Little Elephant Craft Market – The Ndebele Experience

04 December 2015 by Katy La Grange

When it comes to buying all things Ndebele, Little Elephant Craft Market situated next to the Midway Inn on Cowen Ntuli Street, Middelburg is the place to go. This beautifully designed collection of shops is home to a range of talented cultural artisans making everything from beaded traditional dress to Ndebele dolls, model houses and beautiful African bags.

The first thing you notice at Little Elephant is the painted house of Gogo (Grandmother) Matha Rankwe. Beautifully decorated in the distinctive Ndebele geometric design that is instantly recognisable, it is impossible not to be drawn to this house. 

The painting of homesteads is quintessentially Ndebele and can be traced back to when the original tribe split from the Nguni people of KwaZulu Natal and became their own Ndebele tribe. Although the artwork back then was more muted, as natural pigments like fire ash (black), stone (white) and cows manure (yellow/brown) were used. In more recent years Western and Indian pigments have transformed Ndebele homes in to the brightly painted symbols of the culture we see today. 

While each house design differs as it is done by the woman of the house who draws upon her own experiences and those passed down to her by her mother and grandmother. Certain common elements, like the Ndebele Flower a symbol of fertility and the razor blade that has such an important role in head shaving and everyday Ndebele life, remains common to almost every design.

The beautifully painted outside of Gogo Matha’s home is matched on the inside by a multitude of decorative handmade Ndebele items. Traditional outfits adorn Ndebele mannequins, beaded bracelets, key ring holders, headbands and even ties adorn the walls. The iconic Ndebele dolls decked out in traditional dress that resembles different ages in the culture are lined up like soldiers on parade.

With a smile just as bright as the beautiful beaded necklace she works on, Gogo Matha explains that if anything Ndebele beadwork is becoming more important in their culture. As more Ndebele’s are moving out of the rural communities and into the cities, so can no longer paint their homes the way they used to. Instead they are using beading a substitute to connect with and showcase their cultural heritage. 

When asked whether the youth of today are as passionate about their cultural heritage as her generation, Gogo Matha answers yes with pride. Although she does worry that with the additional pressures of getting an education and finding city jobs the youth of today simply don’t have the time to learn about beading and making the traditional garments. Her fear is that these skills and traditions will die with her generation unless enough people are willing to pick them up. Just looking around at the brightly coloured intricate bead work and beautiful stitched Ndebele dolls it would be an awful tragedy if these skills were lost. 

For a fee of R200, Gogo Matha will transform you into an Ndebele and explain the various aspects of the traditional dress. This is an experience I would highly recommend, as not only do you get to look like a beautifully colourful Ndebele for a few minutes. You also develop a great respect for the Ndebele women who wear these costumes day in, day out. As the heavy isigolwane (beaded rings) and idzilla (metal rings) that go round your ankles, waist, arms and neck can weigh up to 25kg! Gogo Matha assured me that Ndebele woman can run in them, I am in awe as I was lucky to walk outside to get a photo next to the house!

Each item, from the ornate beaded headbands, to the beautiful blanket and symbolic apron has its own meaning. A lot is worn out of respect to one’s husband, as only married woman wear the blanket, leg and arm rings and neck bands. These have a similar symbolic meaning as a wedding band. Although some stories say the chunky bands are to symbolise rolls of fat, as larger framed women are seen as more desirable in the Ndebele culture. The authenticity of this explanation however is questionable.  Another major difference between the traditional dress of a married and unmarried woman is the size of the apron and the use of a blanket to cover the chest. Unmarried woman are typically bare chested and have only small tassel aprons covering their fronts. Married women get to wear the colourful blankets people identify with the Ndebele and wear a much larger apron with a leather skirt covering their bottoms. 

Being able to dress in the traditional Ndebele costumes, to experience how it feels and ask questions about each part allows you to develop a connection with a culture that in some ways is hugely different to your own and in other ways has striking similarities. It’s definitely an experience I would consider it to be one of the Top Ten things you need to try when visiting the Cultural Heartlands.

What makes Little Elephant different to most African souvenir shops is that their products were never intended for the tourist market. In fact the majority of what is made here is brought by Ndebele people for ceremonial occasions, heritage celebrations and simply to enjoy their culture. This provides a level of authenticity that you seldom get when buying ‘traditional souvenirs’.


Find Little Elephant Craft Market at the following GPS Coordinates: -25.775237, 29.494621, or for more information contact Middelburg Tourism Information Centre:  reservations@middelburg.com | +27 (0)13 243 2253