Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Best African Kingdom For Craft

Crafts & Culture in Swaziland

In an ages when tourist-destinations from America to Africa hawk souvenirs stamped "Made In China", the small kingdom of Swaziland impressed me with its remarkably authentic range of traditional arts and crafts. I was intrigued by the various Crafts Markets in various parts of the country.  Best of all, many are socially-responsible enterprises which provide both income and empowerment for their craftspeople from poor rural communities. This is something very exciting and exemplary, and it places Swaziland high on the list of "authentic experiences".

Bhembe Art
We had the opportunity to visit a little Craft Workshop run by a local sculptor who is well-known in the local communities for his art and social-work. The guide informed us that this man trains young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to earn a living through wood-carving and art. Their works of art and sculpture encompass both the traditional and modern whimsical, and are distributed through the established craft-markets around Swaziland.      
This is an excellent community-empowerment project that produces authentic home-grown local products from the grassroots.

Swazi Candles Craft Market
Located about 7km off the main highway in the Malkerns Valley, this intriguing spot is a must-see for visitors, who can watch the actual craftsmen being engrossed in their work. Everything here is authentically Swazi and quite enchanting. There is actually a sizable collection of internationally-admired outlets showcasing the best of what the local communities have to offer, as well as a café, rest-rooms and other amenities for the travelling visitor.

The main attraction here is Swazi Candles, where the highly decorative candles are hand-made using an ancient Italian glass-making technique called "millefiore", specially adapted for the local hard wax. With this skill, it is possible to produce a brilliant kaleidoscope of vibrant colours that infuse the wide range of Swazi-themed candles that come in all shapes and sizes. Swazi Candles are now world-famous, renowned for their quality, creativity and sheer artistry.
Rosecraft Weaving was established 40 years ago to provide skills-development and an income for rural women within Swaziland, whilst providing consumers with ethically produced products. Their fashion and home décor accessories boast the vibrant colours and traditional methods of Africa. Baobab Batik showcases a variety of designs, from the African-inspired silhouette range to the modern Mbabane collection. Handicraft here includes wall-hangings, cushion covers, bright kiddies’ products, and scarves in different sizes.
KwasiSwazi sells books, music, souvenirs, jewelry & T-shirts from Swaziland; while Amarasti has a large selection of beautiful bags in various designs and sizes, painstakingly hand-embroidered and beaded by the Amarasti women who take great pride in their work.
Among the outlets here are Sambane Gifts selling authentic Swazi souvenirs and the Sambane Cafe which serves variety of tasty light meals and hearty main meals, delicious desserts and cakes of the day, soft drinks, great coffee, and major beer-brands including Swaziland’s finest Sibebe. There is also a Children’s Play-area.
Umgololo has as wonderful selection of African artifacts, masks, sculptures, cloth and gifts while Swazi Sense purveys handmade pure soaps, and Yebo Art & Design sells paintings, prints & sculptures by top local artists as well as Swazi textiles, quirky home decor, silver jewellery, ceramic crafts and a series of contemporary art postcards.                                    
At the edge of the market is a solitary silver old Airstream caravan with a chalk-lettered sign saying Black Mamba –  this is a unusual shop selling a delicious, fiery selection of food-products including piquantly tasty sauces, pestos and pickles under the startling brand-name of Chilli Venoms®. All the sizzling goodies are made with organically-grown ingredients with no artificial additives.  There are also ‘hot’ and trendy t-shirts & accessories for sale here. A great place!
House On Fire
Also in the scenic Malkerns Valley is the whimsical House On Fire art-complex, described by one European enthusiast as being ”One of the most eclectic art-and-entertainment venues in the world! House on Fire is a fantastical playground of imagination which captivates and inspires.” Another visitor says that “House on Fire is a surreal experience of childlike naïve art, proud traditional culture, funky contemporary music, and delicious wholesome home-cooking. It reaches out and captivates all your senses in one amazing multi-sensory package”. There is an indoor art gallery, an outdoor sculpture showcase, a souvenir shop, a cafeteria, a well-stocked bar, an amphitheatre and stage for world-renowned musical performances, and – quite quixotically - a children’s playground. When we visited on a hot afternoon, the place was rather quiet, but we are told it can get very crowded and exciting at night or during major art or music events.
Ezulwini Crafts Market
After hearing a lot about the Ezulwini Craft Market and the investment pumped in by a foreign country, I was a little taken aback to see long rows of ramshackle sheds with rusty zinc roofs lining a small muddy field. Brightly-coloured traditional fabrics and gaudy art-prints brightened up the otherwise dilapidated stalls. Sadly, they seemed to all sell similar products, and hardly a seller was in sight – they were all probably sheltering from the sun or taking a nap due to the slow business.  
There was one elderly man assiduously carving at the entrance to his stall, and he gave us a toothy smile as we passed by. We did not stop due to our tight schedule, but this is one place I really wish I had spent more time at, browsing and shopping. It looked like a great place for bargains and really authentic local products, many of them handmade with love and care.

Mantenga Cultural Village
Mantenga is a small protected area of 725 hectares in a secluded corner of the Ezulwini Valley.  According to the spiel, Mantenga Cultural Village is situated in the Mantenga Nature Reserve and provides visitors with an opportunity to experience traditional Swazi culture and lifestyle in a fully interactive setting. It has 16 traditional huts, kraals and byres for cattle and goats, reed fences and other structures.Tourists can visit a Swazi family at home, learn the ancient skill of weaving a traditional beehive hut, try cooking over an open fire or grinding maize in the time-honoured way, consult the local inyanga, or diviner, learn traditional dances, or join the men as they relax around the fire with a pot of tjwala, traditional home-brewed beer.

We had a rather British lunch at the Swazi River Café or Cultural Village Restaurant, which offered an excellent view of the lush greenery and some birdlife as we had our meal. The restaurant seats 45 comfortably, or a total of 100 including the terrace. Lunch and dinner are available a la carte, or buffet for groups. A breakfast buffet is available as well as cooked breakfast a la carte. Children's meals are half price. We watched a traditional dance performance by the world-famous Mantenga Cultural Troupe for a while, and visited the spectacular Mantenga Falls before we departed. We were told that the lush greenery of Mantenga is home to a wide variety of mammals, birds, butterflies and reptiles. Visitors to Swaziland should not miss this place.

SWAZILAND is a great destination for many reasons, but the arts and crafts are certainly one of them!

(All photographs by Andrew Ponnampalam)

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