The veldskoen is as South African as rugby, rooibos, boerewors and David Kramer. A small community in Namibia has also been keeping the tradition of the comfy leather shoe alive
Words and Pictures: Ron Swilling
Soul, smiles and colour can be found in the harshest and most unexpected of places like the semi-arid expanses of southern Namibia. So can one of the oldest and favourite types of Southern African footwear, the ‘veldskoen’, ‘velskoen’ or simply, ‘vellies’, as they’re fondly called.
It wouldn’t be South Africa without rusks, rugby, rooibos, boerewors, pap, potjiekos and … well, veldskoene. Most Southern Africans, regardless of profession or path in life, have owned or still own a pair of ‘vellies’, those comfortable shoes that have changed little in style over the years, although they are now found dyed in all the colours of the rainbow. Made from cattle or game hide, vellies are custom-fitted over time as they assume the shape of the wearer’s feet. Like a soft pair of gloves, they are like a close friend you are loathe to part with.
Driving along the dusty roads of southern Namibia, on the outskirts of Karasburg, I discovered a small industry keeping the veldskoen tradition alive among the Nama people. Two sinkhuise (corrugated iron structures) in a sandy yard in the Satco community area, in the middle of about 80 similar dwellings, mark the home of the Doen en Sien Self (Do and see for yourself) leather project.
In this seemingly unlikely place of colour and enterprise, four women were hard at work, sewing, cutting and gluing veldskoene by hand, adding a special purple decorative piece to the women’s shoes.
Leather veldskoene in various stages of completion filled the tables, among lasts, glue, thread, leather and all the tools of the trade. Maria Koper, Hilda Vries and Veronica and Alfrieda Blokstaan, forming part of the group of ten making up the leather project, greeted me warmly, clad in their colourful dresses and wide smiles. They stopped their activities for a while to welcome me in, chat and later pose with their bright, quilted shawls thrown over their shoulders Nama style.
Maria told me the tale of the small business that began in 1998, when the ministry of agriculture gave the group leather offcuts and a Joseph Rooi from the Satco community taught the group his shoe-making skills. In 2002, from funds given to them by the ministry of local housing, the group purchased the Roman Catholic Mission structure where the project is housed today, and built an additional structure to use as a storeroom.
This donation also enabled them to buy a supply of leather and, according to Maria, some bokkies (goats). Whenever the coffers run dry, the group sells a few goats to see them through the hard times. They have also been assisted over the years by the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP) and the US Ambassador’s Self-Help Program has donated equipment.
With a twinkle in her eye, Maria explains their simple marketing strategy: if you see someone wearing the well-crafted and attractive shoes, you will fancy a pair for yourself. So you’ll ask where they got theirs and then phone the Doen en Sien Self project.
They make up the shoes in a process that takes three days to complete, with different people responsible for different parts in the manufacturing process. They will then post or courier the finished pair of shoes to the expectant customer. This seems to work well and they continue to receive orders from as far afield as Keetmanshoop and Stampriet and even Steinkopf in South Africa.
With many traditions being lost over the years, the art of making veldskoene has fortunately survived. A Nama festival wouldn’t be the same without veldskoene to complete the rok en doek outfit (dress and headscarf) of the women and hemp en broek outfit (shirt and trousers) of the men. As important as Nama stap, the traditional Nama dance, is the Nama apparel still proudly worn at all festivities.
Likewise, the veldskoen tradition is still alive and well in South Africa and Namibia, among all classes and cultures. Many a favourite pair of vellies is still standing in a cupboard or tapping out a beat, walking down a city road or stamping along a dusty path, testament to the trusty Southern African footwear that has been fondly worn through the ages.