Kaross Production – A Traditional Craft

21 Jun 2019

Brigitte Weidlich

Tourists travelling to southern Namibia by road often wonder about some beautifully crafted animal-hide products hanging on a farm fence next to the road just 20 km before the small village of Kalkrand, south of Rehoboth. There is no sign board drawing the attention of travellers, apart from a small handwritten board with "kaross" written on it.

It is worthwhile to be on the lookout for the turnoff to Duineveld (Afrikaans for dune field) – a tiny settlement just 2 km off the B1 trunk road and then slow down to stop at the fence and have a closer look.

“This is the only spot in the whole of Namibia where these patterned products are sold directly, except at some outlets and industrial exhibitions,” says Maria Maasdorp. Her friendly smile is partly hidden under a large straw hat with a wide rim.

There are rugs, cushions and cushion covers made of soft leather on display. But who makes them?“We make these ‘karosse’ ourselves – it is a Baster tradition,” she says proudly and adjusts her apron with one hand.

There are soft fur rugs in different shapes made from small leather pieces neatly stitched together, cushion covers with soft white trims from sheep skin and angora goats. Three colours - brown, white and black – dominate the natural colour scheme.

“We mostly work with the light brown springbok skins, which have the characteristic white colour and dark brown stripes,” explains Maasdorp. “In earlier days we also made bed blankets from the softly tanned skins,” she says.

Her colleague, Elma Cloete, shows an apron made of one single springbok skin to tourists who have just arrived. They all move into the shade of the small sales stand covered with a green shade net.

Origin of the indigenous word ‘kaross’

A kaross is a sleeveless cloak made of soft sheepskin, or the hide of other animals, without removing the hair. It used to be worn mainly by the indigenous Khoikhoi and Bushmen (San) peoples of South Africa. However, crews of sailing ships exploring Namibia’s coast some 230 years ago reported locals living near today’s Walvis Bay wearing capes made from seal skins and calling them ‘kaross’. They wore the kaross with the fur outside during daytime and at night they turned the fur inside to warm them.

These locals, the Topnaars are of Khoi origin and speak the Nama language. Many Topnaars still live east of Walvis Bay.

Kaross is believed to be an original Khoikhoi word. Some linguists believe it might be an adaptation of the Dutch ‘kuras’ - a cuirass (Kürass in German). In a vocabulary book dated 1673 ‘kaross’ is described as a "corrupt Dutch word."

In modern times, the kaross became replaced by European clothes and blankets, the name however stuck and reminds us of history.

The Baster migrated to Namibia some 150 years ago

The Baster community arrived in Namibia from South Africa around 1869 and are offspring of mixed couples from European and Khoi origin. In their search for grazing land and freedom from South African colonial rule, they settled in what is today called Rehoboth in 1870. Their land once stretched almost as far south as Kalkrand and northwards close to Windhoek.

Maasdorp and Cloete live at Duineveld and walk 2 km every day to the tar road and the store they share with Sonya de Klerk. De Klerk farms nearby and also processes hides and produces crafted rugs and other leather products.

“In my young days we used to do everything by hand with regard to tanning and processing the hides. It was hard work, but that was a long time ago. I will be 85 years old in July,” she smiles. “Wrinkles are now attacking my face with full force,” she reveals with a twinkle in her blue eyes, displaying a delightful sense of humour and gracefully accepting compliments from everyone present that she looks much younger.

The stand suddenly becomes a busy place as tourists want to find out which animal skins were used in several patchwork rugs they want to buy. Two pick-up vehicles stop there and farmers drop raw skins from springbok to oryx. “It is hunting season now during winter time,” says De Klerk. “The farmers donate the hides to us and that saves us production costs,” she explains.

Otherwise they buy the hides from the small tannery at Duineveld. The Dune Tannery started operating in 1996 as a community project with donor funding and support of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. In 2008, the tannery received funding to buy more milling drums to soften the skins. In 2012, the Dune Tannery expanded its premises and acquired a tanning drum to tan the skins. The tannery is run by the community under the auspices of the Community Development Council. Those who produce the characteristic ‘kaross’ rugs and cushions in the tiny village, buy the hides from the tannery. The finished products are sold ‘from the fence’ along the B1 road close to Kalkrand.

“We also take orders from lodges and craft shops,” says Elma Cloete. “Sometimes we travel to Mariental, Windhoek or even Swakopmund to sell our products there.”

Another product on sale is traditional soap made from animal fat. Maria Maasdorp explains that it takes her several days to boil it on the open fire in a drum. She sells her soap in large chunks.

The three ladies are surely proud entrepreneurs and preserve crafts of the olden days.

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