Mmathepho’s Pots of gold
by Kebonyekgotla Baleseng
Keabetswe Kanasi of Ramotswa - affectionately referred to as Mmatshepho - moulds clay pots amidst beliefs short of proof. On a diary session with her, she explains that one rule reserved for visitors suggests washing of hands in herbal ingredients is necessary before touching her clay. By assumption, that prevents contamination of her products though she is uncertain of what might happen if the rule is broken. “It’s a taboo,” she says.
She reveals that people have touched her pots without herbal purification many times but she remains unaware of anything gone wrong as a result. It has, however, aroused her suspicions that disobedience might have brought her bad luck because her pots are not selling as she would wish.
“It’s very hard; I’d have given up but now it would be like folding your arms to sit there and watch people work,” she reveals.
But, with many visitors of different calibre and beliefs, Mmatshepho often gets stuck in a dilemma. She doesn't feel right dedicating a moment to nagging people with traditional belief that neither shows additional value nor signs of sinking her efforts.
“To tell everyone to wash their hands in herbs every time they come here might chase them away for good,” she suspects. But after all it’s a tradition that she found and can’t change easily.
Making clay pots is a task that needs passion and will, followed by the physical involvement in crafting. The stages range from collecting clay, pounding, sieving, and mixing the finest particles with chemical ingredients of Moraga. That is followed by moulding, drying, oiling, heating, and decorating.
The first stage – collecting clay – has yet another mystery to observe. The clay is found near the river and therefore to collect it, someone skilled to locate the digging area should be present.
“You don't just show up, dig and load. It’s a taboo…something bad might happen to you,” Mmatshepho has learnt. Therefore, she acquires the presence of the granny who taught her moulding.
“If the old woman can’t make it, her daughter comes in her place,” she says.
With over six years of collecting clay, there has never been any voodoo ceremony on any collecting day. But Mmatshepho won’t undermine custom by pretending the granny is only out to run the digging areas because she also survives on moulding pots. In fact, they have experienced heavy rainfalls confined only to a small radius of their collecting site; a situation that she can’t explain but is convinced was a story relating something was done wrong.
“It was strange but I don’t know where we had erred,” she says.
The other rule of collecting is to avoid indulging in sexual acts two days before the digging spree.
Moulding pots is Mmatshepho’s source of living. She has a studio in Thapong Visual Art Centre where she exhibits her works. Most of her materials and tools are of Tswana origins. Special muddy clay (letsopa) that gleams when put before sunlight is mixed with Moraga, a reddish soil soaked in water to extract the chemical ingredients. According to her knowledge, the mixture makes strong pots.
Drying up of pots is done through the sun rays and decorating is done using a twig or patsana. The pots are smeared with fats from sheep tail then burnt in firewood in a whole dug on the ground. On the moulding process, the instrument used to make the surface smooth is a rock or small bone called 'thitelo', a smoother.
When all is done, labelling comes next. The huge sized pots are called 'thatch'. That is followed by 'tsagana' and its bigger sibling, ‘tsaga’. Biggest pots are usually used for storing water or traditional brew at weddings. The rest, especially with holes to allow water drainage, are used for ornamental reasons, like placing blooms. Some pots are moulded specially for cooking.
Though she is happily moulding, selling is not good enough. Her advertising is dependent on exhibitions.
Sometimes she takes her works to nearby villages and she says she never comes back empty handed.