Where: North and west of Makhado, Limpopo Province, South Africa
Culture: A traditional tribe with well preseved traditions whose beliefs include belief in water spirits and fear of crocodiles. They are famed for their coming of age python dance.
Visit: In December for the Arts & Culture Festival – a chance to meet this secretive yet friendly tribe and try Mopani worms
Where It’s At
Limpopo is home to the Vhavenda people, an indigenous tribe who are considered to be the finest artists in South Africa. They are famous for their house painting, noisy singing, and tribal dancing. They inhabit the region of Limpopo that borders Zimbabwe, where the Shashe andVhembe rivers meet to the north and west of Makhado.
Under the apartheid system their lands were designated a homeland so they were fairly unaffected by the political and social changes that had such a massive affect on the rest of the country. The one million strong Vhavenda population were left alone to live the way they had for hundreds of years in this lush, mountainous and remote region, which is why their culture, language, arts and crafts have survived so strongly. The Vhavenda people living here choose to live traditionally; theirs is not an ecotourism ‘set up’. They remain one of the last African tribes to be un-encroached by white settlers. They don’t get many visitors but they are friendly people, if secretive.
The Vhavenda are historically thought to have been descended from Great Zimbabwe, an ancient city with a mysterious white race who moved south from the Great Lakes of Central Africa. They built great stone walls; while not as grand as those found in Zimbabwe there are many similarities. There are a number of ruins throughout the region; the best example is atDzata in the Nzhelele Valley.
Culture and Beliefs
The adolescent girls python dance ritual
The Vhavenda culture is built on a vibrant mythical belief system, which is reflected in their artistic style. Water is an important theme to the Vhavenda and there are many sacred sites within their region where the Vhavenda conjure up their ancestral spirits. They believe zwidutwane, water spirits, live at the bottom of waterfalls. These beings are only half visible with one eye, one leg, and one arm. One half can be seen in this world and the other half in the spirit world. The Vhavenda take offerings of food to them because they can not grow things underwater.
Various rituals are particular to the Vhavenda and certain aspects are kept secret and not discussed with westerners, however, it is known that the python dance, conducted at the female coming of age ceremony (iconic to the Limpopo region) is usually where the chief chooses a wife. Girls and boys dance fluidly, like a snake, to the beat of a drum, while forming a chain by holding the forearm of the person in-front. Once a wife has been chosen a set of courtship and grooming rituals take place over a number of days.
One of the Venda’s most sacred sites is Lake Fundudzi. If you want to try the trek into the mountains to get there you must first ask permission from the chief. Suspicion surrounds the lake, which is fed by the Mutale River yet does not appear to have an outlet. It is also said that you can sometimes hear the Tshikona songalthough no one appears to be there. Crocodiles in the rivers and lakes are feared. As it is thought the brain of the crocodile is very poisonous they are given a wide birth by the Vhavenda who do not even hunt them for food.
The Makhado Arts and Culture Festival, held in early December, showcases the Vhavenda culture. It is managed by the Tinkawu Theatre Laboratory and run by the Pfanani Community Trust. It showcases traditional and contemporary dance, live music, sculptures, artists, theatre, film, and literature.
If you’re in Limpopo for the festival or at any other time of year and would like to experience the culture of the Vhavenda people and their artwork first hand, stay at Vevisa Lodge inThohoyandou where you can try traditional foods such as Mopani worms and you’ll be entertained through traditional storytelling, music, and dance.
Vevisa Lodge room rates and pictures.
Cultural Adventure in a Land of Myths and Legends
A description of the Vhavenda land and customs.
The Soutpansberg Cultural Route
A more in depth look at the Vhavenda and the Limpopo region.
By Faye Welborn