Showcasing ethnic Zimbabwean Homes
A beautiful home, a beautiful life:
Competition celebrates the art of painted huts
Ma Dube bends over and tenderly runs a hand over the crescent-shaped curve of sea-shell pink at the base of her hut. It’s twilight and the colour shimmers in the rays of the setting sun.
“This is made with soil from my home in Nkayi,” she explains.
“Nkayi?” That’s over 250km from the Matopos in southern Zimbabwe where she now lives...and where we now stand.
“Yes. I brought a 2kg bag of it back on the bus with me,” she adds nonchalantly.
We can’t help but imagine the average rural bus journey: the luggage which has to be carried from the homestead to the bus terminal many kilometers away, the babies on backs, the piles of goods tilted high on the roof of the bus. And then we imagine the love and pride that would inspire a woman to collect 2kg of the soil in a bag from her home so that she can carry it to her husband’s village 250km away.
Ma Dube shrugs her rounded shoulders. For her it makes absolute sense. No soil around here creates that exact shade of pink.
We’re left amazed and humbled, as we have been so many times during the “My Beautiful Home” competition, an initiative aimed at preserving and celebrating the traditional art of decorated huts.
We had the same feeling when, earlier in the day while touring homesteads entered in the competition, we came across Fanwell Ngwenya, or “Mfeni” with his pointed goatie and dark expressive eyes: his wife, her clothes hanging on her tall frame, showed us around their homestead where spindly floral designs decorated the foot of two of the huts. But we were drawn to a decaying homestead on the edge of the compound and ducked under a barbed wire fence to find ourselves in the eerily beautiful remains of the original family hut.
The thatch of the roof had all but caved in and incredible sunlight fell through the crevices onto Mfeni’s face as he explained that the intricately stylized paintings had been done by his wife before she fell ill with AIDS.
She was so ill, he tells us, she nearly died, and he would carry her on his back to the clinic 8km away for treatment.
“We’re both HIV positive,” he explains, “but now we’re on ARVs and getting stronger. She was able to paint for the first time this year since she fell ill. It made her very tired but she did it. Soon she’ll be able to paint like this again,” he adds, sweeping his hand over the old homestead.
We reluctantly leave the hut, filled with its ethereal light and benevolent spirits, uplifted.
We were a diverse crew of judges, specialists in our own fields and somehow complimentary; we were artists and writers, historians and architects, brought together by our shared passion for Matopos, the arts and rural Zimbabwe. Our guide, Sofaya, a tartan scarf wrapped jauntily around his head to protect it from the sun, led us through valleys and river beds and among the boulders of Matopos’ incredible granite landscape to each of the homesteads entered in the competition: 25 in all, spread out between two rural districts, sanctioned by the District Chief and various village heads, and toured and judged over three long but happy days in late August.
We watched the landscape and the art change as we traveled deeper into the hills, influenced by its surroundings, its location and the cultural background of its inhabitants.
As we drove down into the idyllic Mtsheleli Valley, and, the next week, closer to the spiritual centre of the Matopos, Njelele, the decorations become pure expressions of art and love and pride.
It was in such a place, nestled amongst a tumble of granite boulders, that we met the first place winner of the competition. Though it was our first day of judging and we still had more than half the entries to go, we already knew it was going to be hard to match it; the homestead of Sikhanyiso Ngwenya of Ward 16 immediately pervaded our senses and stole our hearts.
She spoke thoughtfully to us about the designs on her home: how she had created the delicate figurines and stylish floral work, painted against a warm apricot backdrop. How she changed the designs once a year, just after the rains. How she had been taught the art of painting by her mother, who’d learnt it from her mother before her. We left there breathless: the colours, style and design, a perfect blending of traditional with a personal artistic twist, imprinted on our minds.
Sikhanyiso, along with all the other competitors, was recognized at a vibrant priz-giving at the Amagugu Cultural Centre: there were individual certificates for every participant, merit awards for the top 10 homesteads and substantial prizes sponsored by Halstead Brothers, the Fortwell Group, ICRISAT, Kango Products, Frieight Consultants and Squeaky Clean, for the top three exteriors as well as the top three interiors.
The initiative, which organizers plan to make an annual event, was the brainchild of Veronique Attala; John Knight, professor of architecture at NUST; and renowned cultural historian, Pathisa Nyathi.
Veronique, an ardent hiker and cyclist who has lived in Zimbabwe for many years, has always had a deep love for the Matopos. Once, cycling through the area, she came across a particularly beautifully decorated hut. She wanted to ask the women of the homestead what had inspired the striking designs but the language proved a deterrent.
“That was when I realized that the huts were, in a way, speaking to me where the women could not, they were the expression of the women’s thoughts and feelings and aspirations,” she said.
It was then that she started discussing the notion of a competition to celebrate the tradition of painted huts with Knight, who has always had a keen interest in rural architecture. They linked up with Nyathi and the competition was born.
Not only was the response from villagers entering from the two designated areas remarkable, but so was that of sponsors who came forward with incredible prizes, including a plough, wheelbarrow, home implements, cookware, seeds, fertilizer, t-shirts and cash.
“What is really amazing was that this was a soley Zimbabwean initiative, for Zimbabweans and by Zimbabweans: no foreign company sponsored any of the prizes, it was all home-grown,” said Veronique.
There’s one moment for most of us who toured the homes that stands out from the many evocative moments we experienced : the moment we stood on the threshold of Sikhanyiso’s home, her neatly turned out children carefully watching us, the eldest girl sitting in the doorway of one of the huts studying for her O Level maths. The sun hadn’t yet set but the heat of the day was starting to ebb and the light was turning from blinding to mellow, setting the warm apricot walls of the hut alight.
That other-worldly tranquility that precedes sunset was starting to settle and the hills in the background were turning to deep gold. And photographer, Andre van Rooyen, his Canon 1D mark IV camera hanging at his side, took one last look around, sighed deeply and said: “We need to rename this competition. It’s more than just My Beautiful Home, this is My Beautiful Life.”
Sikhanyiso just smiled.