Friday, July 24, 2009

In the African village of Hamakuya, we learned about life with limited resources

The beautiful faces of Hamakuya

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD
Click on pics to enlarge them

I told a friend yesterday, the only time my brain gives me any peace is when I'm either workingon my blog, or I'm in a foreign place that's totally strange (and intriguing) to me. I like a place best when I have no idea what to expect and a lot to learn. That's one reason I yearned to go to the Venda village of Hamakuya, South Africa - a completely new place for me. It's in the Makuya region just west of northern Kruger National Park. Dr. Laurence Kruger, director of South Africa's Organization for Tropical Studies, had recommended Hamakuya - he sometimes takes students from his OTS ecology course to the village.

We'd already had a fantastic experience, twice, in the Shangaan village of Welverdiend, South Africa. I knew Hamakuya would be different. It's a different indigenous culture, with a different language. The Venda culture and language of Hamakuya are originally from Zambia, unlike South Africa's many other indigenous cultures and languages.

Ken and I weren't sure how to get to Hamakuya from Kruger Park; both options involved difficult roads unless you have a 4WD, preferably a truck. We were driving a small rental car, a VW Polo. But what the heck, we like a challenge.

Me and our hardy VW, which took everything we dished out
We decided to leave the Park via the northernmost gate, the Pafuri Gate, just a couple of miles south of Zambia and Mozambique. As soon as we left the Park, the pavement deteriorated. Women selling one or two fruits of baobab trees stood at intervals alongside the road. Presently the pavement gave way to a "natural" road of dirt and jolting rocks. We had to drive very slowly. Still, it only took about 2 hours from the Pafuri Gate to the little road that leads into the village of Hamakuya. We were in for a treat.

Hamakuya is a very small village, more like a small collection of rural homesteads. They do have a primary school and a food shop, but no other establishments that I saw, and almost no cars. Instead, we saw small donkey carts on the dirt roads, many of them driven by children. Our new friend Thuseni Sigwadi (, who manages the Tshulu Trust and lives in Hamakuya, met us at the turn-off into the village. Thuseni had arranged for us to do an overnight homestay with the family of Rosina Tshinavhe, a widow with several children.
Rosina's family compound. Standing are our translator Fhatuwani and Rosina's daughter Violet.

Rosina has three grown sons who work in Pietersburg, Jo'burg, and the nearby coal mine. Two grown daughters, Sarah and Violet, live with her, as well as a teenage son, Salani. Sarah and Violet each have a baby, and Rosina has some primary-school children, but there were so many village children on hand to welcome us, I couldn't tell which ones were Rosina's. Almost no one except the teenage son Sarani spoke English, or if they did, they kept it to themselves. We did learn a tiny bit of Venda, but not enough to ask about family connections.

Thuseni had arranged for Makuya Fhatuwani to serve as our translator during our homestay. Fhatuwani works with Thuseni, as a nature and bird guide for the Tshulu Trust. Fhatuwani is also training for a job to track poachers for South Africa National Parks. He had a lot to say about that, which will be in a later post.
Makuya Fhatuwani and Thuseni Sigwadi

The Tshulu Trust not only arranges homestays as a way to bolster the income of Hamakuyu families who need it most, but also operates a small nonprofit resort (Tshulu Camp) on the Mutale River, on the outskirts of the village. The Camp features baobab trees, ironwood groves, mopane woodland, and lots of bird species. It attracts birders, students, scientists, and tourists, and is often used for meetings or retreats, employing local people as caterers and housekeepers. More about the camp in a later post.

Husband Ken, Fhatuwani, and Salani under a baobab tree in the village. Salani was able to reach a sweet fruit for us to sample.

It so happened that the day we arrived in Hamakuya was a national holiday to honor Hector Pieterson, a martyr of the struggle against apartheid. Holidays mean traditional dancing, which was already underway when we arrived. I didn't realize at first that it was a holiday; I thought the dancing was all for us! I was a little relieved to find that was not the case. The dancing was different from Welverdiend's dancing - probably because the main dance troupe was young girls, maybe 8 to 14 years old. They had an incredible amount of energy and danced to drumbeats for a long time, wearing colorful skirts, waving orange scarves in unison, with rattles tied to their lower legs. I was entranced by the dancing.

A break in the dancing

The girl who led the line of dancing, holding her leg rattles

The leading girl wore a headdress of black bird feathers and blew the dance rhythms on a plastic police whistle. I happened to have a shiny new metal police whistle, which I gave her. She collapsed at my feet when I did (which alarmed me), until I learned that collapse is the Venda way of saying "thank you".

The homestay was everything we hoped it might be. The buildings of Rosina's home were lovely. The family lives in several small clustered buildings; most are the single-room round earthen rondavels with thatched roofs that you see all over South Africa.
Another shot of Rosina's family compound. Standing are our translator Fhatuwani, Rosina's daughter Sarah, and Rosina. The cooking pit with kettles and pots is in the center foreground.

The rondavel where Ken and I slept had a handsome black pattern painted around the base (below).
We slept on homemade mats on the rondavel floor (below), although foam mats are available for homestay guests. Floors were of dried and compacted cow dung and mud, pleasant to the feet and odor-free.

Between the buildings was an immaculate and perfectly smooth courtyard also of mud and cow dung. Below, one of Rosina's children and Rosina in the courtyard.

The cooking area (below) was a small shallow hole in the courtyard, with a tripod over a small fire.

Above, daughter Violet stirs the pap (made of corn meal or maize meal and water) constantly to prevent lumps. Rosina is wearing yellow, behind the pot.

Below, family and friends gather around the cookfire for conversation and food. Rosina's grown daughter Violet is in the brown shirt.

Below, one of Rosina's youngsters washes the family dishes. The cooking pit and its pots are in the foreground.

As homestay guests, Ken and I were brought our meals inside our rondavel. Fhatuwani and Salani often ate with us. First, Salani poured a gourd of water over our hands to clean them (Ken and Salani, below).

We ate wild greens similar to spinach, white pap (like congealed grits), and mopane worms (caterpillars) in sauce. See below.

Below, a mopane worm ready for munching, on a wad of pap in my hand. The worms were surprisingly edible, maybe even tasty. The guts had been squeezed out and they had been dried for storage, then rehydrated with the sauce.

The family's daily tasks include gathering wood for cooking - which was no big deal in Hamakuya. They have not yet run out of wood as some communities have. Ken and I went with Sarah to collect wood, and we didn't have to walk far to find the red bush willow they prefer for the cookfire (its smoke smells sweet). With a machete and an axe, she removed enough dead branches from the trees to make a substantial bundle in just a few minutes. Cutting only the dead branches maintains a healthy stock of trees, without depleting the number of living trees and branches.

Above, Sarah chopped and bundled the wood. She then coiled a towel on top of her head, and carried the bundle home in ten minutes on the top of her head - no hands!! She even doubled over laughing at Salani's jokes on the way back, and still didn't use her hands to steady the bundle!

We learned that Rosina, the head of the household, generates income by making and selling brooms and sleeping mats, as well as by hosting homestays.

Rosina making a broom.

A finished handmade broom.

Rosina's daughters Violet and Sarah made brooms too.

We all collapsed in laughter over one of my social gaffes.

Below: Rosina's mats, woven on a handmade loom, were amazing. She used aluminum cans of sand as weights during the weaving process.
Rosina at work on her handmade loom, weaving mats to sell.

A mat under construction on the loom. The foil is snack wrappers, woven into the stiff reeds for decoration.

In addition to the brooms and mats, Rosina's family also owns a few cattle and chickens, which they can sell if times are tough. Rosina's sons presumably send her a portion of their income, and I'm guessing the family receives some money from the government for the young children. It's a meager existence by Western standards. But no less joyful than my own, and in some ways probably more so. The family spends almost all their time outside, almost all their time together, almost always moving around. They cook and eat every meal together, outdoors. That alone might be enough to make me a happy camper. The living quarters, what I saw of it, was impeccably neat and clean. The only bathroom was a "long-drop" (an outhouse) across a rocky field from the house, but that didn't seem to bother anyone. The only running water was a single spigot shared with other families, 100 meters up the road. That didn't seem to bother anyone either. They had no electricity. I don't remember if they had kerosene lamps, I don't think so. We had flashlights, so wouldn't have used them anyway. We slept on a grass mat on the cow-dung floor, like everyone else, which was not a problem. I went with Rosina and others to fetch water - she carried several gallons on top of her head (no hands). I couldn't manage more than a couple of quarts without pain.

Even the kids could carry more water than I could. Me at left, Rosina at right.

I've mentioned the good things about their lifestyle, yet I could see that Rosina felt the burden of her responsibility as head of household. Among the daughters and younger children, laughter was plentiful, even though the grown daughters spend much of the day cooking pap, gathering wood, tending the livestock, gathering wild plants to eat, making brooms, taking care of babies. Yet, as a mother myself, I'm sure Rosina worries about health care, secondary schooling for her children, drought, diminishing resources, low wages, difficulty in finding work for all of them. I never saw her at rest; she was always cooking, cleaning, weaving, tending children....working.

Neither Rosina nor the daughters were much inclined to talk to us, even through the interpreter Fhatuwani. Most of what we learned was from Fhatuwani directly or from Rosina's teenage son Sarani, who attends an internet technology school and is well-acquainted with Western culture. I'm not sure why, but in Welverdiend too we found that the men were much more interested in talking to us than women were (in general, there were exceptions). I would like to understand that better. Do the men go to school longer? Know English better? Do they feel more comfortable discussing the sustainability issues that interested us? Do cultural expectations keep women quiet?

I want to go back, right now. To Hamukuya and to Welverdiend.

But that will have to wait.

If you're interested in visiting Hamakuya or a stay at Tshulu Camp, as a family or a school group or tour group, you can contact me at or contact Thuseni Sigwadi at Thuseni's phone is 072 977 6669 within South Africa; from the U.S. it's 011 27 72 977 6669. If you do go there, you're supporting a proactive community that very much needs and deserves support. Drought and a rapidly changing world have impacted their lifestyle dramatically. They need a bigger share of the world's resources, and as Westerners, we can give our travel dollars to them directly, rather than to international hotel chains.

Vha Tshimbila zwavudi (go well, good-bye in Venda)

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Rosina's daughters Violet and Sarah and their baby sons

Other sources of information on Hamakuya, Tshulu Trust, and Tshulu Camp:

Northwestern University in South Africa blog: Hamakuya and Kruger National Park

IHRE Orientation Program, Tshulu Camp, Hamakuya Village, Limpopo Province (a document from an organization that had a retreat at Tshulu Camp)

A blog post from one of Laurence Kruger's OTS students who visited Hamakuya

Kundalini Yoga Weekend at Tshulu Eco Retreat (a document from an organization that had a retreat at Tshulu Camp)

Key words:: Hamakuya Makuya Tshulu Trust Tshulu Camp Venda homestay Africa Kruger National Park cultural village tour South Africa


Melissa said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

Ewww, I don't think I could bring myself to eat an insect - wow, you are adventurous!

The pictures of the children are so adorable! What cute, chubby little faces.

Zwivhuya said...

Hamakuya is very good i love this place

Zwivhuya said...

I live at hamakuya and i now this people at the picture

Lazarus Nenungwi said...

Hamakuya is my home, the land of my ancestors, reading your blog makes me want to go home right now.

Lazarus Nenungwi said...

Hamakuya is my home, the home of my ancestors. Reading your blog makes me want to go home right now. I am glad you enjoyed your stay.

Sally Kneidel, PhD said...

Thank you Lazarus! Reading your comment makes me want to go back to Hamakuya right now too! What a lovely community. There's no place I'd rather be.

Roberto said...

Hi There, I am man who lives in Mexico, we are a broom manufacturer and I saw the picture of the broom, I am interested to see if these fibers can be sold to us. email me to

Roberto said...

Hi, I am a man who live in Mexico, I am working for a broom manufacturer company, I saw the photo of the handmade broom, I wonder if these fibers can be sold to me, please, email to me to