What do Lake Fundudzi and fashion have in common? At first glance, absolutely nothing, unless you regard fashion as sacred, which many do.
Lake Fundudzi is a magical lake. It lies in the Limpopo, way up in the north western reaches of South Africa in the Thohoyandou region, just north of The Holy Forest and west of the Kruger National Park. It is not commonly visited, well, not nearly as much as the Kruger anyway, and no-one washes or swims in it.
You wouldn’t swim in a lake either if a giant python, the god of fertility, was said to live in the lake and demand an annual sacrifice of a maiden. And to visit it, you need special permission anyway. Strangers to the lake are expected, when and if you do manage to get permission from the People of the Pool (the Netshiavha royal family) to visit, to greet the lake through your legs – that’s upside down and backwards – a greeting known as the ukodola.
Like me, you probably won’t get within miles of the lake, or get to watch the annual Domba Dance, which is part of the initiation rites of young local women – a dance that emulates the movement of a snake, performed by a row of dancing girls. But if you do, get permission that is, find a guide to take you there. Or you’ll miss the point completely and probably end up really disappointed at the anticlimax of the visit. Seeing the lake through the eyes of the locals and hearing their stories is inherent to the visit.
Lake Fundudzi is one of several sacred sites in South Africa. Others include the fertility caves in the eastern Free State, Hogsback in the Eastern Cape, and the forest of the rain queen, Modjadji, also in Limpopo. But Lake Fundudzi, believed to have been formed by a landslide and the only freshwater inland lake in the country, is without doubt also one of the most beautiful.
It lies surrounded by mountains and hills, largely unaffected by modern development – if you discount the road built in 1995 by the provincial government to the lake, and several others that have since been rather callously carved into the forested hills around the lake. The local people’s view of the lake is shrouded in mysticism. They will tell you about the three rivers that flow into the lake, yet it never overflows. Ancestral spirits who live in the lake are supposed to be guarded by a white crocodile and the seasonal colour or fullness of the lake is said to indicate the mood of the ancestors, and predict the rainy season. The water is also said to have healing properties.
After you’ve done the ukodola salute, walk down to the lake and throw in a few of the hairs from your head. In this way, you will follow local custom and the people might trust you enough to tell you about their lake. There is a little urgency to your need to visit it too, before it becomes a national heritage site. Whilst this will bring it the recognition it deserves and protect it from any untoward development, it will also boost the tourism potential of the area and bring far larger groups of visitors.
Working for Wetlands, who champion the sustainable use of South Africa’s wetlands, have been working on a project at Lake Fundudzi since 2006 in a bid to save the lake from silting up due to erosion, deforestation, agriculture and development. This and tourism are threats to its future.
And the fashion link, lest I tardily lose myself in expounding the virtues of a visit to Lake Fundudzi – local fashion guru, Craig Jacobs, has produced a fashion label with the same name that has a conscience. His eco-conscious Fundudzi label was inspired by the body of water by the same name. As he says, these people remain true to their traditions and mythology. In the same way, his label, around since 2004, is an attempt to remain true to African fashion and to sustainability.
Craig’s idea is that all the materials he selects for the garments he designs and makes in South Africa are solely or mostly made from eco-friendly fabrics such as bamboo, soy, corn and organic cotton. Most South Africans will know Craig better for his part in Survivor on M-Net this year but his fashion also graced Paris Fashion Week in 2007 and his Fundudzi creations were last seen at this year’s Joburg Fashion Week and the World Cup & Africa Fashion Week.