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Malkerns Meander – World-class crafters in Swaziland
Words and pictures: Due Adams. Article from the December 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.
There is a small corner of Swaziland that has only grown pineapples, flowers and sugar. Now among the fields a number of world-class crafters has sprung up
What happens when you mix animal shapes with Italian glass design techniques, or fluorescent European designs with the weaving of Swazi lutinzi grass, or Shakespearian theatre with soapstone carving?
You get the kind of art and crafts found in the Malkerns Valley in Swaziland – and the world is sitting up and taking notice.
Swaziland is surprisingly developed these days and this tiny kingdom has big roads, efficient border posts, and nowhere is very far away. As one Swazilander says, “We don’t have a rush hour, we have a rush minute.” Which makes getting to the Malkerns area near Ezulwini and Mbabane very easy.
Most tourists head for the Ezulwini Valley, home of the famous Royal Swazi Spa and its casino and golf course, but I chose to drive just a little further to the rural Malkerns area to find the artists who are making waves in the art and design world.
Stop 1 – Angels, Adventure and Art
Once you have passed the Royal Swazi Spa and the infamous hot springs called the Cuddle Puddle, you will see a turn-off to Mantenga Crafts. The craft centre is rather dilapidated, but the Rainbow Angel is worth a look, especially if you fancy a rather Afro-Bohemian angel hovering in bright colours over your dinner table.
Look up for a great view of Nyonyane, also known as Execution Rock. Although it’s hard to find someone who can confirm this, hundreds of years ago criminals like cattle thieves were apparently punished by being thrown off the rock.
Continue down the road and follow the signs to Mantenga Cultural Village and Nature Reserve. The 725-hectare reserve is home to the second-highest waterfall in Swaziland, but for me the most interesting part was the Cultural Village. Angel, a Swazi woman, took me on a tour of the beehive hutted village where I learnt that Swazi women are not allowed to eat the head or heels of a cow – the brain might make them too clever and the heels might encourage them to run away. If you feel so inclined then stay on for a demonstration of Swazi dancing or take a walk to the waterfall.
As you leave the reserve, look out for Yebo Contemporary Art Gallery on your left. It is run by Aleta Armstrong, a lady of Finnish descent, who is working with Swazi artists to change the classic view of Swazi art being no more than ‘the woman with the basket on her head’. They have paintings, sculptures, ceramics and furniture, but don’t expect your traditional touristy art – this is for people who want to see something different and contemporary.
Mantenga Lodge Ask for the chalets on stilts. +268 2416 1049
Mantenga Cultural Village
+268 2416 1101
Yebo Contemporary Art Gallery
+268 7602 0766, www.yeboswaziland.com
Stop 2 – Kings and Tin Pots
Back on the MR 103, look out for a line of palm trees on your right leading up to a stadium and big buildings. This is the Ludzidzini Royal Residence, where the Reed Dance or Umhlanga takes place. The Reed Dance is an event where the young unmarried women of Swaziland gather reeds for the queen and march in their tens of thousands to the Queen’s Residence to deliver the bundles. This usually takes place in August and is often when the king chooses a potential wife. Sadly you are not allowed into the Royal Residence.
A little further on you come to the MR27 turn-off to Malandela’s, with Mahlanya Fresh Produce Market on your left. If you are feeling adventurous, buy a freshly cooked, slightly charred mealie, or stick to some of Swaziland’s excellent fruit. And if you drive around the back of the market you will find a group of metalworkers making everything you can imagine out of tin. I was looking for a bread bin with a lid, and Arson, one of the craftsmen, showed me his wares. I could have bought a huge water tank, a chicken feeder or even an enema funnel. However, I stuck to my bread bin with its perfectly fitted lid.
Stop 3 – Madly Malandela’s
On your right, about one kilometre along the MR27, is Malandela’s complex. This has to be seen to be believed and is worth a visit even if you do nothing else in the Malkerns Valley. Surrounded by lush sugar cane, it is built largely out of mud, the flowing walls housing a theatre and events centre, an art gallery, a guest lodge and restaurant, a fabulous weaving project and other small shops.
The late Peter and Jenny Thorne came here to farm pineapples and gladioli in the 1960s, and their son Sholto continues to farm. Jenny started up a few farm stalls selling products home-made by Swazi women, and Malandela’s was born. Their four children have continued to build and create projects.
Gone Rural is the brainchild of Jenny, who wanted to help empower the Swazi women by getting them to weave baskets to order. With the help of UK designer Philippa Thorne, who is married to Sholto, the creations are world class and are now sold in top-end shops in London, New York and Tokyo. Gone Rural also created the Gone Rural boMake Foundation, which helps Swazi families in the area with healthcare, education and women’s empowerment. The baskets, bowls and placemats are unusual and exquisitely woven and I felt like a kid in a sweet shop trying to decide what to buy.
Apart from the shop, you can also visit the workshop at the Malandela’s Centre, where the special lutinzi grass is dyed and dried and the products are brought in from women all over the country to be assessed.
Gone Rural www.goneruralswazi.com Open 09h00-17h00 daily
House on Fire is the vision of Jiggs, another of the Thorne sons. “My parents used to have wild parties on the farm when we were kids and I always knew I wanted to build a place where I could have concerts and events,” says Jiggs. He studied politics and drama in KwaZulu-Natal and then returned to Malandela’s to build. The name House on Fire comes from a song, fitting for a place that’s much like a ‘fantasyscape’, where every corner has some interesting piece of art, chandelier or bench. The heart of the complex is an Afro-Shakespearian theatre complete with a king’s box, queen’s box and an angel’s box for viewing. There is a Sky Bar that buzzes when a big event is on, and a stage that looks out over the fields. The design is based on symbols and icons from across the world, so expect to see a quote from the Bible next to a star sign or infinity symbol. The idea is to create tolerance, understanding and respect.
There is a soapstone piazza where sculptors are making a life-size merry-go-round complete with horses, and Jiggs says he has many more carvings planned. Although artwork is everywhere in this House on Fire, there is also a gallery that exhibits fascinating pieces such as huge thrones, funny stone Lego men, and soapstone and wooden angels.
I wandered through this incredible building at least four times and kept finding new areas, strange pieces of art and convoluted stairways, and I still don’t think I’ve seen it all. But I will return for the famous annual Bushfire Festival in May, which brings musicians and performers worldwide to a three-day spectacle that sounds like it’s not to be missed.
House on Fire +268 2528 2110
Bushfire Festival 29-31 May 2015
Malandela’s Bed and Breakfast and Farmhouse Restaurant is set in indigenous gardens that show off the best of Swaziland’s botanical treasures. The restaurant, with its thick mud walls, has a large fireplace and a vine-covered pergola and is a great place to eat whatever the weather. The view looks over fields to the blue hills beyond, with the House on Fire an interesting addition to the side. The salads are superb, with fresh homegrown ingredients, and excellent bread is baked daily.
The guest house has been decorated with Gone Rural weaving and has a simple African feel, but with a touch of luxury. The staff will do everything they can to make you feel welcome, and the peaceful gardens with abundant bird life make this a gentle rural stay.
Malandela’s Bed and Breakfast
Malandela’s Farmhouse Restaurant +268 2528 3115
Open daily 10h00-21h00
Zogg’s Gift Shop and Baobab Batik are like brightly coloured jewels in the Malandela’s Complex. Zogg’s uses tin from the market, but makes a huge range of products from dustbins to flowerpots to watering cans, and then paints them in wonderful patterns and colours.
Baobab Batik uses this centre as an outlet but I would rather pop in further down the road to the actual workshop.
Zogg’s +268 7605 5015.
Open 09h00-17h00 daily
All Out Africa was started by yet another Thorne brother, Roland. He organises tours, but his main interest is running work programmes for volunteer, gap-year students in Southern Africa. He chooses particular projects and his aim is to give an educational experience to overseas students and visitors, and provide sustainable answers to projects in Southern Africa. Students in the programme work in conservation, wildlife and education.
All Out Africa
Stop 4-Baobab Batik Under African Skies
A few kilometres from Malandela’s is the turnoff to Vickery Seedlings and Baobab Batik Under African Skies. When I drove up to the workshop the fabrics were flapping gaily on the washing line on the edge of the sugar-cane fields.
Els Hooft, a Dutch woman, started this business over 20 years ago and has combined the Indonesian craft of batik with Swazi designs. Someone will happily take you on a tour of this small workshop, which produces a startling range of items, and you can see the process from design to waxing and dying.
Stop 5 – A Thousand Flowers and a Candle Maker
Continue to the T-junction and turn left onto the MR18. Look out for Swazi Candles Craft Centre – there are a number of different craft places here and Sambane Café is a good coffee stop, but the main attraction is Swazi Candles.
There is also an outdoor market of local Swazi crafts. Look for the woodcarvers around the back – they are a marvel to watch.
Swazi Candles co-owner Tony Marshak and his wife, Mo, left Joburg after studying art and travelled the world looking for somewhere to live.
In San Francisco they learnt the art of candle making using the millefiore (thousand flowers) technique that Italian glassmakers had learnt hundreds of years before. And then they ended up in Swaziland.
Looking at the candles, I can’t believe the delicate, tiny designs that are moulded onto white candles and which glow brightly as the candle burns. If you want to see how this is done, ask Tony to take you to their Matsapha factory, managed by his partner Bernard Abramowitz, where you can see the wax being dyed and melted into large flat leaves that are then moulded into designs and ‘pulled’ through machines to make them smaller and more delicate. These are then sliced and hand-moulded onto candles.
Some products, like an owl candle, can go through up to 25 steps, one for each part of the body. The craftsmanship is quite something to watch.
The Swazi Candles shop is like being on the inside of a lit millefiore candle. It glows like a jewel and there are hundreds of different designs and shapes, from white artichokes (my favourite) to leopard print to blue giraffe.
Swazi Candles +268 2528 3219
If you want to tour the factory you must book in advance.
Swazi Sense Natural Soap is inside the Swazi Candles Shop, where the translucent soaps and accompanying scent again have me feeling like a kid trying to choose candy from a full jar. They are hand-made with natural oils and herbal extracts and it’s hard to decide whether to choose one colour or scent. Tony describes them as “soft for the skin and good for the soul”.
Rosecraft uses mohair, bamboo and cotton to weave blankets, scarves and table runners. Started by a knitwear designer from the UK, it is renowned for fine weaving.
Rosecraft +268 2550 4384
Amarasti is tucked away behind the Sambane Coffee Shoppe so don’t miss it. They train rural women to sew, bead and embroider, and produce a wide range of unusual appliqued bags, linen and embroidery. It’s guaranteed that you won’t walk out of there without a new bag on your arm.
Amarasti +268 7637 1136
Sambane Coffee Shoppe +268 2528 3466
At the end of your Malkerns Meander (and if you’re anything like me) you’ll be returning home loaded with special goodies. But what impressed me most was how well the international skills and designs brought to Swaziland have melded with Swazi crafting skills and talent.
I love to think that somewhere in a European home people are eating off placemats made of lutinzi grass that grew in Swaziland. And that the candles burning at far-off tables were moulded by African fingers.
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