Rows of dolls bedecked with beads line the shelves of the stall in Johannesburg city center. They’re dressed in the traditional rainbow colors of South Africa’s Ndebele people, the ethnic group to which artist Thenjiwe Nkogatsi belongs. Golden bands constrict the doll’s necks and silver rings their legs. Red eyes and blue-beaded breasts protrude at passers-by.
These are Ndebele dolls, intergalactic style, for Nkogatsi is no imitator.
“I must innovate. That’s what drives me,” says the young woman from a small village in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province.
And so she doesn’t try to reproduce reality as other doll makers do; rather she builds figures designed to “explode” people’s imaginations. Her dolls take on an abstract, surreal, sometimes even frightening appearance.
“I don’t like my dolls to look real,” Nkogatsi says. “I like them to look like they come from space! The only part where I stick fast to tradition is in the making of their blankets.”
The Ndebele of South Africa wrap themselves in multicolored fabric to keep warm on the cold Mpumalanga highlands, much like the Maasai of Kenya and the Basotho of Lesotho.
Besides their attractive traditional dress, South Africa’s Ndebele are respected for being among the continent’s best bead workers.
‘I’ve got beaded everything!’
Nkogatsi says she “eats and breathes” beads.
“I don’t have any hobbies, except maybe to read here when things are quiet. And even then, I read about beads! We have to work every day to survive, and it takes a long time to make things out of these thousands of tiny beads,” she explains, rummaging through drawers filled to the brim with beads.
Nkogatsi is a committed Christian, and she says the only time she leaves the market is every Wednesday afternoon to attend church.
“I don’t have time for myself because if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” she says.
Nkogatsi learned her skill from her mother and grandmother.
“My mother started selling here on this street before a formal market was built. We used to sit in the street, come rain or shine,” she recalls. “Now, the municipality has given us a formal space here, and I sell beaded cups, beaded handbags, beaded cell phone holders. I’ve got beaded everything!”
But “beaded everything” was never Nkogatsi’s true desire. When she was a young girl, she wanted to be a doctor.
“That was my dream, to help others. I wanted to make the world a better place. I wanted to be God’s medical instrument. I wanted to stand back and say, ‘Wow! I treated that person and now he or she is well!’”
But poverty crumbled Nkogatsi’s dream to dust.
‘This is now my surgery!’
“I was good at school, but I didn’t…finish secondary school because I had to help my mum to do the beadwork and to take the younger ones, my siblings, to school,” she says.
Now, instead of medicine, Nkogatsi’s craft is beadwork. Instead of stethoscopes and scalpels as her instruments, her life is dominated by the beads she refers to as “endless little balls.”
“This is now my surgery!” Nkogatsi says, surveying her store, pools of luminescent beads decorating tables and corners.
It’s her faith, she says, that prevents her from “sinking” into self-pity.
“If you are a Christian, you know God…. So, when things get hard, I kneel down and pray. Sometimes, the prayers are rewarded.” Nkogatsi smiles.
Companies sometimes approach her to make their business signs out of beads.
“You have to think, be creative. Sometimes you do the first sample, and it doesn’t come out (well), so you do the second sample until it comes out (well),” she explains, adding though that even “big and rich” corporations insist on paying “peanuts” for her services.
“Beads are expensive. But if we raise prices, no more business,” she laments. “So we are stuck. So the customers, they exploit us.”
However, Nkogatsi says she also regularly deals with “very good people.”
“Some tourists and firms, they appreciate the work. They say, ‘No, this is hard work, and beads are expensive.’ They buy nicely. Even sometimes I offer them discount, but they say, ‘No, no, no….’ and insist on paying the full price.”
‘Black on black racism’
Nkogatsi is one of the few South African traders on the streets of Johannesburg who openly acknowledge that the influx of artists from across Africa in recent years has added value to local markets.
“We are all one,” she says. “That’s why we call these African markets now. They are not called ‘South African craft markets’ anymore. So all Africans, no matter where they’re from, are welcome here.”
But some South Africans aren’t as welcoming as Nkogatsi. They insultingly refer to their fellow Africans as makwerekwere – “outsiders” – and accuse them of “stealing” South African jobs and of being criminals. Just over a year ago, mobs of South Africans rampaged through the streets in areas across the nation, killing scores of foreign-born Africans. Tension is still palpable, with NGOs warning that the violence against foreigners could flare up again at any time.
Nkogatsi says she’s “ashamed” of her compatriots for their discrimination, especially that directed against Zimbabweans.
“My grandmother was in exile in Zimbabwe, with many other South Africans (during apartheid),” she explains. “But the Zimbabweans didn’t attack them. They made them feel at home. I feel very sad because it’s not the Zimbabweans’ fault that they are here. It’s the fault of their president (Robert Mugabe). It’s the (political and economic) situation (in Zimbabwe) that is forcing them to come here.”
She insists that different languages, customs, religion and so on should “never” be used as excuses for anti-foreigner sentiment.
“Can you imagine, some South Africans attacked people simply because they had blacker skin,” Nkogatsi says, shaking her head. “It’s black on black racism.”
These Africans of darker hue, she insists, are “still human; (they’ve) got the same heart that I have!”
Nkogatsi says violence against foreigners in South Africa is continuing, albeit on a smaller scale.
“Sometimes we find innocent children being the victims. Some children die for nothing. It’s really, really painful,” she says.
Sparkle and warmth
Speaking about her future, Nkogatsi says, “Number one, I’d like to know God more and more. Number two, I’d like there to be a lot of business ahead because of the 2010 (Soccer) World Cup (in South Africa). And not only for me. For everyone. Life is not only about you and your family. Me, I am one of the fortunate few.”
Nkogatsi doesn’t have much money. Yet she often buys food to distribute among people who are even poorer than she is.
“There are many motherless homes in South Africa. There are many refugee camps in South Africa. There are many people – street kids – in hospital,” she says. “I sometimes visit these places, to help where I can.”
“Maybe I am still God’s medical instrument, even though I am not a doctor,” she says, before once again settling down to weave her beads into complex patterns.
With her skillful handiwork, the young South African gives color and sparkle to the world. With her warmth, Nkogatsi brings light to some of the dark corners of Johannesburg.