Deep in mohair country of the Eastern Cape is a talented clutch of crafters. Marion Whitehead gets to know more about the Baviaans crafters.
Words and pictures: Marion Whitehead
It was on a meandering journey deep in the stunning Baviaanskloof valley that I first came across the work of the Baviaans crafters. Their little shop beside the road near the western end was itself a work of art – built from cob made of straw and clay, it looked like a natural extension of the earth. The living roof didn’t look that much different to the veld as it was planted with succulents and helped keep the place cool in summer, warm in winter.
Inside, there was an eclectic outpouring of creative talent, enticingly arranged by Veronica Meganie, who also runs Vero’s, the little coffee shop under the trees across the road. The treasure trove ranged from delicate necklaces and beadwork to bright mosaics and wire angels. Honey collected by Veronica’s brother, olives from the farm down the road… the temptations were endless.
Over moerkoffie and one of her mom’s freshly baked roosterkoek with cheese and jam, Veronica told me the little craft shop and its contents were the outcome of an initiative by the Baviaans District Municipality to spread the benefits of tourism into local communities.
Some people worked on their crafts at home and sent them to her to sell. Others worked in groups, like the angel factory at Vondeling, a dusty little settlement tucked away behind the eastern end of the Swartberg mountains.
Curious, I planned a trip to visit some of these enterprising folk in the main centres of activity: Steytlerville, where the newest group is based; Rietbron, the Karoo hamlet of everyone’s imagination in the middle of nowhere; and Willowmore, which includes the outlying Vondeling group.
At Steytlerville, some 200 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, I meet four women who have fallen in love with mosaics. In a small building next to the tourist info office, I find them busily applying the skills learned on a recent advanced course in mosaics.
Roschenda Wood is working out a complicated pattern to decorate a mirror frame, Metholine Damons is expertly cutting pieces of mirror to apply to a teapot, Zurika Jafta is turning an old CD into an attractive holder for knicknacks and Pauline Els is grouting a colourful butterfly. The only male, Solani Sampies, works in wire from home and a pair of his decorative wire shoes is on display.
“Ek like dit, dis mooi om mosaïek te doen,” says Metholine with a shy smile. “Creating things is very therapeutic,” comments Pauline, who also paints fabric at home.
The emphasis of the tourism-development project is on recycling and upcycling easily available materials, says Corné Henderson, Baviaans Tourism’s marketing manager. “Crafting is always a slow business, but they’re very willing and receive a regular income now, after being unemployed before. And they’re growing so much in confidence, especially when tourists stop to visit,” she adds.
The crafters were mentored by local artist Johan Trollip of Steytlerville’s Royal Hotel and the next step is to provide them with business training, get the website running and to do more marketing.
Further along, there aren’t many bends on the R329 tar and cement road towards Willowmore, 80 kilometres away. It follows a wide plain hedged by mountain ranges, and is like driving through a Pierneef painting, with the mountains changing colour as the angle of the sun changes. Beware of speeding: I count more flattened, bat-eared foxes on the road than actual vehicles.
At the junction with the N9, I turn north through a poort in the mountains, then onto the dusty R306 to Rietbron. I stop to allow a large leopard tortoise to cross and later see a dainty duiker. Eventually the mountains bordering the plain run out, leaving the ver verlate vlakte that CJ Langenhoven must have had in mind, when he penned that line of the national anthem. A few trees in the distance are the only indication that there’s a dorp at the end of the long, corrugated gravel road, best travelled in a bakkie with sturdy tyres.
“People come here to get away from the city,” librarian and tourism officer Liesbet Matthee says, as she shows me the hamlet’s main attraction – a springbok weathervane on the top of the Dutch Reformed Church steeple. It’s the only one in the country.
“Our school has also produced some Springbok tennis players,” she adds, before taking me to the township school where the Rietbron craft group is hard at work in a classroom they hire.
The group has stuck together through tough times since they started in 2009, and ten pairs of industrious hands are busy creating eight kinds of delicate angels from wire, wool and beads, intent on meeting the deadline for their first, big export order to Norway.
“It was a sukkel in the beginning, but it’s going better now. We hung in and persevered,” says Ronel Skaarnek, adding that they also send their wire and lace hearts and lampshade holders to Cape Town and Pretoria. “It was always my dream to have a craft shop, and this is it – our workshop in an old, art classroom.”
Sixty kilometres south, Willowmore is a metropolis by comparison, with shops, guest houses, a bank, superette, petrol station and Bonato, the local craft shop specialising in everything mohair, from scarves and beanies to blankets, jerseys and shawls. And I catch a glimpse of the delicate Vondeling wire angels hanging in a Karoo Christmas tree.
Baviaans Tourism manager Jane Zaayman takes me to meet some of the crafters working from home in town: Willem O’ Kelly whose custom-made knives with beautifully carved handles often end up with overseas collectors; Hendrik Kleinbooi who can make anything with wire, including the metal roses that adorn the fence at Sophie’s Choice, the dorp’s most elegant coffee shop; and Mossie George, whose wire teddy bears are much in demand.
“I was born in Willowmore, but work is scarce here,” Mossie tells me with a chuckle. “I pick up things at the local tip and make stuff: wire rhino heads, donkeys, you name it.”
Then we tackle another gravel road, slipping through a poort below the Aasvoëlberg landmark and skirting the western edge of the mighty Swartberg mountains for 43 kilometres, past the ghostly deserted station at Vondeling to visit the Vondeling Optel crafters.
The most experienced of the Baviaans groups, and the model on which the others are based, their little factory is surrounded by poverty and arid scrubland, but their fertile imaginations produce sparkling angels as bright as stars in a Karoo sky. Glass beads, ostrich feathers, crocheted fine wire and pure merino wool take on angelic forms under their skilful fingers.
“In the night, I get new designs in dreams,” says Violet ‘Koekie’ Martin as she explains their range of 22 designs. They started in 2006 with training and funding from the Sarah Baartman District Municipality (formerly Cacadu District Municipality). “We were just playing at first.”
But now this group of seven committed entrepreneurs – some daughters working beside mothers – exports regularly to Europe, and supplies select shops in our cities. “Ons staan op eie bene, ons doen ons eie ding (We stand on our own feet, we do our own thing),” declares Koekie proudly.
“The biggest challenge for crafters is to find the right product that people love to buy and that they don’t find anywhere else,” says Jane. But the Vondeling group is flying with their unique angels, and providing inspiration for other craft groups.
Visiting them is a true lesson in the power of dreams and entrepreneurship.
Get to the Art of Baviaans
- Baviaans Craft Shop: 044 923 1918
- Steytlerville Crafters Community: 049 835 0484
- Rietbron Handcraft: 044 934 1008 or 078 134 8239. Alternatively, see their work at Oppie-Vlak Padstal on the N9 near Beervlei Dam 40km north of Willowmore. 083 421 4409
- Vondeling Optel Crafts: 078 030 8730 or 044 923 1702, www.vondelingcraft.co.za
- Bonato Crafts: 044 923 1077
- Die Ou Apteek, Vondeling, sells Hendrik Kleinbooi’s wire works. 044 923 1080
- Knifemaker Willem O’Kelly: [email protected]
- Baviaans Tourist Information: 044 923 1702, [email protected], www.baviaanscrafters.co.za
- The Royal Hotel in Steytlerville: 049 835 0385, roya[email protected], www.steytlervilleaccommodation.co.za
- Lapidaria Guest House in Willowmore: 044 923 1043, [email protected], www.lapidaria.co.za