13 December 2013 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

From Acornhoek, with love

A new arts and crafts route in Acornhoek and Bushbuckridge will introduce you to some skilled entrepreneurs and make it easier than ever to navigate this bustling area on the western edge of the Kruger National Park.

William Molwena, an artist working in Acornhoek near Hoedspruit

As we shooed away some cattle to park in the shade of a large mango tree, a smiling woman came out from behind an ornate steel gate to greet us. She ushered us into her yard and then into her house – but only after we'd spent some time admiring the beautiful gate, which she explained was made by someone in her village.

Mrs Ndlovu is one of dozens of people featured in a new guide to Acornhoek and Bushbuckridge. Developed at the MRC/Wits Rural Agincourt Unit by volunteer Alex Scholtz, the guide consists of a website and app that list names, contact numbers and GPS waypoints for crafters, artists and places to eat in the area. Alex spent a year getting to know the creative, enterprising people she features in the guide and realised that although making and selling arts and crafts is a source of income for them, unmarked roads can make it difficult for visitors to find these entrepreneurs.

Mrs Ndlovu sells wonder boxes (heat-retention cookers) that she makes herself, along with beaded clothing for traditional ceremonies and backpacks she sews from heavy-duty shade cloth. As one of the dozens of entrepreneurs featured in the guide, she was happy to have us come into her home and look through her work, which she sells mainly to other Acornhoek residents, at very, very reasonable prices.

In fact, most of the people featured produce their goods for local customers – residents, neighbours and family members. The crafters work with ‘traditional’ materials such as beads, leather, wood, clay and grass. They also use lots of other materials, like copper wire, plastic bags, glass, old tyres and bottle tops. The goods, which include clothing, jewellery and funky decorative items, are infused with the area’s contemporary culture, reflecting the modern identities of Acornhoek’s residents, their innovation and their rich cultural diversity.

Street life is loud and colourful and while the guide indicates where the craft stops are, you’ll discover so much more along the way.

The guide means that people like me, who are visiting the area but don't know it well, can now find people like Mrs Ndlovu or Mrs Chiloane, who we visited next. At her home, we found beautifully crafted mats made from reeds covered with paper wrappers from Chappies (a kind of bubble gum). She also makes jewellery from gorgeously coloured beads as well as seeds she gathers and dyes in various shades of pink, purple and blue.

At the Acornhoek market, I found shoes made from old car tyres and colourful bags made from plastic, and later, at Mapusha Weavers, toys made from fabric and exquisite hand-woven mats in a range of subtle hues. The photographs provided in the guide help you identify each trader and what they sell, but you'll meet many other people along the way.

If you want to be certain of meeting a specific crafter, phone them first as they may be out selling their goods somewhere else – we went to visit artist and sculptor Peter Mgwena, and instead found William Molwena, who has produced some gorgeous pictures of Nelson Mandela, which are particularly poignant now. We’ll see Peter next time.

Wherever you end up and whoever you meet, the fun of finding your way over unpaved streets and the intimacy of visiting people’s homes is something really special. There is more than just arts and crafts on the route too – we found a wonderful Ethiopian restaurant and stopped for some delicious flame-grilled chicken at Anjo's. Street life is loud and colourful, and while the guide indicates where the craft stops are, you’ll discover so much more along the way.

I got all my Christmas shopping done and look forward to signing each card, 'From Acornhoek, with love.' I can't wait to visit again.

Additional info

If you don’t speak Shangaan, you may want to organise a translator to join you – you can contact Rhian Twine at the MRC/Wits Rural Agincourt Unit for advice on this. Note that Bing Maps handles directions using GPS coordinates a little better than Google Maps does, but either way, you should find your way around without too much trouble. You can download the app – 3G coverage from Vodacom is good in the area (MTN is average, Cell C coverage is pretty poor).

Note that the reason for describing this guide on the website as 'moderately difficult' has to do with both roads and language. Expect potholes, especially after the summer rain, and corrugated dirt and gravel roads with lots of domestic animals wandering around freely.

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