The women who thrive on pot luck

2011-04-08 15:03

The village of Motsware in the heart of Venda is quiet, save for the occasional sound of a child’s laughter.

There is also the sound of the heat, which feels alive as it hits your skin. But, the villagers do not seem ­bothered by the heat. In fact, a small group of women is gathered around a large bonfire which they constantly feed.

But they’re not cooking food. They’re baking pots which will eventually put food on their tables.

These women are engaging in the centuries-old tradition of ­making decorative pots, all of which would look at home displayed in an ­interior-­decor store.

The women who take part in the Mokondeni Pottery Project in the village are profiting from the traditional skills they learnt from their mothers.

The small community enterprise feeds more than 25 families by ­doing business with Woolworths.

Most of the women have up to eight children. There are very few job ­opportunities for themselves or their husbands.

“Pottery has been a tradition in our village for a long time,” says Alina Mudau, one of the founders of the project. “I learnt it from my mother, who learnt from her mother and so forth. It’s a skill that has long been used to put food on the table by trading for other goods.”

The Mokondeni Project started in 1921 and today, the fifth generation women of the village are still making the pots exactly the same way their mothers did.

To watch them work is a revelation, especially for anyone spoilt by today’s technology. There is no potter’s wheel, no ­electricity or any ­machinery used in the production process.

The women are gathered in one hut and sit on the floor in a circle.

One of them puts down a sack full of semi-wet clay collected from the local riverbed.

They take the clay and while they merrily chat about this and that, they knead the clay until it starts taking on the shape of a pot.

Within about 45 minutes, you can already see the shape and size of the pot.

“We usually make a pot according to what we feel like that day. We don’t plan that today we’ll make a particular shape unless it has been ordered by the store,” says Sarah Setapyana.

Setapyana, who was was born and bred in this village, says she has put all five of her children through school with money made from the pots.

“My eldest daughter went to the University of Venda in ­Thohoyandou and is now a social worker in Gauteng. I paid for all her fees from what we have ­always known how to make in the village,” she says.

Setapyana says this while she completes her pot and starts drawing designs onto it.

The paint they use is red soil mixed with water, also from the village.

The following day will be dedicated to finishing off the bottom part of the pots as they have to be allowed to dry overnight.

In the meantime, the women gather the pots made two weeks before which are now ready to be baked.

“Sometimes when we get large orders, we have to spend more money on buying firewood since we don’t have time to chop it ourselves,” adds Setapyana.

Indeed, their community – much like its Venda culture – is patriarchal and women are still looked upon as caretakers of the home, even though they are the main breadwinners.

“We built a communal hut where we could make these pots. Unfortunately the chief decided that we had to do this while we also worked at home,” says the project’s appointed spokesperson, Perseverance Ramatshekisa.

Ramatshekisa says an order of about 2 000 pots a month, which is what Woolworths orders, yields a profit of approximately R20 000. This goes to the village communal bank account where it is divided among the participants.

Whether this project will be able to sustain the village for much longer, remains to be seen.

Firstly, the village is off the ­beaten track, so it is doubtful that there’ll be an influx of ­tourists who will buy the pots
as souvenirs.

Secondly, the younger generation does not show any desire to learn this craft from their mothers. As a result this generation might end up being the last to make the pots.

For now though the women working there continue to put their sweat into this labour of love to care for their families.

So, if you should buy one or more of these pretty pots, look ­underneath to see the signature of the Motsware woman who infused love and labour into your new ­acquisition.


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