrument — I’ve forgotten the name. In the background, a boy plays a drum created from a wooden table with a tin plate tied to it.
The girls dance as the boys play music. I asked if girls ever play music or boys ever dance, but couldn’t get a straight answer to that question. It seems that the different types of art divide themselves firmly along gender lines.
Again, 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.
The Twananani ladies were waiting for me.
From left to right: Florence, Grace, Eveline, Amukelani, and me. They’re showing off a guinea fowl cloth they made that day. My flying pig cloth turned out well, right? (Photo: Gift Mkhari)
The Ribola Art Route was one of the most engaging and meaningful travel experiences I’ve had in a long time (only to be topped by my visit to Venda the following day). I can’t wait to explore more Open Africa routes like this.
For more information about the Ribola Art Route, email Lisa at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow her directions and not the GPS.
sounds like a fantastic day and it makes me realize it would take many many days to explore and meet all the artists of the area!we have been going every 2 years for the past 10 years and we have never met anyone you met except for the pottery ladies…
I know, I received so many suggestions and I don’t think I made it to any of the artists that people suggested. But you’re right, there seem to be so many great ones.
Aside from thorns and heat and GPS hell, your trip sounds amazing. I love the pig pattern and pots especially.
Do they get many travelers on the route?
No, I don’t think they do, at least not yet. It’s a very out-of-the-way place. But let’s hope that starts to change.
such a wonderful blog.
Venda, mystical and magical and I love how it is still so unspoiled.
Thanks Violet. I can’t wait to go back.
This is so interesting and such beautiful work. Do they have to rely on tourists coming to them or do they also sell and other places? Looks like a great place to visit and I will note it for next time I am up that way, thanks!
I think they occasionally sell their work in other places but I got the impression that they rely almost entirely on tourists who come there, and a small number of them at that. You should check it out — I guess it would be slightly out of the way but this itinerary could definitely work as an add-on to Kruger 🙂
Looks like a great alternative to the usual touristy stuff, plus, I love being crafty and seeing how things are made. Thanks for taking us along for the ride!
It was so nice getting way off of the traditional South African tourist routes on this trip. I’d. E interested to know if there are crafty tourism programs like this anywhere in SE Asia – have you ever seen anything?
What beautiful pots! I used to have a nice collection of Native pots from southwest USA, but moving around so much, there’s only a few left and they tend to stay packed away. I would never be able to resist trying to get a bunch of those through Customs!
You would go crazy, I’m sure. Those pots are amazing and so affordable.