A magical House on Fire

2011-05-21 08:02

When a man called Peter Thorne left Zimbabwe in the mid-1960s to settle in Swaziland, he had no idea that his name would still be on the lips of tourists more than 40 years after his death and that the Swati farm he eventually bought from his employers would draw thousands of musical migrants from across the globe into the kingdom each year.

The reason? A four-year-old music festival whose fame has literally spread like bushfire.

Although the yearly Bush Fire Music Festival may be the reason that many travellers make their way to the Ezulwini Valley, it is the farm on which the festival takes place that is the star of the show.

The creative space on the farm is called Malandela’s Complex, and is named after the late patriarch of the farm, Thorne.

Thorne was nicknamed Malandela – a Swati word meaning “scout” – by the locals when he arrived in the country because he would walk everywhere – he had no car.

The farm is now owned and managed by the Thorne siblings.

There’s Mjigaphansi, known as Jiggs (40), Sholto (36), Roland (33) and their only sister, Nandi (23).

The farm produces pineapples, flowers, cotton, vegetables and now sugar cane.

And that is the magic of the farm – its past, present and future embody a philosophy of change.

In the same sense, the whole complex has been changing over time so that it has become a “fantasyscape”, says Jiggs, the creative director of Malandela’s Complex.

Jiggs says that the purpose of Malandela’s Complex is to be an all-inclusive environment where people can eat, sleep and be entertained.

There’s the agricultural aspect of the farm, then there’s a restaurant, a bed and breakfast, the House on Fire performance venue and a handicraft business.

The Gone Rural handicraft business started out as a jam and tishweshwe-cloth road stall run by the family matriarch, Jennifer Thorne, 32 years ago. It now employs 700 local women who work part- or full-time, according to their preference.

Each year, Gone Rural buys the waxy Lutindzi grass harvested by women from the area for thatch and then employs the women to make handicrafts such as baskets, mats and displays.

Sibongile Zwane (36) of Mahlanya is one of the full-time weavers and artists of Gone Rural.

A plump woman with a green Baby Phat hoodie and a tishweshwe-cloth skirt, she sits weaving in the store.

Her ready smile when she talks about her job attests to her love for it.

She says with satisfaction: “I get money. I don’t beg. It helps the kids. I work sitting down.”

The business has a board of directors comprising 13 women who meet three times a year to advise on the strategic direction of the business for the coming year.

One of the women is selected by the community to represent them on the board.

The first building in the compound is Malandela’s Restaurant and the architecture fits the philosophy of the man it’s named after.

“My father was very interested in very earthy architecture,” says Jiggs.

“All the materials had to be sourced locally. We dug out a pit to make the mud walls and then used the pit as a wine cellar. Then we used thatch for the roof.”
The restaurant offers a

farm-style menu, but does not have a particularly Swazi twist to it. In fact, a New York chef was brought in to advise on the menu.

On the night of our visit, the crowd is diverse – but largely white, perhaps because of the tourists the place attracts. But Jiggs brushes this aside, saying: “We attract a very eclectic crowd. I find it very mixed.”

Not too far from the restaurant is the theatre, which is an Afro-inspired mini model of the Globe Theatre, complete with box seats made from wood.

This is the House on Fire.

The tin roof is held up with wood and trees that share space with vibrant colourful lights that hang from floating art pieces.

A canoe housing studio lights is a souvenir from a trip to Botswana.

The stage has had the likes of Hugh Masekela, Freshlyground, The Parlotones and Ladysmith Black Mambazo treading the boards.

This year’s festival line-up boasts the sounds of South Africa’s Goldfish, Black Coffee and Gazelle; Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi; Mali’s Habib Koité; America’s Yale University Concert Band; as well as Swazi artists Bholoja and Nomzamo.
Beyond the House on Fire that houses the soul of the place is the bed and breakfast.

All eight rooms are built with mud and other earthy materials, and are decorated with crafts from the Gone
Rural workshop.

“What sets us apart from other performance venues and businesses is we are continuously creating this fantasy space,” says Jiggs.

“Many people buy into a concept, buy a space and put on a show. That’s predictable. Here, it’s an organic process. There is a sense of artistic growth that means that we can offer revellers a new artistic space year in and year out.”

Malandela probably couldn’t have imagined that travellers such as myself, even as I hit the tar on my way back to Zumaland, would be looking forward to another visit – one completely different to the first.

» This year’s Bush Fire Music Festival runs from May 27 to 29. Visit ­Bush-fire.com or book tickets at Computicket 

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