If you are overlanding from Johannesburg to Limpopo, the first town you will come across is the capital city of the province, Polokwane. It is easy to be put off by the uncleanliness of this city. Fortunately, you don’t have to look hard or too far to find beautiful and interesting places. One such place is Bakone Malapa, an ancient village that has been remodeled into an open-air museum.
I had the pleasure of being guided around the village by a rock-star of a woman named Gertrude Kgwale. She took me through the history of the Pedi people, particularly those of the Matlala tribe. It was this tribe that occupied the village over two-hundred-years ago. Their totem was Bakone Malapa, hence the name of the museum.
The tools of the ancient ones
Before Gertrude took me around the village, she showed me some cooking utensils and other tools that were used by the Bakone Malapa people in the olden days. These included clay pots which were mostly used to cook porridge, fetch water, store milk or traditional beer.
For me this bit wasn’t necessarily mind-blowing — we still use clay pots in the remote areas of South Africa — for drinking mqombothi (traditional beer) during traditional ceremonies.
What was new to me though, was the cow dung pot that comes in all shapes, sizes and stunning colour patterns. This kind of pot was used to store seeds and morogo (dried spinach). After it was stuffed with these goodies, the Matlala people would then dig a hole in the middle of the kraal and bury these pots to preserve the food.
A basket fit for kings and queens
Gertrude showed me two massive grass baskets. The purpose of these baskets was for storing grains, and doubled up as coffins for burying kings, queens and rich people. After the deceased was cleaned up by their loved ones, they would be put in a foetal position and shoved into the basket.
So, what happened to the poor then? You ask.They were rolled up in animal skins and buried. It was common practice to slaughter a heifer if the deceased is female or a bull for males.
Modern and ancient village
The modern village is one that has corrugated roofs, windows and many other foreign features that the villagers adopted from the westerners upon their arrival in Africa. Even so, the fencing, walls and benches are still made of mud and the floors are cleaned with cow dung. In this homestead, I saw a lone plant (bushmen poison) situated right at the corner of the mud fencing. It is a plant credited with connecting the Bakone Malapa to their ancestors, in turn the ancestors connected them to God.
The man cave
In the olden days men and women didn’t hang out together as we do today. Men spent their days in lapas crafting wooden stools, weaving winowwing baskets (a traditional sieve). Perhaps, their favourite past time was making weapons out of the horns of the animals they hunted, like the gemsbok and kudu. They also fashioned various clothing items out of animal skin. Only the king could wear a hat made of animal skin.
The ancient village
The ancient village is not like anything I’ve ever seen. The structures are incredibly small, the doors are mere holes that would force you to wiggle in undignified ways to get in. Gertrude tells me that the purpose of making the doors small was to protect the dwellers from lions. It also gave them an upper hand against enemies that tried to ambush them. The intruder would be clubbed over the head as he tried to wiggle into the hut.
One of the huts had three doors. This was reserved for the queen. She slept in the middle and her guards slept on the sides. The other lapas were reserved for the young wives, and the children of the king.
I noticed a secluded hut fenced with reeds, this hut is the size of the queen’s hut, but with just one door. This kind of structure was built for a young woman who fell pregnant out of wedlock. Although, she stayed close to her family and friends, the fencing secluded them and she wasn’t allowed to venture beyond fencing. I can only wonder what the punishment of the man involved was, seeing that it takes two to tango.