The business of treasure…

So you read about the ‘chance meeting’ with Matholakele Bhobosana.

We later meant with 56-year-old Ngomani Mhlolivele, the son of the woman we we looking for when we drove right up to Bhobosana’s front door.

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Ngomani Mhlolivele with his partner, Nofezile Memani, and grandchildren, Sanele, 14 months and Oluhle 4.

He has been digging up beads on the rock island next to Msikaba Mouth since he was a little boy. Though he has had other forms of work outside his village of KwaNdengane, digging up beads, broken pieces of crockery and clay pots has been his longest form of earning an income. He also currently works as a night security guard for the ten or so holiday homes along the beach.

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Beads from shipwrecks

Ngomane says he sells each regular-sized individual bead for R100. (A regular-sized bead is more or less the same size of the beans you’d use in samp and beans.) Some of the beads are broken, and these he sells for about R30. His clients are the white holiday home owners who come to Msikaba during the holidays. The broken pieces of crockery and clay pots don’t seem to have much of a market, he hasn’t sold any in a long time.

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Ngomani Mhlolivele with pottery shards

Last year Ngomani found a bell-shaped gold artifact, which he has not yet sold. He says one of the white men who own a holiday home in the area took a photograph of it which he left with Ngomani before taking the artifact away to the city to be evaluated. He brought it back on his next visit to Msikaba but did not tell him what it is valued at.

Gold bell from a shipwreck

Gold bell from a shipwreck

I asked Ngomane what he thought of the idea of having some sort of museum to keep and display all the shipwreck artifacts that he and his fellow villagers find. He was said that one of his customers had recently asked him the same question, and that he is very open to the idea, especially because it would be a legacy that he could leave to his grandchildren.

The following day we eventually met uMama ka Ngomani, a feisty old lady with a great sense of humour. Having arrived at her house at about 07:30am, I was concerned about it being too early and perhaps waking her/her household up. Our self-appointed escort, Mama Bhobosana, insisted that it wasn’t too early because people in the villages rise at the crack of dawn.

Not convinced, SK and I lagged far behind and let Bhobosana go way ahead of us, only for her to return within minutes with uMama kaNgomani in tow. She found her already working in her garden!

Born in 1937, Majajini Mhlolivele (uMama kaNgomani) has been digging up beads and other other artifacts from shipwrecks with her grandmother since she was a little girl. She couldn’t wait to get our interview over and done with so she could go and see if the tide was low enough for her to get to the rock island and start digging. She however, unlike the men, digs in the sand because it is less strenuous for her body, which is not as strong as it used to be.

uMama kaNgomani with beads she recovered from the beach

uMama kaNgomani with beads she recovered from the beach

UMama kaNgomani says she used to sell her beads for as little as R25 or R30 for an average-sized bead that is intact. I asked how she came up with that price, and she said it was not her, but her buyers who set that price. The same buyers her son Ngomani sells to.

uMama kaNgomani with recovered clay pot shards

uMama kaNgomani with recovered clay pot shards

She said uTata kaZwelinzima, a village who also digs up artifacts from shipwrecks, was motivating for all the villagers to not only increase their prices but also to agree on what prices to sell their wares. While this gave her the courage to increase her bead price to R50 a bead, and she fully agrees with uTata kaZwelinzima in principle about setting a unified price, she is all too aware that poverty and desperation is what causes people to go behind each others’ backs and sell the artifacts for cheaper. Rather go home with a little bit of money than with no money at all.

Two years ago uMama kaNgomani convinced her widowed daughter to start digging for beads in order to support her two children. We’re meeting her next.

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