Mind the Gaps

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

“Why do we always have to talk about Greek and Roman history?”

Vetfaan’s question makes them all look up. Surely they haven’t just talked about Greece and Italy? But then they see the glint in the burly farmer’s eye and realise he’s up to something.

“Ye-e-es? What’s on your mind, Vetfaan?”

“I just think that we have some perfectly good myths in South Africa, that’s all. Instead of jabbering on about how wonderful the ancient Mediterranean peoples were, how about talking about our own stories? At least we can relate to them much better than these foreign tales.”

“You mean like the story of the hawk and the chickens?”

***

It is said that, a long time ago, Hawk and the Chicken family were great friends. Because Hawk could fly, it was he who visited the flightless family every so often. They’d sit down and talk all day long, swapping stories and news. As for Mrs Hen, she welcomed these visits because Hawk never failed to bring toys as presents for the little ones. This went on for a long, long time.

Then, one day, Hawk arrived for a visit, but he had forgotten to bring along any toys. Saddened by his oversight, he produced the key to his house for the little ones to play with. Clucking happily, the chickens scooted off to the ash heap. where they played catch with the shiny key. But, like little chickens are, they soon tired of the game and found something else to play with.

When the sun was about to set, Hawk thanked Hen and Cock, and prepared to leave.

“Where is my key?” Hawk called the little chicks and glared at them.

Oh! The little ones took fright and ran over to the rubbish dump, where they searched for the key. Hawk waited and waited. When it became clear that his key was lost, he became very angry.

“My food is locked in my house!” His eyes blazed with fury. “What am I supposed to eat tonight? Get my key.”

But look as they might, the chickens couldn’t find the key.

Then, Hawk flew high into the air, swooped down again, and caught one of  the little chickens. 

“I shall return tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, for my key. You had better find it, Chickens, or I shall be forced to feed on all your children.”

And so it came about that Hawk will forever patrol the skies to prey on his erstwhile friends.

And the Chicken family?

At dawn every day, Cock is up first, shouting: ‘Get the ke-e-ey! Get the ke-e-ey.’ And for the rest of the day the whole family will scratch, scratch in the ground and on the ash heap, hoping to find Hawk’s key at last.

***

“Is that a real myth, or did you make up that story, Gertruida?”

Tales_from_Southern_AfricaFor once, Gertruida seems uncertain. “I read a book, many years ago. It was a collection of Southern African stories, compiled and translated by A C Jordan. Fascinating stuff, I have to admit. But is was some time ago, so I may have changed the story a bit.”

“But what does it mean, Gertruida? Sure, it tells the story of why hawks hunt chickens, why the cock crows so early in the morning, and why chickens scratch around so much…but surely there is a deeper meaning? African tales are famous for what they don’t tell; even our oral historians specialise in that.”

“You’re so right. In Africa you have to be careful not just to listen to the words – you have to fill in the gaps yourself. Stories, speeches, statements – almost any communication, especially when delivered from a public platform – these all contain messages inside the message. Maybe it is true for politicians everywhere, but in Africa we have the masters of the art. Our politicians come from a tradition of storytelling, it isn’t something they have to learn. We don’t need spin-doctors like the Americans do – our politicians are DIY-spinners themselves – and experts at it.”

“But still, ” Servaas bunches the bushy brows together, “there must be a moral to the story?”

“It’s the key, Servaas. The key.” Gertruida takes a thoughtful sip of beer before continuing. “A hawk comes along and gives the chickens a shiny thing to play with. The chickens are overjoyed. Then the chickens mess things up and the hawk starts feeding on them.” She pauses, sees that Servaas still doesn’t get it, and sighs. It’s so obvious! 

“Look at what’s happening in Africa, my friend. Russia wants to ‘help’ us by building nuclear power stations. China ‘assists’ many African countries by building roads and bridges and dams and schools. American aid ensures the survival of several governments – and the European Union supports a number of environmental and social programs. Do you think they do this because they have an obligation to render help to impoverished countries? Or are these efforts merely the key to gaining access to the raw materials Africa is blessed with? There’s an old rule about investing: you want to get more out of it than you put into it. It’s so simple…

“And don’t think the story only applies to politics, either. Most relationships contain an element of this give-and-take attitude. That’s why so many friendships get shipwrecked and why the divorce lawyers drive around in flashy cars. Too many individuals turn out to be hawks with shiny keys…it’s so sad.

“I think the old Xhosa storytellers were wonderfully creative in telling their bits of folklore. They contained great wisdom and some serious warnings. If only we could learn from that and fill in the gaps, we’d be so much better off.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “So…Gertruida? Did the little chickens find the key?”

“Oh Vetfaan! Sometimes I wonder if you are capable of intelligent thought! It’s a story, for goodness sakes!” Then, eyeing him critically, she smiles wryly. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”

“Fill in the gap, Gertruida, fill in the gap….”

Spinning the Web

spider+web“History is the template,” Gertruida said – because she knew everything – when she concluded her lecture on Nero. “It’s almost inevitable that it should repeat itself. So: know the past, and the future will not be a mystery any longer.”

“That may be true, Gertruida. But when you go back far enough, history and myth are so entwined and mixed that we no longer know what – exactly – happened in the beginning.”

Servaas scowled at this , muttering that Precilla should read her Bible properly. “It’s all in there,” he said.

Credit: TimeMaps.com

Credit: TimeMaps.com

“Of course Servaas. We all know that. But Precilla has a point. The oldest stories we have come from Herodotus  and scribes like him. The area we know as the Middle East was a rich source for such stories – with the countries of Canaan, Babylon, Egypt and Assyria providing the background  for these.” Gertruida closed her eyes to visualise the area. “And oh! Those people loved stories! This was, you’ll remember, before TV and newspapers. If you could tell a rollicking good story, you had a captive audience.”

“Do you know any of those?” Vetfaan was bored. History wasn’t something he felt passionate about. But stories…now that’s the stuff to listen to in Boggel’s Place.

Scratching her head, Gertruida stared at the ceiling for a minute. “Well…” she said….

***

1_400“There was this young lady, Arachne, the daughter of a humble shepherd. At a very early age she began working with wool, and soon she took up weaving. Her skill developed until nobody could work the loom like she did – as a spinster she had no equal. She wove pictures into her cloth that seemed so lifelike that people started saying she received her skill from the gods – a statement that made Arachne extremely angry.

No, she said, I taught myself. The gods have nothing to do with this. And, by the way, my weaving is far superior to anything even the immortals can do. So there!

Then one day, an old lady appeared at her doorstep.

You shouldn’t boast like that, my child. You’ll have to apologise, otherwise those gods may want to punish you.

Oh, hogwash! If the gods think they can do better, let them come down here. We’ll have a little contest, see? And then I’ll prove their weaving to be inferior.

All of a sudden, the old lady changed into the most splendid sight. There was Athena, the goddess of art and craft, in all her splendour.

By Zeus! You little hussy! Now you’ve done it! We’ll have a contest here and now. The one who loses, must promise never to touch a spindle or loom – ever again. Understood?

Arachne wasn’t phased in the least. So confident was she that she agreed to the challenge, and the two women started weaving immediately.

Arachne used all her skill to produce the finest, most beautiful tapestry she had ever created. The cloth was so thin, she could see her hand through it. And on it she used many colours to depict various pictures in which the deceit and cunning of the gods were portrayed.

But Athena! Oh, she used fleece as her background, colouring it with the blue of the sky, the green of the pastures, the yellow of sunshine and the purple hues of autumn.  So magnificent was her weaving, that Arachne immediately knew she had lost.

Arachne did the typical female thing: she burst into tears. No, cried she, I cannot live without my weaving!

Athena took pity on the bawling lass, but a bet is a bet: Arache would never touch a loom or a spindle again. What to do? The wailing was just too much for Athena to bear.

So she took her spear and touched the unfortunate Arachne – turning her into a spider. That way, the goddess reckoned, Arachne could go on doing what she did best: spinning and weaving – but without touching a spindle or loom.”

***

Gertruida sits back with a satisfied smile. “That’s why we still talk about the spiders as arachnids today – remembering the weaver who boasted herself into spinning webs for the rest of her life.”

Servaas nods happily. “Pride before the fall, huh?”

“It is always wrong to overemphasise one’s abilities.” Oudoom wonders if it is wrong to bring mythology into next Sunday’s sermon, mulls over it for a second and decides against it. His congregation might very well remember the story and not the message.

The group at he bar falls silent for a while. They think of recent events – involving so many politicians, sportsmen and women, actors and performers – and contemplate the intricate tapestry people weave to prove their superiority. How many of them end up being consumed by the opinion they hold of themselves? Too many? All of them?

“The world is filled with spiders,” Servaas says at  length. “So many spiders…”

“Mmmm…” Precilla wrinkles her nose, imagining the earth caught in a spider’s tapestry. “So Arancha was rewarded, blessed and cursed – all at the same time?”

“Yes, my dear.” There’s a  sardonic smile on Gertruida’s lips. “Just like us… Caught in a Web we’re spinning ourselves, doomed to eternal creative captivity.”

Of course the patrons at the bar don’t understand. So few do…

Nero’s Nkandla

 Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as  Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus   Dec. 15, 37 —June 9, 68

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Dec. 15, 37 —June 9, 68

“The ancient Greeks were an interesting lot,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “They gave us myths and stories, developed mathematics and invented democracy. The world would have been so much poorer without them. After them came the Romans, of course.”

Servaas gathers his brows together, shaking his head. As one of the few hippy-elders of the world, he feels he has to respond.

“But they had tyrants – like Nero. He didn’t like Christians much, setting a bad example for today’s extremists, like ISIS.”

“Ah, yes – the much maligned Nero. Yes, you’re right about the Christians – but he wasn’t a tyrant. A tyrant, according to Plato, is “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics—against his own people as well as others”  This description, quite clearly, doesn’t fit Nero. He was extremely popular at the time, the masses loved him, and he stuck to the law. At least, he used the law to solidify his position as ruler. Clever, no?

“But he wasn’t a nice man. His stepfather – Claudius – had another son, Britannicus, a few years younger than the adopted Nero. Some wanted Britannicus to be the emperor after Claudius’s death –  who incidentally died after eating some mushrooms. Poor Britannicus also died after ingesting poison on the day before he would have been proclaimed an adult. which would have strengthened his claim to the throne. The list of murders in which Nero was supposedly involved, is a lengthy one. If you dared cross him, you were simply removed from the scene. Even his mother didn’t escape his wrath.

“Despite all this, he was also rather popular with the ladies. He married three times – taking women from higher and lower in social standing – and is rumoured to have had a number of willing lassies waiting for his call. Isn’t it strange how women gravitate toward men in power? No matter what the man does or how he conducts his affairs, some ladies simply can’t resist sucking up to them, if you’ll excuse the pun.

tumblr_mdfrgfMYc61ryfivao1_1280“And then there was the Great Fire in Rome in 64 AD. Many historians blame Nero for the fire, but the debate on the cause still goes on. What is known, is that Nero certainly didn’t play a fiddle while Rome burnt – the fiddle would only be invented almost a thousand years later. But he may well have played a lyre, which may have been the granddaddy of the violin. Anyway, he wasn’t in Rome when the fire started, according to Tacitus, he was in Antium. But…of course he wouldn’t have run through Rome with a box of matches himself, he was the Emperor, for goodness’ sakes! A man like that had many servants, not so? If you’re the ruler, you’re supposed to be distanced from any criminal activity. It’s just like the Arms Deal: you have to make sure you have enough other officials to blame in order to make yourself look good.

“Anyway, Nero knew that popular support was important to anybody who wanted to stay in power. So, after the fire, he set about doing charitable deeds. He had Rome rebuilt, providing his subjects with brick houses to replace the shanties they had lived in before. While he was keeping the populace happy with their fine, new, one-roomed dwellings, he quietly had his architects design a new palace for him: the Domus Aurea or Golden House. This was  – quite coincidentally – situated on a piece of ground recently bared by the fire.

e2133 Domus aurea print1

Domus Aurea

“Now this palace was something else! Situated on a hillside, the grounds sloped down through an amazing garden which bordered the man-made lake. It had 300 rooms, and the main dining room had a revolving ceiling, resembling the movements of heaven! Other ceilings were covered in mosaic and there was a large statue of Nero, himself. And oh! The decorations! There were paintings and frescoes and and ivory and marble – every conceivable luxury of the time was displayed to emphasise the importance of the man we know as Nero, the Tyrant.

“In the end, Nero committed a sort-of suicide four years after the Fire of Rome. There were several reasons for this, notably the way he started taxing the rich and influential people of the day. Italy simply couldn’t sustain the extravagance of their emperor any longer. A revolt started, causing Nero to flee Rome. He later returned to the palace but found his loyal supporters had all left. The Senate convened, declared him a public enemy, and sentenced him to death. Upon hearing this, Nero sought refuge at some friend’s house, where he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to stab him to death.”

“A fitting end to a man who caused so much hardship.” Servaas nods. “What ye sow…”

“And his palace?” Vetfaan has to know.

“It became an embarrassment to his successors. The ivory and gold were stripped, but the edifice remained. Then they filled up the entire area, covering the palace with ground. The Baths of Titus were first built, followed by an amphitheatre and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Within 40 years the palace was buried beneath the soil.”

“Surely the people rejoiced at all this?”

“Some did, Precilla, but not all. The lower classes still held Nero in great esteem, revering his memory. It was only the people who understood what he had been doing who had reason to feel relieved. Still, it took a number of years for things to settle – a situation like that doesn’t end when the tyrant goes.

“And don’t think it’s an isolated case in the history of mankind. Rulers and kings have stayed in power by being supported by the people they reign over. It’s only when popular dissent grows from a grumble to a scream that things change. Rulers understand that. Remember: logic whispers, money shouts? That’s why President Zuma could say with so much confidence: “….only very clever and bright people care about…Nkandla.” He implied that his support came from the poor and disadvantaged part of society. It was true in Nero’s time, it’s still true today..”

“But the palace…the palace started the slide in his career, didn’t it?” The pleading note in Servaas’s voice is unmistakable.

“Back then, yes.” Gertruida sighs. “Who knows? Maybe history does keep on repeating itself, after all…”

The Father of Our Tragedies

Aeschylus_Bust

Bust of Aeschylus

“When an elephant gets angry at you, he settles the score by resting his head on your chest. Really hard and really long – after he pinned you to the ground. That’s what I heard, at least.”

Vetfaan shudders at the thought. It’s been a quiet day in Boggel’s Place, and the conversation slewed to the many different ways in which life may end – or dying, to be more specific. With the political scene constantly moving south, this seemed to be a very natural thing to do.

“Ag, Vetfaan, being crushed by an elephant may be an apt metaphor when you think about it. We small people don’t really feature in the greater scheme of things. If Zuma builds a new home, takes a new wife or buys eight nuclear power stations…what can we do? Death, taxes and silly governmental decisions – those are inevitable. We might as well stop worrying about it.” Shrugging her shoulders, Precilla orders another beer.

“There is the story of Aeschylus, of course…,” Gertruida says with an appropriate pause at the end. She knows they’ll want to know what she’s talking about. They don’t disappoint her.

“Well, he lived about 500 years before Christ. He was a writer.” Again the tantalising silence as she sips her beer. Kleinpiet rolls his eyes and stares at her with pleading eyes.

“Oh, come on! You guys should know all about that famous Greek? He was the father of soapies.”

When Servaas slaps her playfully, softly, on her cheek, she smiles and relents by telling the story.

“Aeschilus was a playwright, you see? Before he appeared on the scene, the Greeks certainly staged plays, but they had a single actor on stage, backed up with a chorus. It was more – as I understand it – a way of musical story-telling. Then Aeschilus changed all that. He brought in the concept of tragedy by placing two actors in a conflict situation. The chorus wasn’t so important anymore – the actors acted out the story. And of course, there had to be a winner and a loser, hence the tragedy. He wrote plays which enthralled the audience so much that – according to an old book, The Life of Aeschilus  – ‘they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labour.’

“In those days trilogies became popular, with tragic episodes following each other; much like the Americans do with their TV programs. And, in contrast to preceding efforts, his actors had to dress up and be made up to look like the character they portrayed: like Zeus or Achilles and so on.

“Anyway, today we honour him as the Father of Tragedy, the one who introduced mankind to the reality of everyday life – on stage. He was hugely successful in his time, but I think only seven of his plays survived.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “What has that to do with unusual deaths, Gertruida? That’s what we were talking about.”

“Oh that?” She smiles enigmatically. “Of course. You see, he heard a prohesy about his death. It was said that something would fall on his head, killing him instantly. So he solved the problem by staying outside, never venturing into buildings and cities. He thought he was safe.”

“So he died of old age?”

“Nope. According to Pliny in Naturalis Historiæ and an earlier writer, Valerius Maximus, an eagle  carried a tortoise high into the air, looking for a suitable rock to dash it on. Mistaking Aeschilus’s head for a rock, the eagle dropped the tortoise on target, killing the playwright.”

“So the father of tragedy died as a result of a flying tortoise?”

“Indeed. You see, if you are destined to die on a certain day in a certain manner, that’s the way it’ll be. You can’t escape fate.”

Oudoom clears his throat. He doesn’t like this type of argument.

“Don’t worry, Oudoom, we all know that such old tales are often fables and bits of oral history that get distorted over time, And, remember, those stories were written up long before Christ, which must make us look at them in context.”

With Oudoom suitably placated, a comfortable silence settles in Boggel’s Place while they mull over the life and times of that old Greek.

Credit: Independent Newspapers. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

Credit: Independent Newspapers. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

“Yes,” Servaas says suddenly. “Tragic trilogies. Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma. Today our modern playwright is the Parliament and let’s agree – they certainly dress up according to the drama they depict. They still use a chorus, though, when they protest.”

“Aeschilus all over again?” Vetfaan raises an eyebrow. “So we wait for a flying tortoise to bring sense back to our politics?”

He gets a slow nod from Gertruida. “Something slow is going to happen really fast one day. You’ll see, it’ll happen. Already the press and the media are baying for the head of our beloved President. It’s almost as if they know something we don’t. Or perhaps they are busy preparing the nation for a change. But, in the end, we have to agree that a tortoise can be as deadly as an elephant. It’s surprising how effective they can be under the right circumstances.”

“Falling tortoises and waning support…you may be right, Gertruida.”

Gertruida merely smiles that  smile again. She’s wondering who will be the eagle, and what form the tortoise will take. The tragedy, she thinks, is that the play on our political stage is so well written, that – like Aeschilus proved in his plays and with his demise – the end will come as  a surprise to everybody.

One of the main actors may be sacrificed, but the play will go on – and it can never be a comedy. Yes, she thinks, we’re doing Aeschilus proud…

When day has gone…

Nighttime in Africa is so special. That’s when the shadows deepen – not only in the bush, but in your mind as well. And you get visitors…

IMG_0134aThe spooky moon fills your mind, creating images you’d rather not endure.

IMG_3246Quick! Add wood to the fire…! Listen…the soft padding of approaching paws!

109_0935

Oh joy! It’s the resident badger, scouting for scraps. But…isn’t that another shadow moving behind it? Oh no…there are two of them!

108_0844A jackal and a brown hyena followed the badger in the hope of robbing him of supper!

Trip 2012 043And then you realise – the biggest of them all has been watching silently all along.

x23aWhen at last dawn releases you from the claws of darkness, you get the fire going for a mug of black coffee. Another day of adventure awaits…

e4

PS If you like Africa and her stories, you may want to have a look at Imagine: Africa..

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The Liberation of Herbert Vermeulen

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Whenever Gertruida is teased about her vast knowledge, she tells the group about poor Herbert and the way things turned out to be.

***

Why she was called Herbert, is an open question. Some say her father, Herbert Vermeulen, really wanted a son and a heir. Others say, no, that isn’t so; Herbert chose the name when she was three, because she adored her father so. And there is the undecided group that insists it’s her mother’s fault because she always wore long pants (in the days when the church still frowned upon such sinful attire).

Whatever the reason, Herbet grew up to be just like her father: steadfast in her ways and rather stubborn. See, her father was the local attorney. He knew everybody and almost everything that happened in the district. Almost. He knew, for instance, why the young Pastor Brown had to leave so suddenly – long before everybody else. In those days relationships were strictly between men and women, and certainly confined to what was called back then ‘according to the group you belong to’. Back then the state and the church combined in their efforts to promote ‘separate but equal development’, which turned out to be the oxymoron of the century.

But, although he had such a sensitive finger on society’s pulse, Herbert’s father had absolutely no idea what his daughter was up to while he sorted out the district’s legal wrangles. Herbert, you see, had two major passions in her life: reading (which she got from her father) and flying (goodness knows where that came from). Ever since she could read with some confidence, she had been drawn to pictures and books about aviators and flying. By the time she was seven, she was able to recite the history of the Wright brothers, recount the adventures of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and comment on the life and times of Chuck Yeager.

Growing up on an isolated farm like she did (outside Vosburg, in the Great Karoo), she ignored the curious looks she got whenever they went to attend church in town. She always dressed in khaki: short pants, shirt and hat. Even her socks were brown, as were the boots. The more sophisticated little girls in town dressed the way their mothers and the church dictated: floral skirts and sensible blouses. As time went by, the curious looks changed to overt stares of horror accomponied by constant jeers and teasing. Herbert’s parents seemed oblivious to this disapproval – in fact, her father told everyone who wanted to hear how special his daughter was.

Herbert, however, became increasingly uncomfortable with the silent (and not so silent) rejection she experienced and withdrew more and more to her father’s study, where she spent days on end, reading quietly. As most parents know, there comes a time in little girls’ lives when they’re not little girls anymore. This can happen overnight, like it did with Herbert. It wasn’t as if she developed pimples or curves or anything like that; she simply got up one morning to announce to her surprised parents that she wants nothing to do with society any longer.

“People are hypocrites, Pappa. They smile at you and then gossip behind your back. Society is based on pretense and lies. I shall refrain from having friends in the future.”

Now – as every parent knows who has guided a twelve-year-old into adulthood – one is best advised not to take every opinion expressed by  hormone-tormented teenagers as the ultimate statement of truth and wisdom. A quiet nod and indulgent smile would usually suffice to allow the storm to blow over. This was the approach Herbert’s parents tried at first, but after two weeks they were an extremely worried couple. Herbert slept, ate…and then retired to the study to read. Day after day, her routine remained the same.

They talked to her, of course. What about school, they asked? What about church? And Herbert shook her head and said no, she never, never wants to go to town again. Then her father had a brilliant idea.

“What about flying lessons, Herbie? Real ones, in Beaufort West. One of my clients has a small strip and an aeroplane – he occasionally uses it to fly sick people to Cape Town, but mostly he simply loves flying. It’s in his blood, you see? He says that’s why he was born – to fly. Don’t you think…?”

That was the start of Herbert’s liberation. For the next four years her father drove her – every second weekend – all the way to Beaufort West. Her teacher turned out to be the ungainly Smartryk Genade, a man in his forties with an disarmingly shy smile and a way of making complicated things sound simple. By no means handsome, he seemed a rather morose individual at first. Like Herbert, Smartryk had a strange name which had caused him much pain over the years. And like his new pupil, he abhorred society.

“I’d much rather escape to heavens than than to talk about rugby around a braai where I didn’t want to be, anyway.” Herbert understood that all too well.

By the age of eighteen Herbert and Smartryk were quite a team. By now Smartryk had two aeroplanes and the contract to fly post to the bigger sorting offices at Upington and Cape Town. (Although these things happened  long ago, some older readers might vaguely recall the time when the Postal Service actually functioned well.) On weekends the two of them were much in demand as Smartryk and Herbert’s Flying Circus at the various agricultural shows throughout the Karoo. They’d do a few loops, several fast fly-by’s and then a coordinated,wingtip-to-wingtip landing, earning quite a bit of money for their bravery.

But, inevitably, people talked. This older man with the lively young girl? This couldn’t just be about flying in the air, could it? Surely they rock the landing gear on occasion? Whoever said it first would certainly not have foreseen the tragedy these questions would bring. The gossip spread – as it is wont to – like a veld fire on a hot summer’s day. Shows got cancelled. Smartryk bore the brunt of the remarks thrown at them (at first obliquely but later blatantly to his face) about how ashamed he should be to be such a wretched old man, and that with a willing little hussy half his age.

Then one day, Smartryk took to the skies and never returned. They found the burnt-out wreckage on the mountain range to the south of Beaufort West, where the Karoo National Park is situated these days. So badly was the wreck burnt, that only a few fragments of charred flesh were found.

Yes, the people said, you reap what you sow. God doesn’t turn a blind eye to sin, now see what has happened? And they pointed fingers at Herbert, telling her she was to blame and she must just wait, her time was coming.

Herbert grieved deeply. Her father, who knew his daughter was still as pure as the day she was born, tried to sue some of the worst gossip-mongers, but the magistrate was in a bad mood that day and the case was dismissed. Of course, the gossip only increased after that.

In desperation, her father convinced her to attend a church service.

“This one is different, Herbie, I promise you. This man heals people. He performs miracles. Maybe he can help you feel better?” And, because her father was the only man she could trust, she nodded and said it’s okay, she’d go even if it’s a waste of time.

We’ve all seen such preachers. The suit has to be according to the fashion of the day. The shoes are important: unsuccessful preachers wear old, scuffed shoes. If you’re a miracle man, the shoes must be new and shiny. Most importantly, the miracle worker must have sympathetic eyes, a wide, white smile and a commanding attitude. The voice is of great significance: it has to be authoritative but kind; well-modulated but with the ability to project a whisper to the most hard-hearing member of his audience.

People still talk about that service. The preacher (who called himself Prophet Jacob), was at the point when he wanted the sick and the weary to come forward, when an almighty roar sounded from outside the church. The people glanced at each other in fright, hands flying to mouths, eyes large and scared. Somebody cried out, welcoming the Lion of Judah. Prophet Jacob tried to hide his confusion.

And then, there he was. Smartryk Genade, in a tattered flying suit, strode down the aisle, glared at the prophet, and took the microphone from his trembling hands.

“You sinners!” His shout echoed through the silent congregation. “You spreaders of lies! You festering cesspit! You have taken pleasure in spreading lies and completely unfounded stories.” The aviator’s eyes shone with anger as he spat out the words. Then, to Jacob’s utter surprise, Smartryk put an arm around his shoulders. “Now, this man,” he hugged the preacher, “has come to perform miracles. Hallelujah! ” The crowd was silent. Smartryk glared at them, shouting hallelujah! again. This time, they chorussed the word after him.

Smartryk turned to the prophet. “Listen, man. You perform wonders, don’t you? Well, here’s your chance! I command you to cleanse this community. Let them all come forward for you to lay hands on them. Every single soul, no exception. And then, then let them apologise to Herbert over there for the terrible things they said about her.”

***

Gertruida sits back with a satisfies smile. “And that’s exactly what happened. That poor preacher had to lay hands on everybody – except Herbert and her family – and afterwards they all had to apologise. Then Smartryk waved a little salute to Herbert, stalked out and got into the plane he had just landed. Herbert stormed out but the throng of people was so thick, she only managed to see the little plane hop once or twice down the main road before it took off into the blue.”

“So, what happened, Gertruida?” So engrossed in the story is Boggel that he’s sitting on top of the counter.

“Nobody knows, Boggel. Some say his appearance after that horrible crash is the biggest miracle of modern times. Others maintain that Smartryk staged it all and that he now ferries tourists to and from lodges somewhere in Africa. The funny thing is that people almost stopped gossiping about him and Herbert – and that’s enough of a miracle.”

“Almost?” Vetfaan arches an eyebrow.

“You know how it is, Vetfaan. Today hallelujah, tomorrow it’s ‘did you hear…’” Gertruida shrugs. Some things never change.

“But Herbert? She says it’s all so typical of Smartryk. He could always make complicated things sound so simple – it’s his gift.  She stays at the small strip outside Beaufort West and does the flying these days. People say – and it’s not gossip, they actually swear they heard it – they say that sometimes, late at night, you can hear the drone of an aeroplane landing there. Then after a while, they say you can hear merry laughter coming from that hangar.”

At this point, Gertruida smiles sadly. “You always joke about me knowing everything. Well, I’m glad to inform you that I don’t…”

Another you,
Where to find her?
Another who
Would surprise me.

Another you,
Similar misfortune..
Who knows if
There is another you.

From: Un’altra te, words and music by Adelio Cogliati, Eros Ramazzotti and Pierangelo Cassano.

The Legend of the Glutton and the Small Pot

109_0966!xsaikgamma Jantjies is proud of his first name – it had been his father’s name, just like every firstborn son in his family even before they adopted the surname (nobody had surnames back in the 1800’s; the silliness started only after the English started with their registers). He simply loves it when people try to pronounce his name; which, quite obviously, only the people of his tongue manage. In the original language, his name denotes one who makes music: He who has the sound of water. However, ever since his grandfather’s time, the tradition in the family switched from being musicians (usually on the string of a bow or a flute made of reed) to singing. And their songs, if you could understand them, are musical fragments of history or what they see in the future.

***

“Welcome, Mister Jantjies!” Boggel avoids the embarrassment of trying to use the first name. “It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

!xsaikgamma smiles happily. He likes visiting Rolbos, where he always has a warm reception. “I told you to call me Jantjies. Just that. It’s easier.”

When Gertruida heard the old man was in town, she prepared his favourite stew (curried venison, lots of potatoes) and now she places the steaming bowl of aromatic food in front of him. He smacks his lips, but looks up shrewdly.

“As usual, it isn’t free, is it?”

The remark makes Gertruida do a little jig of joy.

“I hope not, !xsaikgamma.” Gertruida is the only one in town who can pronounce the name correctly. “But only if you want to.”

“Let me eat first. Sing? I cannot sing on an empty stomach.”

“That’s why I made the stew, !xsaikgamma, like I always do when you visit us. You sing so well.”

And that’s quite true, too. Not only is the old man an above-average soprano, he has also taken to translating his songs so they may understand the words. And should you ask any Rolbosser, they’d tell you he is hugely entertaining.

When at last he uses a gnarled finger to sweep the last of the gravy from the plate, he smiles at his audience. The whole town is there, waiting in anticipation.

“I shall sing you a legend. This legend isn’t about the past at all. It’s a legend of the future.” Taking out a reed flute, he plays a little intro before starting his song.

***

The fat man was hungry, he wanted more;

he’s never been so hungry before.

So he sent his sons to hunt another buck

hoping, indeed, they’d find some luck.

At first they went to scout the land to see what they could find

But the fat man had eaten everything, and he had more in mind.

“Go get some more guns, and boats and planes,” the fat man said,

for his huge appetite had not been met.

“And bring me meat – and lots of it

and bring it here to where I sit.”

His sons went out, but the day had gone,

the night was there, with only stars that shone.

And it was dark, as dark can be -

his sons were blind, they couldn’t see.

“Bring me light,” the fat man cried.

And lo! His sons looked everywhere -

but because it was dark, as dark can be

his sons looked everywhere, but couldn’t see.

But then a man came, from far away

he wore a furry hat.

“I’ll give you light, but you must do as I say”

And that, my friend was that.

So now the sons have too much light

and they can hunt throughout the night.

They bring back meat – in pieces and bits

to Nkandla, where the fat man sits.

But now the fat man cries a lot;

the meat was too much for his pot.

And it fell over, burning all his meat

and now the fat man cannot eat.

***

“What a strange man. What a weird song.I wonder what he was singing about.” Vetfaan stares at the receding figure marching down Voortrekker Weg.

“You know, Vetfaan, it is wrong to think of people like !xsaikgamma as ignorant. It is true that he – like so many others – leads a simple life. They don’t read newspapers and never listen to political analysts. Neither do they understand the massive problems with the economy or the intricate web of international relationships.

“But you just heard him express a profound opinion on the Arms Deal – the R30-billion fiasco which involved a billion Rand in bribery.” Gertruida sits back with a worried frown. “And then he sang about the alleged R500-billion deal with the Russians to build nuclear power stations. Can you imagine what a can of worms that may well turn out to be?”

“I’ve heard that legend before,” Boggel says thoughtfully. “About the glutton who couldn’t stop eating. Eventually he put so much meat in his pot that it toppled over into the fire. When he tried to rescue his food, his entire house burnt down. There’s a moral to that story.”

“Ja, there is.” Kleinpiet draws a three-legged pot on the counter top with beer froth. “No pot is ever big enough to hold injustice. Eventually it must topple over and spill the proverbial beans.”

The group at the bar stares at his froth-painting in silence for a while.

“What does his name mean, Gertruida? You pronounce it so well, but I still can’t get my tongue around it.”

“!xsaikgamma?” Gertruida smiles sadly. “Music maker. The sound of water. It may also be translated as the flute player.”

“Like: whistleblower?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, I guess you can say that.”

The war was lost
The treaty signed
There’s Truth that lives
And Truth that dies
I don’t know which
So never mind.

Words and music: L Cohen

The Great Prickly Pear Debacle

tsaz_huntley2.preview“Oom Fourie passed away last night.” Boggel raises a glass in a silent salute. “He must have been a hundred-and-something.” They all knew the old man had been teetering about on his last legs for the last few weeks and somehow the news of his demise is a relief.

Farty Fourie, who in the past had done his name proud by interrupting Oudoom’s sermon in a most antisocial way,  used to live near Grootdrink, next to the Gariep River (which once was called the Orange, but like most things in South Africa, it has become unfashionable to refer to it as a colour – which incidentally still is brown.) Here he had farmed with peaches, distilling the most exquisite brandy from the fruit. This – quite possibly – might have contributed to his nickname.

“That means….” Vetfaan doesn’t even want to finish the sentence.

“Ja, man, that’s the problem. No Farty means no peach brandy. At least, not his brew, anyway.” Klleinpiet draws a coffin with his beer-froth on the countertop, adding a little wreath for effect. “It’s a catastrophe.”

“We shall produce our own.” Gertruida, who has been wondering what she could do to liven up her mood, suddenly smiles. “I read an article on the Home Spirit Maker – apparently you can even make whiskey with it…” She wants to continue, but Servaas holds up a gnarled hand.

“You’ll have to call it something else. Oudoom will have a fit if we start producing spirits around here. He’ll preach us into irreversible sobriety.” The old man shudders at the thought.

“…if you’ll be so kind to let me finish.” Gertruida fixes him with a withering stare. “I was trying to say that we can quite easily produce our own still, there’s no need to buy one. All we need is a drum, a piece of pipe and containers to collect the brandy. Of course, we’ll have to ferment some fruit first, and that’s the biggest problem.”

Yes, they all nodded, at this time of year even the farms around the Gariep don’t have any grapes or peaches.

“I have some prickly pears on my farm,” Vetfaan ventures, “they don’t have any fruit on them, but the leaves are thick and succulent. Can’t we…”

“Mmmm…probably. I know the San people used honey – even honeycomb – to make wine. That means honey should promote fermentation, if you think about it. So if we added honey to some pulped cactus leaves, we might just be on to something. Once we have fermentation going, the distilling should be easy.”

***

One would think the patrons in Boggel’s Place should run out of ideas – and that there must be a limit to stupidity in any given group of people. So far, they have defied the laws governing statistical probabilities regarding this simple fact.

zambuk_ointment_tinVetfaan supplied the cactus leaves, which Kleinpiet attacked with a garden fork, poking them full of holes. Servaas proudly produced some honeycomb, having raided a nest after some severe smoking (him, not the nest). Although he bore the wounds of his efforts with pride, he actually enjoyed the way Precilla rubbed the Zambuk ointment into the stings.

And then they waited, watching the mixture in the cleaned-out drum very carefully every day.

Boggel worked up enough courage on day seven to dip a ladle into the foul-smelling liquid, introduced a tentative tongue into it, and declared that fracking in the Karoo wasn’t necessary. They have, he said, solved the world’s fuel problems.

***

Distilling, Gertruida said, was an easy process. Get a tight lid on the drum, run a piece of hose pipe from there – keeping it cool with some wet rags wrapped around it – and then insert the end of the hose into any container available. Once the setup was complete, a small fire under the drum should evaporate the alcohol, which would then condense to run into the container.

Kleinpiet and Vetfaan followed these instructions to the letter. The drum’s lid was sealed with duct tape, the hose fitting tightly as ordered.

“How big must the fire be?”

“I don’t know.” Kleinpiet scratched his head, then glanced at the sinking sun. “Gertruida didn’t specify.  I suppose we’ll get faster results if we boil it up properly.”

***

Robert Burns, that famous Scottish poet, penned a poem in 1875, called:  “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” This poem could have been written for the recent referendum over there, or for the two men next to the fire under that drum.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

***

The explosion was heard in Bitterbrak, on the other side of Bokkop, some fifteen miles away. At least, that’s what Ben Bitterbrak said when he roared into town, ready to start the Third Boer War. What he found, however, left him speechless.

The front of Boggel’s Place – usually a drab Karoo-khaki colour – now sported a shiny, green appearance. A smoking drum was perched on the veranda, while two green-faced men sat on the steps, staring into the distance.

Ben isn’t a superstitious man. Then again, he’s a man of few words. Also, he’s a fiercely independent soul – he likes to make up his own mind.

He later apologised, saying any rational human being would have done the same. What do you do, he asked, when Martians invade your country? No matter that they have arms and legs like the rest of us, but the green colour is a dead giveaway.

Oudok also made himself hugely unpopular that day, laughing as he did while he removed the buckshot from the two (still green) patients. He also made the mistake of remarking that he didn’t accept payment from the Intergalactic Scheme for Infirm Soldiers.

But it is Gertruida, that astute woman who had recently suffered so from depression, who gained the most from the incident. For weeks afterwards, she couldn’t stop laughing at Kleinpiet and Vetfaan, who insisted it had all been her fault.

They all went to Farty Fourie’s funeral, of course. After the service, Oudoom introduced them to Finkie Fourie, the old man’s granddaughter. She’s a winemaker in Stellenbosch, specialising in the production of grappa. They’re now the best of friends.

When the Black Dog Gets You

_65927423_cingulumcloseupx1Gertruida, as we all realise, knows everything. She is opinionated, passionate about the truth, and seldom hesitates to respond to the most impossible situations. This, Servaas says, is both a blessing and a curse, and maybe he’s right. After all, when Gertruida started staying at home while they all partied at Boggel’s Place, they all knew something was terribly wrong. And later, after Precilla said that  she had seen Gertruida walking up and down Voortrekker Weg at 3 am (she was closing the window because of the cold), it was Oudoom who remarked about the sleep disturbances you get with depression.

Servaas, of course, blames himself. Before he went on his memorable road trip, is had been he, Servaas, who wore black and was cynical about everything. At that time it didn’t bother him in the least that the townsfolk joked about his morose nature – in fact, he rather relished the attention he received as a result of his dark moods and comments. But now, after enjoying the time on the old Enfield so much – and having met such wonderful people – Servaas simply loves being called The Kalahari Biker. Men of all ages admit (some under duress) to a strange phenomenon: if you manage to astound your peers, you get a weird sensation of superiority. It’s a primitive, childish reaction, yet this is exactly the stupid reason why men climb mountains, participate in drinking competitions or go to parliament.

And who can deny that the Servaas who came back from that trip, is a completely changed man? The bushy eyebrows no longer gather in disapproval, the kudu-ponytail bobs up and down when he laughs, and the dark suit seems to be a thing of the past. Oudoom says the change is a miracle, while Mevrou occasionally pokes fun at the much shorter church council meetings – Servaas seems completely happy with the sermons these days. In short: the cantankerous old man has become the life and soul of the parties in Boggel’s Place.

And this new-found happiness has had a devastating effect on Gertruida. Somehow she seemed to have found solace in his depressed state in the past – as if his dark moods were confirmation that somebody else in town was worse off than she was. With both of them being single, she could always point out that Servaas was more lonely, more obtuse and more depressed. But now, with Servaas regaling them with stories of his adventures, Gertruida has had to face the fact that her life is empty and dull. Sure, she has this vast knowledge and can contribute to any intellectual discussion…but where is the fun, the adventure, the joy? Servaas has broken out of the prison of self-pity and solitude, explored the wide world out there, and came back as a new man – while she, Gertruida, still has to read the National Geographic to kill her many lonely hours.

***

“We have to do something,” Vetfaan says when Oudoom sits down with a contented sigh. It’s Monday and he’s already worked out the next Sunday’s sermon. Servaas actually suggested the theme of ‘Joy’, and supplied several verses which turned out to be most helpful.

“About Gertruida?”

“Yes, Dominee. She doesn’t join us here anymore, rarely leaves her house and refuses to answer the doorbell. Precilla tried to talk to her, but Gertruida slammed the door in her face.”

Oudoom sits back, laces his fingers behind his head and stares at the ceiling.

“I think,” he says after Boggel pushed a beer over the counter, “that she’s depressed because we’re too happy. And, because she knows everything, she realises the problem isn’t the fun we’re having – but the lack thereof in her own life.” Quite accurately, the clergyman sums up that the change in Servaas’s demeanour precipitated the plunge in Gertruida’s mood.

“Well, I like Servaas the way he is now. Wouldn’t change it for anything.” Vetfaan shrugs. “But that doesn’t solve the problem with Gertruida…”

“No, it doesn’t. We’re really stuck, aren’t we? There isn’t any eligible bachelor in the district we can ask to help, either. And she doesn’t come to church anymore, so my sermon on Joy isn’t going to be useful either.”

hjarna3Boggel shakes his head. “We will just have to be inventive, that’s all. The latest National Geographic has an article on Professor van Wedeen, a neuroscientist working in Massachusetts. It’s fascinating. They use a scanner of sorts, a huge thing, that uses enough electricity to power a submarine. They are trying to explain how the brain works, see? Now, if we can get Gertruida to talk to him, it’ll boost her morale, don’t you think?”

They gape at him.

“Sure, it won’t be easy…but it’s worth a try.”

“Are you suggesting that we phone the professor in America and ask him to be interviewed by a woman – not even a journalist – from a place that’s not even on Google Maps? What are the chances…” Vetfaan purses his lips – Boggel can be so naive…

“Well, what about a journalist phoning her for an opinion?” Clearly desperate to find an answer, Boggel shrugs as he spreads his arms wide. “What can we lose?”

It takes three rounds of peach brandies to hatch the plan. Since they know no journalists, they decide to manufacture one. If they can get Sammie to talk with two ping-pong balls stuck inside his cheeks…? Of course! Great idea…! (The logic behind this idea will confound even the esteemed professor van Wedeen, but we all know how convincing peach brandy can be after the second tot.)

***

“Hello (mumble-mumble-click), is that Gertruida?’

“Yes, what do you want? I’m busy.”

“Ghood. (mumble). Ah’m phoning in connection (mumble-click) with that ahrticle about van Wedeen. Ah, mmm, the phrofessoh. We nheed infohmation abaht his wohk (mumble) foh ahn ahrticle (click) foh tha Uhpingthon Phost.”

The group in the bar wait with bated breath. Will she take the bait? A long silence follows.

“Juhst youhr thoughts. (mumble-click-mumble). Youh’re the ohnly pehson who chan hhelp ush.”

For a moment they thought they had her. Then…

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Sammie? Take your bloody balls out of your mouth and speak properly. Goodbye!”

***

Prof van Wedeen is most probably the world’s best researcher into the working of the human brain. Using the powerful scanner, he has mapped out the pathways thoughts travel and has formulated new theories about brain function. For this he deserves praise.

But in Rolbos – in the humble bar run by a hunchback – they’ve discovered the cure for depression. It’s not anything new, mind you. It’s called laughter.

When Gertruida stormed into Boggel’s Place after the phone call, she was spoiling for a fight. She was met by such sheepish looks and suppressed giggles, that she considered turning around and leaving the silly group to continue the party.

But then she saw Sammie, who couldn’t get the ping-pong balls out of his cheeks; looking for all the world like an overgrown chipmunk who had just robbed a chestnut warehouse.

And she found – much to her own surprise – the corners of her lips moving upward.

“If you can whistle, I’ll forgive you,” she said, forcing a straight face.”Otherwise I’ll have to kill you.”

***

Isn’t it strange that a single event can jeopardise a life-long friendship? Or, on the other hand, how a single giggle can defuse the most depressing situation? Still, Servaas isn’t taking any chances. He’s taken to wearing his black suit again, and tucks the kudu-tail under his hat when Gertruida is near. He’d rather fake a black mood than face Gertruida’s black dog. Still, although he tries to hide his new-found sense of adventure, he can’t disguise the glint in his eye.

Oudoom did give his sermon on Joy that Sunday – a powerful message of faith if ever there was one – and concluded that joy is a most fragile commodity.

“Joy, brothers and sisters, is a state of mind. It is the source of contentment, of acceptance, of the will to go on. Without it, faith – even life or love – cannot survive. But…,” and here he paused dramatically, “it needs to be nourished. And how do we do that? I’ll tell you.

“Joy lies not in what we have experienced in the past – although we might cherish some wonderful memories – but it is in the realisation that the future is what we are destined for. We nourish joy by hope. Without hope, there can be no joy.

“So, when we find that joy has left the building, we must look at what we’ve let in.” He ticked off several points at this stage. “Dispair. Self-image. Taking ourselves too seriously. Losing faith. And what are these things, my brothers and sisters? They are self-made – they are produced up here, in our own minds.” He tapped the side of his head. “If you are not the master of your own thoughts, you will be a slave to your own self-destruction.”

Boggel reckons Oudoom can teach that professor something, but that could be the peach brandy talking. In the meantime, he keeps two ping-pong balls under the counter. He says it’s a better antidepressant than Prozac.

Endurance…the Africa Way

Africa poses many challenges to everything and everybody who makes it through every day.

IMG_2550

The hardy Welwitschia steadfastly ignores the arid conditions of the desert, surviving for hundreds of years on the dew it collects on its leaves.

IMG_2551Some trees didn’t make it, of course. This one, thousands of years old, survives in a petrified state. One cannot but help wondering about the birds and the animals it gave shelter to.

a3The San people did, fortunately, leave a record of the time when rhino’s were abundant – and respected.

IMG_2602And Mother Nature, not to be outdone, carved this map of Africa out of solid rock. Maybe it’ll still be there after mankind manages to wipe itself out.

IMG_3250What do we learn from this?

Well, Mother Nature has found ways to endure. Mankind, however, must still do so…