Earthenware pottery making at risk of extinction

The practice of earthenware pottery making in Kgatleng District is at the risk of extinction because there are very few master potters in the whole district, an evaluation workshop convened Tuesday at Phuthadikobo Museum in Mochudi heard.

The workshop evaluated the one-year project on ‘Promoting Earthenware Pottery Making Skills in Kgatleng District’ which was funded at the total cost of US$68. 261. 10 by the Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Only two Master Potters - Mmapula Rapekenene and Mmasekgwa Makgatlhe – both of advanced ages, were actively practising the element in 2010, during the implementation of the Pilot Project on Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventorying at Grassroots Level. Thankfully these two have already transmitted their knowledge to their children and grandchildren.

Promoting Earthenware Pottery Making Skills in Kgatleng District project started on March 10th last year and was completed on the 9th of March 2018. A total 17 youths comprised of 16 females and one male participated in the yearlong project, during which they were imparted skills on production of these pots and the taboos associated with their making.

Under the BaKgata ba Kgafela tradition, there are typically six different pots which are used for sorghum fermentation, beer storage, water storage, cooking, fetching water and ritual pots, according to a report by Director of Phathadikobo Museum, Phemelo Rapoo, who was not present at the workshop. Mastery in earthenware pottery making skills involve the ability to make pots of different patterns, designs and styles that relate to the traditional practices and beliefs of the community.
Two of the Master Potters involved in training the 17 youth –Sarah Otukile and Tumediso Motene – shared with the evaluation workshop their experiences during the course of the training. 

Otukile’s involvement started from a curious interest as she observed her mother making pots at home but she eventually fell in love with the craft. Today she uses the craft to generate money to send her children to school and to feed her family. When the ICH project began, she was skeptical, thinking the researchers were merely “wasting our time”, but with the different training sessions she underwent, she finally realised it was meant to preserve this dying form of cultural art and indigenous knowledge that is intangible by passing it on to others

Her observation on training the 17 young people is that they had thought it was a simple and easy task, but found that to the contrary, the practical part required total commitment. To make earthenware pots, the practitioners use weathered sand stone (Moshalakane) and clay soil (letsopa) both of which are found at the foot of Phuthadikobo Hill and Tsope Hill respectively. Otukile said it is difficult to access Moshalekane because residential plots have encroached into the areas where the resources are found. The places are far and in some cases inaccessible or at worst is second-grade weathered sand stone. She recommended that places where these resources are found be protected.

Other challenges they faced included trainees’ not complying with instructions regarding taboos surrounding earthenware pottery-making. This led in some instances to failure to collect adequate raw materials because the ancestral spirits felt dishonoured. The same points were reiterated by Tumediso Motene, who also learnt the skill from her grandmother.Motene said they are experiencing difficulties sourcing letsopa, because people have since realised its value and are now beginning to sell it to them. She said at Tsope, where she had travelled with Moruti Phale of Dutch Reformed Church, she was offered a 50kg bag of Letsopa for P200. Some of the workshop participants expressed dismay at this development warning also, that commercialisation of the raw materials would lead to a gradual loss of cultural identity associated with pottery-making.

The Project Coordinator Bathusi Lesolobe spoke on the challenges and lessons learnt from the training project. He extolled the value of Master Potters and stakeholder collaboration in earthenware pottery making, saying it was highly imperative to achieve success. “There is no way we can make any recommendation without the input of practitioners,” he said.The Intangible Cultural Heritage Committees in every district are deliberately structured such that the Kgosi, who is the custodian of Morafe’s culture, is the Chairperson assisted by the District Commissioner. The district then elects who the Secretary of the Committee is. Lesolobe said they learnt valuable lessons from the project management team, which boasted requisite technical expertise from among others, Department of Mines, who taught them that sand mining becomes illegal only if it is done for commercial purposes.

As for sources of raw materials Lesolobe said they are only certain about Rratsweetswee and called for protection of areas endowed with these soil types by the Land Board. The earthenware pottery-making skill has been practiced among Bakgatla ba Kgafela community since 1871 and with the successful Pilot Project on Community Based Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventorying at Grassroots Level in 2010, the element was inscribed in 2012 on the Urgent Safeguarding List.

According to a report from the Kgatleng District Intangible Heritage Committee chaired by Kgosi Segale Linchwe, earthenware pottery making involves indigenous methods of making different earthenware pots that are classified according to their size and use.
Another challenge to the viability of the element was the unprotected cultural spaces where the soil resources used in making the pots is collected. Infrastructural developments had encroached on these resources leaving the practitioners frustrated especially in Mochudi. This is because the cultural spaces were not easily identifiable and not protected. The cultural spaces outside Mochudi were also not documented and this could lead to illegal commercial mining which would pose a threat to the element.