Although ostrich eggshell jewellery has become synonymous with strikingly distinctive- and carefully curated individual pieces of art, it finds its cradle in some of the most secluded places of Southern Africa. Beyond the uniquely handcrafted designs, and their intrinsic and inimitable beauty we know today, lies plenty more than meets the eye. The origin of this medium offers a glimpse into the deep cultural history of one of Africa’s oldest communities; the San People.
Within the San’s stories of old, Ostriches, and their egg shells have borne cultural significance from the beginning of time, or to be more exact, the time when the Hai||om obtained fire.
The fable goes… There once was a time when the Ostrich was the only other living creature to roam the earth and that it cooked its food, other than the San, on a fire. And so, wherever it went, the Ostrich carried the fire along, safely tucked beneath its wings.
One day, two San-hunters came to an area where the Ostrich had previously cooked its food. They found leftovers of the meal that the Ostrich had prepared. On account of their curiosity, the hunters tried the food, only to realise that the cooked meal was much more tasteful than the raw food that their tastebuds knew.
Eventually, coming to the conclusion that the San-people too needed fire, they formulated a plan to engage in dance, this in the vicinity of the Ostriches’ camp.
It did not take long, before the Ostrich – amazed at this sight, joined in the festivity of dancing, but kept its wings pressed tightly against its body, to not let go of the fire beneath its wings.
In praise of the Ostrich, they cried: “You almost dance as well as we do. But, there is one little mistake that you are making. Look, we dance with our arms stretched outwards.’’
Consequently, in its excitement, as the Ostrich lifted its wings, the fire dropped to the ground. One of the hunters scolded the Ostrich, accusing it of wanting to burn their feet. In the same breath the hunter grabbed a hold of the fire and threw it up into a fig tree. And from this day forward, the Ostrich had to eat food from the ground, while the San acquired the benefits of fire.
Still today, wherever fig trees occur, the tools used to light a fire are made from them. In their traditional dance, the Hai||om also honour the Ostrich by imitating an Ostrich Waltz.
And so, Ostrich eggs have been a prised possession since time immemorial. Having a symbolic significance of good luck and fortune, and multiple uses, including as a flask for storing water when out hunting in the veld, one can only fathom the fascination.
Forasmuch, with thanks to ambassadors like Ekipa Jewellery, who exist to carry this age-old tradition, safely tucked beneath its wings, you too, can play your role in the retelling of this unique tale
Written by: Daniela Diekman & Marelene Orffer