English stories

Building a clay oven in Zimbabwe

Power to the women

Clay, water and sun, that is basically all you need to build a clay oven. And of course man power. Or should I call it; women power? Twenty women and a few men are up for it. I was invited to join and make photos. In Mabale, Zimbabwe.

At sunrise Brian starts the Landrover; he runs downhill next to the car to give it a kick start, as the choke is not working well. A minute later the roaring engine invites us to take over: Womens’ day! It isn’t March 8th, but this morning’s theme is all about women. Together with Marleen Post (owner of Sable Sands, a safari lodge neighboring Hwange national park), Judith Zuiderwijk (a guest at Sable Sands) and about twenty women from the nearby town Dete we drive to the neighboring village Mabale to build the oven as one community. With this oven the women will be melting the glass of empty bottles into beads of which they can make jewelry to sell.

Fundraising to build a school

This project is one of many initiatives of Marleen, Laurie, Tash and Christabelle; they all want to empower the local community. Besides empowerment they need to raise funds for a new ECD /Primary school. Besides the Bead Project they teach twelve young men carpentry skills, educate herders how to fertilize the soil with their cows (whilst protecting the cattle from lions and other predators) and another group of women has a sewing project. “And, hopefully we will be able to open a Bed & Breakfast in the near future, of which the profit will be ploughed back into the school,” Marleen tells me.

Hard work and soft singing

Through rugged terrain she drives us to Mabale in her Landrover. The location is chosen to build the oven, in the scorching sun. Pieces of termite mound are ready to be mixed with water. Upon arrival the women start kneading the clay whilst soft humming turns into singing, directed by local entrepreneur Dorcas Mbedzi. Dorcas also has sewing projects with these ladies every Thursday. “But when the harvest is finished we will meet twice weekly, because we all have to keep busy working,” she says with the biggest smile possible.

Clay and water

After removing twigs and leaves from the balls of clay, it gets passed onto the next station. Four men knead it more and pass it on to Cedi ‘Beads’, a glass artist from Ghana who is giving the local women a workshop on how to build the oven. Whilst the sun burns and ten pairs of hands are digging into the wet clay, the oven walls start to grow. Halfway through Cedi adds old iron bars and later leaf springs from another Landrover to male the grill.

Baking in the sun

After three hours of hard work it is time to close the rounded top of the clay oven. Once the sun has dried out the clay they will cut out two openings, one to place the firewood and one to place the bead moulds onto as working space. From the empty bottles provided by neighboring safari lodges they grind glass dust, which will be re-melted in the hot burning oven into stunning beads. The day after tomorrow the first beads class will start. After that the women will also learn how to make jewelry out of their beads.


It is an incredible feeling to witness the spirit of these people. The will and power to start something. The original group of twenty grows into thirty when more women arrive from Mabale. I see women with pen and pad making notes and they even dare asking questions. They all smile and wave when we leave at the end of the morning. On the way out we pass by Cedi’s Beads car to be amazed by the possible results of this stunning recycled glass. Bracelets and necklaces are calling us smilingly. Yes, this project will definitely get in the wanted results!

Update: two days later the oven was taking into production and look what came out!!

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A special thanks to:

Marleen & Brian – Sable Sands safarilodge. Sable Sands is a beautiful lodge at the edge of Hwange National Park. That last kilometer before you arrive off road makes you feel you are in the middle of nowhere. You are surrounded with wildlife. Marleen Post and Brian Sabeta give you that special family feeling in the bush, which make your experience complete – http://www.sablesands.co.zw, Instagram, Facebook.

Laurie and Brent – Soft Foot Alliance. Laurie and Brent live in the middle of the bush in the most natural way. They are experts in permaculture. They fertilise their soils and live in the clay home that they built themselves. Laurie is the inspiration of many sustainable living projects – http://www.softfootalliance.comhttp://dancelikeanelephant.blogspot.com/

Tash en Roy have horse stables from where they organize beautiful horseback safaris in the stunning bush. Roy is a guide, but you could also call him the elephant whisperer. He can give you the most incredible experiences during a safari. Tash is busy building an Art centre, all from rubbish: for example she is building the walls from empty plastic beer bottles, filled with sand. Her brainchild is HARP which means Hwange Art & Recycling Project – http://facebook.com/hwangerecycling

Christabelle Peech – The Hide Community Trust. The Hide’ is a famous safarilodge with its own Community Trust. Christabelle designs and manages projects for this trust in which she creates new communities from different villages around the national park. Through these empowering projects the trust is often able to uplift the livelihoods and living conditions of children and older people whom are not employed in the touristic industry, but still benefit from the money that is made through tourism – http://www.thehide.com/community

Cedi ‘Beads’ is an artist from Ghana since the early age of seven. He runs the family business, is chairman of the Manya Krobo Bead Association and member of the International Society of Glass Bead Makers. He lectures worldwide and on requests he gives workshops in other African countries teaching people this skill.

Dorcas Mbedzi is a Zimbabwean woman with a big business feel. In the Dete village, she has a shop in which she sells her handcrafted clothes, aprons, cushion covers and art. Not only does she make a living herself through this, she also inspires other women to join in by also creating art and crafts.

Bron: we (Gijs en Rian) travel with our two boys (Raf – 4 en Finne – 1) for three months through Southern Africa. Currently, we live in Durban, South_Africa, where we will stay for a month after our tremendous bush-experiences in Zimbabwe and Zambia. You’ll find us on Instagram as 4flipflops. Gijs writes about his experiences on his own travel website: www.nextdestination.nl