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Evolution of rondavels: Bridging tradition and modernity in rural architecture/ building styles

The narrative of the rondavel/ hut has undergone a transformative shift, especially in rural settings where women, despite their active involvement in various activities, have long been portrayed as subordinate to their husbands or male family members. However, societal dynamics evolve and new trends emerge. One significant area of change is observed in the realm of house construction within rural landscapes. The construction of houses has transitioned from adhering strictly to traditional styles – specifically rondavels – to embracing more modern architectural approaches previously associated with urban dwellings.

Traditionally, the rondavel was characterized by a distinct architectural style, often featuring a grass roof. The interior typically included a central mud circle serving the dual purpose of a cooking fire and a symbolic divider. This divider demarcated the space into two distinct sections, wherein the left side would be allocated for women affiliated with the family, and the right side designated for the male members. This strict adherence to spatial division reflected cultural norms and traditions, particularly among the Xhosa community. However, in recent times, a departure from the traditional round design is evident. Rondavels with 4, 6, or 8 corners have emerged as contemporary alternatives in many rural areas, supplanting the traditional structures that once served as gathering spaces for family rituals. These modern renditions of rondavels showcase innovative designs, featuring tiles and incorporating the latest construction materials, as depicted in Figure 1, 2 and 3 which illustrates a stark contrast between the traditional and modern styles. This shift not only signifies a departure from entrenched norms but also mirrors the broader trend of embracing contemporary architectural elements even in the heart of rural communities.



Figures 1: An old, styled rondavel and the modern rondavel.

Figure 2 (below): A household with the old way of doing rondavels.

Figure 3: Another style of modern rondavel

As part of the broader investigation into the changing landscape of rondavels in rural areas, I interviewed a resident from Gubenxa location. The primary purpose was to delve into the impact of the evolving construction styles on traditions and ancestral practices; the interview sought to uncover whether these changes had repercussions on the sacred rituals conducted within rondavels, and to identify any influential factors behind the transition from traditional to modern designs. The questions posed during the interview encompassed a spectrum of inquiries, including the preparations undertaken before rituals in the newly styled rondavels,  and the factors influencing the abandonment of the traditional rondavels.  In particular, I was interested to know whether the shift in construction styles was driven by, for instance, women’s preferences, educational influences, or perhaps other factors that I had not yet considered.  In essence, I wanted to understand how this transformation in rondavel style affected the deeply-rooted cultural and traditional fabric of the community.

According to the interviewee, the aesthetic style and materials used in the construction of rondavels might not hold paramount significance. According to my interlocutor, the importance rather lies in the proper and respectful execution of rituals in a manner aligned with the practices familiar to their ancestors. The interviewee expressed a belief that the spirits of the deceased ancestors continue to guide and influence the community, even as architectural styles evolve. This view is in keeping with what ethnographers have long emphasized: that culture is adaptive, not static despite pervasive claims to the contrary.

However, the conversation further highlighted that, despite the adoption of modern construction, unfamiliar elements have been introduced into the ritualistic practices that take place in and around rondavels. For instance, the use of "inkxopho," a dry grass laid on the ground for seating during rituals, symbolizes a welcoming gesture to the spirits. This practice aims to recreate the warmth experienced in the traditional rondavels. This has been applied even before but not as frequently as it is now.

Interestingly, the interviewee provided insights into the adaptability of ritual practices in various settings. In cases where rituals are conducted in houses – especially those in towns with diverse designs, – adaptations  are made. This includes the use of "ukhukho" (a grass-made mat), along with the scattering of mealie meal and the burning of "impepho" (a dried plant) during the ritual. In essence, the interview shed light on the complex interplay between evolving architectural trends, ancestral reverence, and the dynamic nature of cultural practices within the rural community of Gubenxa location, Engcobo.

Furthermore, the interviewee provided valuable insights into the underlying factors driving the changes observed in construction styles. In her estimation, the builder’s age and education do not significantly influence these transformations. Contrary to the assumption that households with higher education levels would adopt modern construction, the reality is more nuanced. Some families, despite having members with limited education, embrace modern architectural trends, while others with highly educated individuals maintain traditional structures. The interviewee emphasized that the desire to keep up with the times and architectural trends transcends educational backgrounds, as everyone seeks to remain competitive and contemporary. Indeed, she stated that while noticeable alterations primarily manifest in styling and materials, even elderly homeowners adopt fashionable materials used by younger generations. The interviewee also pointed out the influence of younger family members in shaping these changes, demonstrating generational communication and solidarity. In terms of gender dynamics, the interviewee highlighted a significant shift, noting that women increasingly take the lead in implementing changes. In many modern households, both men and women share responsibilities in the construction process, which she noted is a departure from the past.  The interviewee emphasized the changing landscape where couples, regardless of their working status, jointly make decisions about finances and building projects. However, she acknowledged that a few households still adhere to traditional gender roles, where a woman defers to her husband's decisions.

Addressing the unique situation of unmarried or divorced women heading households, the interviewee also shed light on how traditions and rituals adapt. In female headed households, brothers or uncles typically step in. The involvement of male family members becomes crucial, especially for widows, where the male relatives of the deceased husband take on roles in initiating rituals and even participating in the construction of traditional houses, such as rondavels. The interviewee affirmed that, despite these adaptations, traditions remain intact, emphasizing that "isiko" (tradition) is still respected, and the fundamental essence of rituals remains unchanged.

In the pursue to bridge tradition and modernity in rural  building styles, insights gleaned from the interviewee shed light on the complex dynamics of social change in rural areas. Overall, the resounding emphasis seems to be on keeping pace with contemporary times and architectural trends. Despite assertions that traditions would remain steadfast, the interviewee's acknowledgement of necessary adaptations for rituals in modern rondavels hinted at the evolving landscape. The interviewee's repeated assertion that traditions will endure seemed to serve as a nuanced justification for ongoing changes. However, underlying this sentiment was an acknowledgement of the need for adjustments, such as ensuring the presence of grass mats or dry grass during rituals, as ancestral spirits are perceived to favour natural materials over modern tiles.

Age, according to the participant, does manipulate influence, particularly among those deeply acquainted with ancestral practices. While embracing modern house-building trends, individuals with a thorough understanding of traditional ways strive to retain elements of the past. This delicate balance is evident in the incorporation of both modern and traditional elements in structures, exemplified by using zinc roofs in rondavels adorned with grass inside, preserving the essence of the "indlu yabantu abadala" (ancestors' house). Inseparably linked to these transformations is the evolving role of women in construction. The interviewee's observations underscore a significant shift from traditional gender roles, with women actively participating in decision-making processes and leading changes in house construction. This nuanced interplay between tradition, adaptation, and the active involvement of women paints a rich tapestry of continuity and change in the rural building styles and  architectural landscape. The evolution of rondavels captures not only the physical evolution of structures but also the evolving cultural dynamics influenced by a delicate linking of tradition and the aspirations of contemporary times “moving with times”.



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