A tiny speck on what Google Maps has to offer on the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Mandy* chases and screeches after her massive Irish Wolfhound, Ruby, as she bounds out of the kitchen door and across the neatly-trimmed green lawn, cutting the air with her lengthy tail. I welcomed the friendly greeting from Ruby who then wiped onto my brand new white shirt her leftover slobber from chewing a cow hoof.
Ducking under some overgrown grape vine attached to the roof of the house, I leave the wind-still outdoors and the golden rays of the afternoon sun and walk into colourful compartments labelled as ‘rooms’. It is a warm Autumn day, so flies have made themselves at home on the kitchen’s various counter-tops, flying away when their air is disturbed by our passing through.
Ruby is at Mandy’s side, her tail knocking over a picture frame placed hazardously low for a dog of her size. However unconventionally paired Ruby is with this house of small spaces, putting all small trinkets and decorations at risk, one of Mandy’s mantras is that “a home is not a home without animals, as annoying as they may be”. She adjusts the picture frame back to its normal form after picking it up, and returns it on the TV stand.
Relocating from the seaside town of Ballito at the end of 2004, Mandy and her family are comfortably situated in a one-story house, previously a building that resembled staff quarters, that just sneaks off a quiet district dirt road home to small guesthouse owners and Nguni cow farmers. “Ballito grew from this little town to this impersonal space, and we just thought that the children would have a more balanced upbringing here,” she explains, preparing the relevant ingredients to make brownies that have gained an acclaimed reputation to those that are lucky enough to have tasted them.
Each room in the house is so distinctly different to each other, yet Mandy’s homemade touch and her and husband’s love for cows weave through the rooms as the common denominators. With Ruby as an animal that is comparable to owning a calf, the obvious love for cows decorating the walls of the house comes from “a cow fetish we had a while ago, in the ’90s, we sort of went a bit cow-mad. We even painted our [old] garage doors with a cow. I think [my husband] Roddy’s mainly the cow person – he’s sort of a desperate wannabe farmer.”
Discussing the connections between all the bits-and-bobs that sit comfortably in their own little homes around the house, Mandy makes it known that “a home has got soul, and soul comes from the things you have collected and show who you are as a person.” Using a show home as a comparison, this well-lived in family home in the countryside has happiness and authenticity splattered over every wall, nook and cranny. “For me a home is somewhere that shows who we are as a family; it’s got memories – wherever you look there’s a memory connected to something, like these: these are brick makers from Swakopmund…to make homemade bricks – and everything I look at makes me think of where I got it from or how I made it.” There is not a single thing in this house, whether it’s a throw cushion or a doorknob, that looks out of place or at a disconnect to everything else. Mandy’s definition of what a home should be is evident around every corner you turn.
The house is full of diversities that is bound to draw anyone in, from the chicken coup outside to the bar area constructed out of corrugated iron. With an abundance of outside space for both the children and dogs to use, the inside is both the shelter and safe-haven from conventional living. For Mandy, “a home is where you feel safe, where you feel comfortable, and filled with stuff you love. And everything should have a sense of humour, just so things don’t get too serious.” The truth of this is shown in the ceiling lamp made by hand-collected driftwood, a wind chime made out of beer cans, and an outdoor braai that was converted into a fireplace. Creativity and imagination run boundless through this home, not leaving a single element untouched. “For me, the biggest compliment would be that I’m eccentric or unconventional, because I’d hate to be conventional in any way about anything.”
As many cosy rooms this house may have, Mandy’s favourite spot is in the kitchen. “It’s got so many different elements, and I like it because I can see so much from here. And because it’s the first place that you walk into and say ‘okay, I’m home now’.” Although unique in so many ways, she has one thing in common with the rest of us: “And I like it because it’s where the food is!”
‘Home’ is something different for all of us: some of us have more than one home, some don’t actually have a home at all. However, Mandy reminds us all that a space can be a home as long as you have all the important elements, such as soul, safety, and a sense of humour. Adding onto all of that, Mandy has extended this meaning with her keen creative flair and ambitious combination of decorative elements that all succeed in expressing who her and her family are. The spaces flit from being overly occupied by various objects, to being contained and relatively tranquil, only emphasising Mandy’s unwillingness to conform or restrict her creative desires. It is also indicative of Mandy’s outward need to document her and her family’s life stories, either in a stack of photo albums or a dusty record-player. “I can’t miss a moment,” and this refusal of Mandy’s is evident in every inch of the house, like a private museum seen only by a lucky few.
*Prefers mention of only first name
Words and photographs by Gabi Bellairs-Lombard