KONGOLA INFO HUB & MASHI CRAFTS CENTRE

The Mashi Cooperative’s little thatched A-frame at the Kongola T-junction has become a familiar landmark on the tourism scene over the past few years, providing the community with much-needed cash income from their crafts sold there. When regulations required its removal from the newly proclaimed road reserve, IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), ICEMA (Integrated Community-Based Ecosystem Management) and SPAN (Strengthening the Protected Area Network) did not hesitate in combining resources to fund and implement a new building set further back on the site.

Instead of just replicating the much-loved but admittedly tiny A-frame, a new master plan was made, based on the concept of a trading post. The plan includes other small facilities to be added over time, such as individual stalls, tourism offices, an outdoor market and a small-scale honey-processing plant as well as a much larger craft shop with expansion space to the back.

A raised clay-brick paved platform links all these planned facilities in a curving organic plane. This not only raises the floor levels above the often wet sandy site, but creates and edge for sitting and indicates a serious professional aspect to the hub, often lacking in the more basic community installations, to instil confidence in the approaching tourist.

The new craft shop is a double volume timber & thatch structure, with earth-bag infill walls and a packed clay-brick floor. Using mostly sustainable materials, it also reflects the vernacular building tradition. The thatch was bought locally, another important source of local income. The wall construction of was done in alternative material, which included sandbag walls and reed mat screens.

This contributes to the thermal properties of the building and becomes a play on the products for sale in the craft shop. A fair amount of local timber was also used for the doors and window-cills, as another reference to products of the region. The collage character of these mixed natural materials thus gives a very interesting, rough texture to the building.

The design of the craft building drew inspiration from the many beautiful trees of the region. Internal support columns split into multiple “branches”, forming high scissor trusses. The form breaks away from the conventional low-hugging eaves with clerestorey windows and open gables, not only providing ample light to the interior to showcase the craft on sale, but creating an impressive elevation towards the national road to act as a “signboard” for the hub.
The architect’s involvement extended into the design of modular furniture for displays, including sets of rectangular nesting tables that can be arranged in different ways as pedestals for wood carvings, shelving for display of the highly skilled woven baskets and tree-like stands for hanging the beautiful beaded necklaces, often made from indigenous seedpods. The sales counter was also made, allowing for a more formal sales presence than the previous plastic chair only.

The veranda roofing not only shades and protects the entry against rain, but creates a space for perusal the information displays designed by Annie Symonds. Integrated with the timber and reed front walling, these displays are accessible even when the craft shop is closed, adding value to the hub and encouraging tourists to stop regardless.

Although the intention is for the shop to only open during office hours, successful trading may encourage extended hours and in future evening trading during special events. Provision for future lighting installations was thus made, although the budget did not allow a full power and lighting installation as yet.

The honey processing plant was originally intended to be a container, with a shade canopy above, to save costs. During construction of the foundations, it was discovered that the supply company would not be able to transport the container over the few sandy meters from the tar road, and the structure had to be changed in haste to brickwork. This linear, narrow space also acts as billboard to the road. It functions as a kind of cooperative – a reception point for local honey producers, who bring their raw honeycombs in containers to the centre to be “spun out” and the honey weighed and paid for. The honey is then partially refined and poured into bulk as well as 500g containers for resale. Needless to say, this can be a sticky business, and the steel-floated cement floor falls slightly to a central channel to allow for frequent sluicing. An interesting fact is also that the processing tends to attract bees, so that the doors and windows have to be closed during the processing work, which takes place at regular intervals during season.