The incredible bio-diverse environment of the Soutpansberg where Leshiba is situated, is matched by the richness of the culture and heritage of the local Vha Venda people. This combination is something special and formed the basis of a commitment by the Rosmarin family towards the preservation and promotion of the local indigenous knowledge systems (“IKS”) of the area for the benefit of future generations.
John Rosmarin was initially exposed to one of these indigenous knowledge skills in 1993, after Leshiba Wilderness was acquired, when he was introduced to group of Venda artists, all of whom practice a unique form of large-scale woodcarving. The leading example being the internationally acclaimed Noria Mabasa whose work is now very well known.
Unfortunately, many of her colleagues who also produce remarkable sculptures, are lesser known and still struggle to survive as artists. It became clear that there was a need to preserve and promote this art form, as well as to ensure the passing of this talent to the next generation of artists.
This was the background that prompted John to make a contribution to ensuring that these artist’s unique indigenous knowledge did not disappear. The project started with a series of wood carving courses funded by a grant from the De Beers Fund. This was aimed at training the next generation of younger artists. The three pilot courses each comprised a six-week training period held at Leshiba where 10 young aspiring wood-carvers were trained by five Master Venda artists.
The late Paul Thavhana working on his ‘Great Serpent’ during the De Beers funded programme. The sculpture was purchased from Paul by the South African National Gallery in Cape Town.
The project started with a series of wood carving courses funded by a grant from the De Beers Fund, which was aimed at training the next generation of younger artists. The three pilot courses each comprised a six-week training period where about 10 young aspiring wood-carvers were trained in each course by five Master Venda artists at one of Leshiba’s Bush Camp’s made available for this purpose.
The “Leshiba Venda Arts and Culture Trust” was subsequently registered to manage this project.
The aims of the Trust are as follows;
- To ensure the integration of the cultural heritage of the area with appropriate technologies that can then be applied to contribute towards socio-economic upliftment of local communities in the Vhembe District with a priority given to the Kutama and Sinthemule Communities.
- To focus on ‘Sustainable Development’ by understanding and utilising ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ combined with ‘appropriate technology’ with the emphasis being on perma-culture.
- To be independently managed and in due course to become the think-tank and facilitation centre for a new sustainable rural development model in South Africa
The Irish Government initially came forward with a 40 000 Euro grant as a contribution towards the building of the proposed Centre to which John Rosmarin made available a further R200 000. Importantly, the Centre was built using the principles of sustainable development and indigenous knowledge. Phase 1 of the Centre was completed early in 2005 – See photos below – and the first wood carving skills training course for 15 local learners was completed in August 2005.
The series of courses followed and formed the foundation for broadening the scope of the programme to include a wider range of IKS including everything falling under the description of ‘sustainable development’. The programme now includes courses in permaculture and aims to undertake research and skills training in traditional healing and medicinal plants and other related fields of IKS. It must be noted that the primary objective of all these courses is to create a new range of skills in the local communities in order to make a contribution towards socio-economic upliftment in the local area and to promote cultural tourism.
Leshiba is situated in relative close proximity with the Kutama and Sinthemule Communities with whom a close working relationship has been established over the last fifteen years.
The interest in research on medicinal plants led to contact being made with CSIR, which resulted in a collaboration agreement being signed between the Bio-Prospecting Unit of CSIR and the Trust. The collaboration was aimed at establishing a research, training and development programme in the field of medicinal and aromatic plants. A similar collaboration agreement has been signed with the University of Venda.
The Soutpansberg is said to have the highest concentration of bio-diversity in South Africa and Leshiba is therefore an ideal location to establish this unique project. The Trust intends establishing a partnership with the local Kutama and Sinthemule and other local Communities in the Vhembe District for this project.
In order to expose the work of the Trust to the abovementioned local communities, the Trust together with Afristar (a non-profit organization managed by Nicholas Heinamann) promoted an Expo on ‘Sustainable Development’ in 2007 at the nearby Schoemansdal environmental Awareness Centre. This was funded by a R350 000 grant from a Unit established by the European Union as well as a grants of R50 000 each from Rio Tinto and John Rosmarin.
A number of projects have subsequently been run at the Centre through grants made available by the Government’s MAPP SETA skills training programme. The French Government has also funded a successful textile course.
To date, the Trust has raised just under five million rand for a range of projects that have been aimed at benefiting the various local communities in the area. A recent grant of R1,45m from the Lottery is to be used for the establishment of skills training in perma-culture. This included the establishment of a perma-culture programme at Leshiba. All these programmes were managed and administered by Nicholas Heinamann of Afristar.
Leshiba’s Permaculture Garden
The overall programme is based on the principle of a ‘Public Benefit Organisation’ being non-profit with all the benefits flowing to the historically disadvantaged local communities in the area.
The aims of the skills training programme are:
- To facilitate training programmes to educate and empower local people with traditional knowledge, to utilise their natural resource base for sustainable socio-economic upliftment.
- To develop research capacity in the field of Indigenous Knowledge.
- To develop, design and secure funding for community based poverty alleviation programmes with the emphasis on perma-culture farming in the Vhembe District.
- To utilise Leshiba Wilderness as a resource base to understand and explore the potential contribution of indigenous knowledge to local community development and nation building.
- To assist in establishing ‘Community / Public / Private Partnerships
More recently, a Gallery in honour of Noria Mabasa has been built next to the Venda Village Lodge, which probably contains one of the largest single collections of her work in South Africa.
Leshiba Gallery dedicated to Noria Mabasa
Schedule indicating the grant funding raised to date by the Leshiba Community Development Trust with the assistance of Afristar