WHEN Peggy Masuku began painting her house in February, her husband did not understand what she was doing to their home.
The zigzagging lines of brown, white, red and black that she had begun to weave passionately on their walls did not make sense to him.
“My husband was just complaining (saying) why have you done this to our home? This art is not perfect,” she told MTV Africa host, Bulawayo-bred presenter Kim Jayde.
While her husband might have had misgivings, Masuku had her masterpiece already fully painted on her mind. That bit of genius would come together over the next few months as from February to July she worked, alone, tirelessly to make her home a worthy winner of the My Beautiful Home Competition for the second year running.
The tools of her trade were simple enough. For paint she used soils harvested in the wilderness that surrounds her humble home. Different shades of red soil were turned into eye catching paint while maize stocks were burnt to give a darker colour.
Next year, after the upcoming rains, Masuku’s walls will be bare again, ready and waiting for her to begin work on another masterpiece.
“These are natural paints. The paints are soil that they just dug up on their own. It’s washed down by the rain. So they have to paint during spring, we have to judge them during spring and also we have to award prizes during spring. Next year they start afresh and come up with new designs. It’s not a permanent paint,” said Amagugu Heritage Centre founding director and one of the brains behind the competition, Pathisa Nyathi.
Like others who entered the competition that now draws participants from seven different wards in the district, Masuku did not have fancy paint brushes to apply her brand of “make up” to her home. Instead, homemade brushes and women’s socks were used to apply the natural “cosmetics” dug up from the rich soils of a district already famed for its beautiful scenery.
That combination of Matobo’s rich soil, simple painting tools and the undying determination of an unsung creative force in the form of Masuku delivered the winner of this year’s competition, a competition that has made homes in the seven wards in Matabeleland South province a spectacle for anyone who passes near their vicinity. The homes line up like models at a pageant, except these beauties are made of clay and they do not stomp up and down any runway to impress any judge. The adjudicators have to come to them as they stand unmoved year after year, waiting for those that admired their beauty the last time to come and do so once again.
However, before there were judges and admirers from faraway places, there was a group of women in the district who were already painting their homes in the lovely colours and shapes that the world is only now waking up to.
“In 2014 there were about 30 women in the two wards which are 16 and 17 and these women were still practising that. So we went in as a kind of survey and allowed them to point without promising them anything in terms of rewards. There were no prizes or anything of that sort so it was not a competition. There was nothing at stake,” said Amagugu Heritage Centre founder Pathisa Nyathi.
According to Nyathi, the tradition of painting homes was one that had been on the wane for a long time.
“What had always been there in terms of Ndebele culture in terms of the visual tradition is the painting of homes. But the Ndebele paint outside the house which is something that they got from the Suthu. Remember the Nguni component of the Ndebele are coming out of Zululand where their beehive huts were made from grass. So on grass you can’t execute these designs.
“So this was a Suthu tradition because the Suthu were incorporated into the Ndebele state. They called it ukucomb’ izindlu. That’s the starting point. However, like many other aspects of Ndebele culture that aspect was beginning to wane because one, things that are traditional are despised, secondly houses were being made out of cement. What you use for executing those designs is natural clay. Natural clay on cement wall doesn’t work,” he said.
The idea to make the project a full blown competition only came after Veronica Attala cycled through the area. To her astonishment, she saw homes that now seemed to be in competition with the boulders, hills and mountains of the picturesque Matopos to settle who between them was the most beautiful. Spearheaded by Attala in partnership with Amagugu, the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo, Ekhaya and traditional leadership in the district, the project rapidly took shape.
“She is like a mother to us,” said 24-year-old two-time winner of the competition Masuku about Attala. “We appreciate everything that she has done.”
Nyathi also heaped praise on Attala.
“She wanted to start there and then but I was a bit hesitant. I was supposed to travel to England and while I was away she approached Professor John Knight. When I came back we resumed that discussion. In 2014 we then went into these words and we went around adjudicating what they had produced. She is good at approaching people who were going to provide prizes. Companies like Halsteds, Trigger and Fortwell were the ones that we were with from the beginning. The sorts of prizes that they are giving are useful in the rural areas. These were things like ox-drawn ploughs, wheelbarrows and Jojo Tanks. Other companies like Arenel, National Foods, Lobels and others later came on board,” he said.
The corporate support led to an avalanche of new entries, with many showing an interest in a competition that celebrated their traditions while also giving tangible and meaningful rewards.
“When people realised that there were such lucrative prizes to be won more people started to join. There was interest in terms of the number of women participating. So the number of wards increased and now we have seven wards participating. There is another visual platform that was on the wane and that is face painting so now there’s a prize given to women that are doing that as well,” Nyathi said.
For Nyathi, a seasoned historian, the designs made by the women of the seven districts only give pointers to their tribal origins.
“Ndebele people did not have the tradition of painting inside the house. However, you have to understand the origins of the people who settled in Matopos to understand why they adopted this culture. These are the Nyubi people and these are originally from Masvingo. So they brought that tradition when they were incorporated into the Ndebele state. These people are Ndebele speakers but when you look at their architecture you see that its origins are different. So it’s a combination. Outside it’s a combination of Ndebele and Suthu culture and then inside its Shona tradition. So those are the two categories that define the competition,” he said.
According to Nyathi, while the women were raised with the tradition of painting their homes, they do not know why they draw up the shapes that they do.
“If you went to those women and asked them what those symbols and signs mean they know nothing. They just know how to make them. They don’t know the meaning of those designs is. So that’s how I came in. I was interpreting what these symbols mean exactly. I can explain the meaning of, for example, a herringbone symbol or a chevron. That’s my field of expertise,” he said.
For Masuku however, the rewards that come with winning the competition are too great to ignore. With the Southern parts experiencing a severe drought over the years, she chose a Jojo tank over a plough when time came for her to choose her prize.
“You only plough once a year. You need water almost every day,” she said.