Author Archives: Amos van der Merwe

About Amos van der Merwe

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The Wings of War

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Pinterest

Precilla received this email. How – in heaven’s name – did Manuel manage to find the address? Precilla, after all, only runs a little pharmacy in Rolbos – an extremely small enterprise which supplies Oudoom’s blood pressure medication and the pills Servaas needs when his gout acts up. This necessitates prolonged and frustrating communications with the medical aid companies, which is why Precilla had to get connected to the Internet.

Be that as it may, the letter remains proof of how small our world has become. It also serves to remind us how important it is to tell our stories with honesty and kindness.

(To understand these letters, please refer to the previous post.)

***

Dear Sir

I no write good English, sorry. I ask my son to help. He in school and has a smartphone. He reads many stories in WordPress – he say it makes his English better. 

I much sepru seprised when he read about Manuel in story. Manuel story is my story. I tell more, yes?

Nossa! When soldiers catch me, I very much afraid. Beeg trouble. But I good soldier, I tell nothing. Many days they ask me cue kwes question, I say nothing. No eat. No drink. Much pain. Then orderly come, he take me away. He hide me. Give naif knife. He say I must go back to farm.

Manuel, he walked back to Angola. Many days he walk. I get much tired a lot. I no know how long. Later, I get to my farm.

You see, I only poor farmer. One day, man with unyphorm uniphorm he come. Say all mans in the distric must go army. I say no, my place need my hands. The man hit me, hit my wife. Then I go. That is how I became soldier. Now, when I get back to farm, I say: no more soldier. 

My wife, she’s very good. Bonito, I say. She go soldier. Say I die in bush and she berry bury me. No mare Manuel, she say. They hit her again. Why? I don’t know.

Many months I hide, help on farm. Then one day the war is finished. No more soldiers. I go home to live with wife. 

Why I write this? Beeg kwes question, no? 

I say obrigado.Thank you. For war, for soldier, for man who made me escai escape. Why? Manuel learn many things in war. He see how war make enemys. Many enemys. Before war, no enemys. During war, many enemys. After war, no enemys. Manuel wonder about this, then decide: enemy only made by war. War made by hombres in Luanda and other places far away. War not made by Manuel’s farm or village. So, Manuel thinks, better to stay on farm. Manuel work hard. Make farm nice. Send son to school. (He write this)

Now, that orderly, he save my life. My enemy, he make me think we are all same. People all same. Have family, maybe a son, like me. Want to love wife and work hard – no? That hombre make beeg risk to help Manuel, but Manuel no forget. Every night Manuel, he pray for man who give Manuel life. And say thank you, Jesus.

So. Manuel say goodbye.

Manuel.

Precilla read the email with tears in her eyes,  How happy Kleinpiet would be when she tells him about the letter! She was about to print it out, when the ping of the computer announced the arrival of more mail.

Hi there.

I’m Manuel’s son, a teacher at our local school. I have sent my father’s letter as he wrote it, simply because I couldn’t have said it better. I think his rough draft conveys his appreciation far better than a formal letter of thanks. 

I have to tell you that he often tells us about the way he escaped. It has become a family and a village legend. I also use the story in class when I want to make my pupils aware of the horror of war – and how a single act of kindness can influence not only an individual, but his family and local community as well. 

Because the story appeared in Rolbos (I use many of these stories in class as well), I assume the author might know the orderly involved in my father’s escape. I’d appreciate you telling him that my father is well and that he speaks highly of him. Maybe he could use my father’s story to tell people how important it is to know that we are all human. Fighting will never solve problems. Uniforms, my father says, change people. That uniform might be a suit or involve tunics and brass – but once a person wears it, he loses his identity. He stops thinking as an individual and becomes a part of a machine with no conscience. This is true for politicians, soldiers and some businessmen. 

My father says we must remain human  – and humane. He taught me to live kindly. That’s why I became a teacher. My school isn’t grand, but we have about 500 pupils. Every year about 50 of my pupils finish school and go into the world to apply what I’ve tried to teach them. They might still find mathematics difficult, but they’ll never forget the story of Manuel and the way a single enemy soldier gave him wings to change our lives.

Kind regards

Manuel Cobado (Jnr)

***

Author’s Note:

If ever you come to Rolbos, ask Kleinpiet about these letters and what they have meant to him. Also ask him to show you these emails. He won’t have it with him, of course, but he’ll gladly go home to fetch it. He keeps it – neatly folded up – in his Bible, next to the sentence he highlighted in Matthew 5:9.

The Chains of War.

Sculpture-by-Bernard-Jack-001

By US sculptor Bernard Jackson.

“Faith, my friends, is loneliest word in the universe.” Oudoom stares through the window, his back towards the group at the bar. The Kalahari sky is strangely overcast, with the faintest of suggestions of a little rain. “It’s such a personal thing. I can’t believe in anything simply because the rest of the world believes it. I – myself – must be convinced about something before I can say I have faith in it.”

“Like love?” Precilla’s voice is soft, her eyes moist.

“Yes, like love.”

It’s been a tough week in Rolbos. They’ve talked, wondered and argued (more like debated than fought) about Kleinpiet’s startling announcement that he was leaving them for a while. Just like that. And then he pecked Precilla on the cheek after shaking hands with the rest…and got into his pickup to drive out of town. No explanation.

Oh, they speculated, of course. Gertruida said they should have picked up the warning signs over the past few weeks – Kleinpiet had been very quiet, sitting on the veranda and staring at the shimmering horizon most of the time. And that one time, when Vetfaan started talking about the Border War, Kleinpiet interrupted him rudely, saying it wasn’t a subject they should be discussing. Servaas reminded them of another conversation that ended bluntly.

“I was talking about Siena when Kleinpiet said I was a fool to love so intensely. He said Siena is dead and I must get over it. I was so shocked…”

“Ja, ” Oudoom said at the time, “he told me I’m a deluded old man when I said something about God loving us all…”

***

Nobody survives – unscathed – the ravages of war. The lucky ones get killed and buried. The rest go home – either as victor or defeated – to live with what they had seen and done. The living have to bear the burden of the dead – and that poison kills a little bit of life in every soldier who unlatches the front gate of his home after the politicians signed yet another meaningless peace accord.

Perhaps it is true to say that depression is born during times of conflict. While these times of frustration may involve less obvious stresses, they do tend to surface especially after periods of battle and bloodshed. And, like a hyena has the uncanny ability to find the carcass a leopard so cleverly camouflaged amongst the thorny bushes, so depression will hunt down the weak in the unguarded moments when memories cause sleepless nights.

***

Angola 1982

Secret

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 15 after capture

The subject still refuses to cooperate. After prolonged sessions of interrogation, sleep deprivation and starvation, he is weak but remains defiant. 

The man repeatedly denied any military involvement, saying he is an innocent farmer in Sector 45(a), north of Lubango (Map SAW 378, position D 22). He can give no reason why he ventured so far south, and was armed with an AK47.

His interrogation will continue after his medical today. 

***

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 26 after capture

The prisoner is in a much weakened state. No further information has been forthcoming. Medical orderly has expressed concern about his physical state. Will discuss possible scenarios during the briefing tonight. Consider  termination?

***

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Final

Prisoner was hospitalised three days ago on advice of medical orderly. Health and mental state stabilised and improving following intravenous medication and nutrition. 

Inexplicably managed to escape from the medical tent during the night at about 3 am. Medical orderly on duty at the time was writing reports in an adjacent tent and noticed the absence of Prisoner 2815 at 03h16, and raised the alarm immediately. 

Tracks were followed in a northeasterly direction, but disappeared in the shallow river three clicks away. Commanding officer withdrew the searching patrol due to upcoming offences. Medical orderly reprimanded.

***

At first it seemed as if Manuel Cobado might make it. The orderly had hidden him at the base of a huge baobab, just south of the Angolese border with South West Africa, providing him with a ratpack and water. Of course the orderly couldn’t visit him daily, but he kept up a steady stream of supplies whenever he could.

It must have been a week after the escape that the prisoner finally spoke up.

“Why you do this for me? Better that I die, no? You get shot if they find you here.”

The orderly managed a wry smile. “You speak English?”

And so a strange and halting conversation started. Manuel admitted to spying on the South African troops, noting movements and supplies. He was supposed to convey these to his superiors in Luanda, but the batteries in his radio had been defective and he abandoned the device before attempting to return to Angola. During his journey back, he was spotted and captured.

“Why didn’t you just tell them that? It could have saved you a lot of pain?”

Manuel shrugged. “Why you help me? What can I say? This is war, no? You soldier, me soldier. We fight, we kill. I no say nothing, I die. That’s okay. But I go back and I tell I was prisoner, they think Manuel tell lie. They think Manuel is now spy for you. They put Manuel in prison and ask many questions. Manuel no can say anything – so they shoot Manuel. Manuel die, anyway.”

This upset the orderly, who argued with his patient. But in the convoluted logic that only exists during wars, they both knew the rules – and that Manuel’s return after being a prisoner would be viewed with extreme suspicion by his superiors.

The orderly suggested that Manuel return to his small farm to wait for the end of the war. Manuel said it wasn’t possible, there were spies everywhere.

When the orderly returned the next day, the hideaway was empty. On the makeshift bed he found the pocket knife he had given to Manuel and a piece of bark on which the word ‘Obrigado‘ was carved out.

***

What happened to Manuel Cobado?  Was he the farmer-turned-spy he claimed to be? Did he make it back home – unarmed and as weak as he was? Did he sometimes sit next to a fire at night, remembering the days of war? And does he, after all these years, still have faith in his convictions? Or did the Russians (or Chinese, or Cubans)  throw him in jail, as he predicted? What happened to his family? And his farm?

Maybe not all soldiers have such questions in the years after the war. Triggers were pulled, men fell, mortars exploded, people were killed. That’s what war is about, after all. But if not all, then many men and women who stow away the uniform in the holdall they hope never to unpack again, will feel their hearts shrink when these memories surface during unguarded moments. Who was that man in the cross-hairs? That face that stared in horror over the low wall as the ccrrrrumph! of the mortar echoed across the killing field – did he have a family? The pitiful, mangled body behind the splintered tree trunk – who did he pray to when the bullets started chipping away at the wood? And do we not all whimper in the same language when the shrapnel tears a chunk out of the uniform? And…what about the ragged, dirty little child that ran to the prostrate body in the village square when the bombing started?

***

Near Rolbos, 2014

 Kleinpiet turns the pocket knife over and over in his hands. He’s camping next to a sandy hill, a few miles out of town. Maybe he’ll return tomorrow, or the day after. But first he has to make peace.

With himself.

With Manuel.

With Love and Faith.

Once he’s done that, he might just manage to shake off the chains…for now..

***

“I think he’s terribly selfish, going off like that…” Precilla dabs the Kleenex to her eyes.

“No, my dear, he’s terribly brave,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “Faith and Love…and depression…are like Ravel’s Bolero. It builds up volume and tempo from an rather inconspicuous start. The trick is to conduct the orchestra in your mind to play the correct instrument at the right time. Only if you do that, can you unshackle the wonderful melody of Hope.”

Of course Precilla doesn’t understand.

ESCOM? Who needs them…?

biodigester-turns-cow-manure-into-methane-gas“Look,” she said, “it’s easy. All you have to do is to produce gas. The rest should be child’s play.”

The exasperating thing about Gertruida is that she has this way of simplifying things to the point where you expect events to follow a logical course – which often happens…and sometimes not. Add a couple of shots of peach brandy, yet another power blackout and a candle, and you find yourself following her instructions as if you had no choice.

The group at the bar had been discussing the dismal performance of ESCOM, the state-run, bumbling organisation that is supposed to supply the country with electricity. Like the SABC and South African Airways, ESCOM has managed to run itself  into shambles lately. Oh, these companies did hang on for a few years due to the efficiency of management in the bad old days of the previous government, but then democracy came along and everything went to pieces. Complete mismanagement has resulted in undiluted chaos, with everybody blaming everybody else. Like Gertruida said: it would have been funny if it wasn’t such a tragedy.

Still, they had to do something. Drinking warm beer in the dark was just not acceptable.

busa1“We must generate our own electricity, that’s all. We have no other option.” That’s what Gertruida had said. Then, reminding them that you only needed a generator (the derelict one behind Sammie’s shop), she suggested isolating them from the national grid (‘That huge switch at the last pole. Just flick it to the ‘Off’ position’). Coupling Oudoom’s car’s one driveshaft (he has the smallest vehicle in town, a 1969 Mini) to the generator, and connecting to their own Rolbos Electric And Light Company. RealCo, she said, would show the rest of the country how it should be done.

“Think of the money we’ll save , guys. In 2010 ESCOM’s salary bill hovered around 14,7 billion Rand – and one can only speculate what it is now. Think about it: those ridiculous bonuses to the so-called executives, the costs of new power stations – Madupi will come on line R150 billion  later – and heaven knows how much they have to spend on infrastructure….well, if the country could save all that money, we’d be able to afford our president. Now, that would be something.”

“That’s nice, Gertruida. But that Mini needs petrol to run, and you know how expensive that is.”

digesterGertruida smiled while she shook her head. “No, there’s a company in Oklahoma with the solution to that one. They call it CRAP - Caloric Recovery Anaerobic Process. It’s simple, really. You take a drum, fill it halfway with cattle or sheep manure, add water and let mother nature do the rest. You then produce a very combustible fuel in the form of methane gas and when the process has run it’s course, you’re left with a drum full of fertilizer.

“I’m sure Vetfaan will only have to remove the carburettor from the Mini’s engine, connect up a piece of hose from the gas collecting bag to the engine, and that’s it! We have an engine running off cow pooh, and that drives our generator – and no more  blackouts!”

***

It sounded so simple.

It might have worked, too, if Servaas hadn’t put a match to his pipe while listening to the bubbles rising to the top of the sludge inside the drum.

***

One must give credit where credit is due. Gertruida says a good storyteller leaves the graphics to the mind of the listener.

“Just give the audience enough of a skeleton to hang the details on – and make the listener smile at the pictures created by the imagination. No matter how hard a narrator tries, he can’t beat those images. A picture, especially a mental one, is worth more than a thousand words…”

Nowadays, the patrons in the bar are quite content to enjoy the intimate atmosphere created by a few candles. They poke fun at Gertruida, who says it’s not her fault that Servaas has been banned to the veranda. He should have known better. Anyway, according to her, he should be able to join them inside again next week.

Provided he continues showering three times a day, that is.

Photo Challenge: Angular

An angle can imply many things. Viewing objects and people from different points of view may be as much fun as considering the various meanings of what an angle might mean.

Of course, most people prefer believing what they see. This is a no-angle approach and we all do it every day. What you see, is what you get…

IMG_3324But – very often – what we see isn’t reality. People pretend, others lie and relationships may be complicated. What you see, needs to be analyzed carefully to find out what is real.

IMG_2853You may also think of angles as geometrical, cast-in-stone objects. Although this lacks imagination, it does provide an easier passage through life.

IMG_2453But Life rarely follow easy, repeated and predictable patterns. Once we look at  – and really see – how Mother Nature treats such angles, we realise that Life isn’t a mathematical formula. It’s so much more complicated than that.

IMG_2588That’s why, in South Africa – and elsewhere, I suppose – we dream of an uncomplicated Life, where harmony directs us all towards a better future. Where what you see, is what you get…without any political angles.

IMG_3610

Adam’s Calendar…again?

Adams-Calendar-book-cover-268x300“Those guys are crazy.” Tipping the glass upside down, Vetfaan signals for another beer. “To imply that South Africa has it’s own Stonehenge is romantic and all that, but surely it’s outrageous to suggest that some aliens visited us to start our gold-mining tradition?”

He’s been browsing through Adam’s Calendar: Discovering the oldest man-made structure on Earth – 75,000 ago  by Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger, a book Gertruida donated to the church bazaar. It tells the story of  a series of ruins in Mpumalanga in which the authors describe their ideas of an ancient civilisation in that area.

Ale's Stones

Ale’s Stones

“Oh, people just love such ideas.” As usual, Gertruida has to show off her vast knowledge. “Look, there are megaliths all over the world. Most of these structures are badly eroded, for sure, but they retain a certain aura of mystery.

“How do you explain Stonehenge, or Easter Island’s Moai, or Ale’s Stones in Sweden? It is only natural that some will want to explain these as relics from a distant past as signs of a lost civilisation. There is a catch, however: why are these structures spread out all over the world? South America, England, Malta – you name virtually any country – even Russia – and you’ll find something there that science struggles to explain. So, because we don’t believe Neanderthals were capable of more intelligent thoughts than our parliamentarians, we grab at the next best thing: aliens.”

“Well, Genesis does say something about heavenly creatures who visited the daughters of man.” Servaas has never been able to explain Genesis 6, especially the ‘giants of men’ that were born afterwards. “Maybe it were those big fellows who stacked up stones everywhere.”

“And then the Flood came and wiped them out? After travelling a zillion miles across the universe, they drowned?” Shaking his head, Boggel serves another round. “I agree with Vetfaan about some explanations needing to be explained. Circles within circles, that type of thing. However much we delve into the legends of old, we still won’t understand what a pyramid means, or how it was built. Theories? Yes, there are many of them. But can we duplicate those phenomena by building similar structures with no computers and not even a sliding rule?”

Tellinger-Giant-Footprint

Credit: extraterrestrialcontact.com/

“Still, they say the Adam’s Calendar was used to predict solstices and equinoxes and plan for seasons. The other strange thing is that this so-called calendar is on the same longitudinal axis as the Giant Pyramids and Zimbabwe’s Ruins. And…” Vetfaan taps a calloused finger on the counter top, “they found a footprint.”

“Ag, Vetfaan! The fact that you only found out about these things now, doesn’t mean it’s new news. Mr Tellinger has been going on for ages about the strange finds, the gold mines, and extraordinary devices these ‘aliens’ were supposed to have used. According to him, they used river water and electrons to generate the energy to mine gold. There’s even a geneticist who supported the idea that this is where the ancient humans were genetically adapted to become superior beings.

sagancontact“But, as intriguing as these theories might be, they remain mere stories, suggestions, attempts to explain the inexplicable. The question is: why? Why bother with such things if you know very well you can’t really prove what you’re saying? Or do these ideas contain a certain fascination, some form of entertainment, that makes us forget the real issues of the day – like when you’re watching Carl Sagan’s Contact? ”  Gertruida sits back in her chair, apparently exhausted by her long speech.

“Okay, I get it.” You can count on Kleinpiet to muddle up a scientific discussion. He counts the points off on the outstretched fingers of his left hand. “First, you say primitive man erected massive buildings?” He gets a nod. “Then you maintain that these structures endured through the ages?” Another nod. “And that today, we cannot make head or tail of these things because we simply cannot explain why they were erected?” Yet another nod. “Nor do we have the faintest clue as to their function or use?” Nod, again. “And some allege that strange beings inhabited these places – possibly with the aim of digging for gold?”

A strange little smile – or is it a grimace – curls Kleinpiet’s lips upward when the group at the bar utters a prolonged and exasperated “Y-e-e-es? So what?”

P9200513

Adam’s Calendar

“Them, my friends, Adam’s Calendar isn’t unique or strange. We’ve just witnessed a similar structure being erected in modern times. It’s got all the characteristics: primitive man, no known function, inexplicable… It does have a protective wall around it and contains buildings that apparently are dwellings for a lot of people. It symbolises the solstice of the sun in the life of a single man, and now awaits the winter to come. I’ll bet it even stands on the same axis as the pyramids, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and Adam’s Calendar – just draw that line farther south. And I predict that in a few years, that place will be as neglected as any site where you find archeologists poking around.”

Credit: timeslive.co.za

Nkandla. Credit: timeslive.co.za

They all get it immediately, of course.

“The only difference, Kleinpiet, is that with Adam’s Calendar we’re trying to explain the past.” Getruida pats Kleinpiet on the shoulder. She’s quite impressed with his analogy. “But with Nkandla, we already know what the future holds….”

The Last of the True Afrikaners

IMG_2534Driving from Grootdrink, a veritable bustling metropolis in comparison with Rolbos, you cross the Orange River before passing the little collection of huts where the Geel family stays. Not everybody knows that the Geels and the Kruipers are closely related, and therefore of royal blood – in the Africa sense of the word. Regop Geel, the oldest man in the family, is well known in these parts for his uncanny ability to recite, word for word, the proud history of the San people – exactly as his grandfather had told him.

About ten kilometres farther along the twisting and sandy track, one passes the locked-up homestead of Lothar de Wit, the once-wealthy farmer who – according to Gertruida – couldn’t  live with the past. Perhaps it is true to say that Lothar made his own bed, only to find it extremely uncomfortable; but that would be unkind and even rude in the modern society we live in.

Few people – according to Gertruida, at least – knew the stoic Lothar. Oh, he was a popular figure in the 80’s, being the politician he used to be. But, despite being a well recognised person, he really had no true friends. He was too superior, too supercilious and far too pretentious to bend down to the level of the common folk of the district. Lothar’s sheep were always the fattest, his car the newest and his suits cut according to the latest fashion. He also had a wonderful way with words, which was why he represented the district in  parliament as a respected and convincing orator.

But…like so often happens, he was the architect of his own little disaster, poor man. And that’s a story everybody knows…

***

“Trees,” Gertruida says, “shouldn’t grow high if they can’t stand the wind.”

“A tall tree without proper roots will topple over,” Servaas nods his agreement, “just like old Ben Bitterbrak when he has had too much. I’ve told him to get heavier boots, but he just won’t listen.”

“You can weigh that man’s feet down as much as you like, Servaas, but it won’t help. He collapses from the head downwards – his feet are on the ground already.”

“Ja, just like old Lotta.”

This remark by Kleinpiet stops the conversation. Somehow the subject of Lothar de Wit is one they avoid, simply because his fall from grace had been such a painful one. Even after all these years, Lothar – who was called Lotta behind his back – remains an uncomfortable reminder of who they don’t want to be. Lotta? Last of the True Afrikaners, according to the tongue-in-the-cheek local gossip.

“Listen, we’re all Afrikaners, man! We make mistakes just like everybody else. We live, we love, we hurt, we hope…just like anybody else. We shouldn’t joke about Lothar de Wit.”

Tuynhuys, Cape Town

Tuynhuys, Cape Town

“Shame, you’re right, Precilla. That poor man had the world at his feet, but he believed one stupid thing. I mean, he was a member of the Broederbond, represented the National Party and had a Mercedes Benz. That was as far as you could go in those days. But there was more: he had dinner with PW Botha in Tuynhuys, was an elder in the church and  had season tickets for the Blue Bulls’ games at Loftus.

“Thoroughly respected, he was. Then he started with that True Afrikaner story. Pure blood, he said, was they key to leadership. He reckoned that once you were of mixed origins, you couldn’t claim to be an Afrikaner and therefore would be unfit to lead.. He shouldn’t have said that.”

“Ja, it’s much like the ANC has this obsession about being black. It’s exactly the same mistake. If you are Pure Black, you’re seen in a different way than when you are called Coloured, or Indian, or White. I mean, Hitler proved, in the most terrifying way, that you cannot talk like that. So did the Nationalists, for that matter.” Vetfaan stares at the heatwaves shimmering on the horizon. It’s difficult to see where heaven stopped and earth began. “I don’t understand this absolute emphasis on race. And…surely: can one still claim to be of ‘pure’ blood these days? Aren’t we all carrying genes of mixed origin?”

Kleinpiet shrugs. “I met a man in Rehoboth with the same names as I have. We compared notes and found he’s a distant cousin of sorts. That makes me a Coloured, I suppose. And let me tell you: if ever they start testing the nation’s DNA, we won’t be able to talk about Whites and Blacks any longer. I think we’re all related to one another in some way.”

“Of course. Read your Bible. First Adam, then Noah – that’s where we all come from. Or, if you insist on being scientific, read up on the Origins of Man. It’s obvious either way: somewhere in the distant past we all had common ancestors.” Oudoom looks down at his hands, smiling. “We all share many features, but the opposing thumb – and the soul – separate us as unique in the animal kingdom.”

“Not so, Oudoom. There are apes with opposing thumbs, too. That, according to you, only leaves one singular characteristic for humans: we have souls. That’s all that counts.” Gertruida sits back with a knowing smile. She likes arguing with Oudoom about evolution.

“That’s the point Lothar missed – like the current government, he tried to believe that race is a defining characteristic. That’s all a bit short-sighted. Culture defines you, not colour.”

***

If you should unlock the door to Lothar de Wit’s house on the deserted farm, you’ll find nothing much of interest. A thick layer of dust covers the yellow wood floors that once were polished to a brilliant shine. The tattered curtains are still there, but that’s about all. In the porch, the wall retains the unbleached square where the framed collection of pictures of the De Wit forebears once hung. For years important visitors had to pause at  yellowed photos of the line of ancestors stretching back to Andries Pretorius, the Voortrekker leader. Of this, Lothar was particularly proud and he made a point of making his guests aware of this noble ancestry.

That is, until Regop Geel came to see the politician to discuss  independence for the San people. As can be expected of the Nationalist politician, he listened with apparent interest, promised to look into the matter, and promptly put the matter out of his mind. However, still intent on impressing his visitor, he pointed out his heritage when they passed the photos.

“Andries Pretorius? He’s your great-great-great grandfather?”

Lothar nodded proudly.

“Yes, I have some of that family’s blood too.” Regop Geel stood on tiptoe to peer at the pictures. “Catharina van Bengale, a freed slave girl, way back in the 1600’s. According to my grandfather, one of her sons became a guide to some travellers, which is how the van Bengales got taken up by our family. But that woman, Catharina…she was the great grandmother of Andries Pretorius. That, I think, makes us family.”

Ai Mieta, who worked in the kitchen at the time, overheard the conversation. She, naturally, couldn’t wait to spread the story.

***

“Poor chap. He simply packed up and left. I heard he’s farming in the Karoo now – changed his name and everything – because of the shame of having mixed blood.”

“No, Servaas. It’s no shame to have mixed blood at all. It is, however, unacceptable to proclaim your superiority on the basis of the amount of pigment in your skin. Lothar’s political demise was the direct result of his misplaced belief that purity of race should imply certain privileges. The shame of it all lies in the fact that Lothar was a symptom of a far-reaching, serious disease. It’s endemic to our society – and many societies in Africa and elsewhere. And until we stop thinking that race can – in this day and age – still be pure, we’ll continue to view people of different hues of pigmentation as different to ourselves.”

***

Before you drive past the Geel village, you might want to stop and have a chat with the wizened old man sitting under the lone tree in the clearing that serves as a square for the villagers. Here you’ll be able to hear one of the last oral historians tell you about the Bushman, the San and the Khoikhoi cultures. Be prepared to be patient while he elaborates on the difficult and convoluted history of their struggles for survival. And, if you were to ask, he’ll take you to his humble hut, where a large, square frame filled with old photographs hangs. Then he’ll tell you about Catharina van Bengale and how her offspring influenced events over the centuries.

( Read also about Angela van Bengale, the other slave girl who helped establish wine making in the Cape)

When the Compass Fails.

depositphotos_10579006-World-map-with-compass-showing-Africa“I remember,” Vetfaan said as he nursed his beer, “how we struggled in Angola. We had to use a map and a compass – and had to trust both completely. No GPS in those day, none at all. You sat down with your little sliding rule, looked at where the river – or mountain – was, and plotted your course.”

“I remember that,” Kleinpiet smiled. “Got lost a few times, too. And at night it was even worse: you couldn’t use a torch to study the map. The stars helped, though.”

“There was one incident…”

***

Nighttime in Africa represents a fascinating interplay of uncertainty and adventure. This is true for the modern-day camper; but it’s even worse during times of war and conflict. Today one may sit comfortably next to the fire, clinking a few ice cubes in the scotch in the glass, while listening to a hyena calling a few hundred yards away. That’s the romantic picture, the allure of the bush, the reason why so many tourists flock to this beautiful country.

But when the smell of cordite stings the nose and the thud-thud-thud of a hovering gunship helicopter seems  to be the only sound in the gloom…well. then even the bravest of soldiers finds it hard to control body and spirit. When rifle inspection is done the next day, it isn’t unusual to find so many soldiers with full clips of ammunition – they simply crept to the nearest rock to spend the night in prayer.

It was during the build-up to Cuito Cuanavale that Vetfaan lived and prayed through just such a night. The patrol of four men had almost completed a sortie of a sector and were on their way to the base camp, when it became painfully obvious that they were lost. The map didn’t make sense. The compass reading was off. Overhead, a bank of clouds threatened to release the torrents of rain so characteristic of January in the subtropics. No stars. Not even the moon.

And then a single shot rang out. One loud bang in the silence, reverberating across the veld in a promise of death.

Jackalberry tree

Jackalberry tree

They huddled together next to the trunk of a huge jackalbery tree, whispering in almost-inaudible tones.

Who the $%#@ fired that shot? Where did it come from?

I don’t know. That way? The darkness prevented the others from seeing which way the trooper was pointing.

Doesn’t matter. Somebody out there is taking potshots at somebody. We have to get out of here.

Another shot rang out. Nearer this time.

Vetfaan took out the faulty compass to study the luminous needle behind a cupped hand.

Let’s just adjust the bearing by about thirty degrees, and follow the compass. We should get to a river sometime, then we can follow it to the base. It’s upstream, if I’m correct. Let’s go.

Nobody argued. That’s the way it worked. Somebody made a decision and the rest followed. If the decision turned out to be wrong, they’d all pay the price for it. But, unless you could come up with something better, there was no other option.

About half an hour later, Vetfaan almost stumbled over the man waiting in ambush next to a faint game trail. This man – a Cuban, they later discovered – was the first in a line of nine soldiers, waiting for them to enter a killing zone that would have wiped out the entire patrol. Vetfaan didn’t think. Reacting instinctively, his huge hands found the man’s neck, choking hard to prevent the hapless soldier raising the alarm. With the man writhing desperately to loosen the grip, Vetfaan turned around and walked his patrol out of the area.

***

“Did you kill him?” Precilla’s eyes are wide with fear, her lips a thin line of disgust. War has never made any sense to her.

Vetfaan manages a wry smile. “No, I didn’t. He was a small bugger, poor chap. I dragged him to a spot where we thought we’d be safe and then made him sit down. He could speak broken English, so I told him we’d let him live if he could tell us where we were. Man, you’ve never seen a guy so happy to tell something to his enemies. So we took his gear – he had dropped his rifle when I grabbed him – and made him take off his shoes. Told him to stay right there until the sun came up.

“The funny thing was: we were all equally afraid. The darkness in Africa didn’t discriminate. Everybody couldn’t see a thing. It was as big a curse as it was a blessing….”

The group at the counter sits in silence, each lost in own thoughts as they remember the dark days of the Border War.

“Ja,” Servaas says, “it was dark in many ways. Many young men got lost there.” Vetfaan knows the old man isn’t talking in geographical terms.

“And now it’s the same for America and those guys with the Islamic State.” Gertruida, who had been deeply involved in Intelligence during the 80’s, sighs sadly. “They’re following a faulty compass…again. Imagine beheading innocent people to intimidate the rest of the world? Instead of creating sympathy for their cause, they are making it easy for Obama and Cameron to retaliate.”

“Who’s Cameron?” Servaas isn’t big on international affairs. Gertruida ignores him.

“It’s the same thing, Vetfaan. The world has heard a few random shots. They tried to ignore it, or at best, to avoid confrontation. Then IS ambushed them with these atrocious, inexcusable, inhumane acts. Avoiding conflict is no longer an option. We’re heading for a full-out war, I’m afraid.”

“But the powers-that-be are going about it in a wrong way, too. I heard the overseas media tend to blame all Muslims for the situation.” Boggel pours another round before Gertruida continues. “And I don’t think that’s right. They’ll split the world down the middle by polarising Christianity and Islam. That’s like taking us back to the days of the Crusades, which I fear is happening all over again. Remember; in the first millennium Christianity was a religion of peace. It gained popularity because of this appeal. Then Pope Urban II called for a crusade against the Muslims, and that changed the history of Europe and England radically. Feudalism disappeared. Crusades were fought for heavenly rewards, but the noblemen returned home as impoverished individuals who bankrupted their estates. It established xenophobia as a ‘just’ cause, sanctioned by the Church. I can go on and on about the positives and the negatives to emerge from the Crusades, but the bottom line remains: millions were killed, countries were changed and society – and religion – didn’t escape unscathed.”

“So, once again, the moral compass is way off mark?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, it is. IS is moving in the wrong direction. The West is straying off a peaceful path by labelling all Muslims as radical – this is simply fuelling xenophobic fear. God knows how this will play out, but this time I can’t imagine a peaceful ending. You were lucky with that soldier you stumbled across; but I afraid  you won’t find a handy Cuban in the Middle East today, unfortunately.”

 

The Kalahari Hiking Trail

images (2)It’s always the same – and probably predictable, when you consider the logic behind it all. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Kleinpiet would be bored senseless, once he’s finished stoking his still (highly illegal) he keeps in the rondawel behind his house. This seasonal boredom occurs when the last peaches have ripened properly in the drum outside the door – the sugar added at the right time and the yeast doing just fine, thank you – from which they were transferred to the still, where the patient job of monitoring the process seemed to take ages.

And it is this boredom – and not the peach brandy – which resulted in the brilliant idea of doing something out of the ordinary, for a change. Surprisingly, Kleinpiet’s suggestion met with universal approval, resulting in the advertisement on page 3 of the Upington Post.

NEW!!! The world’s first trans-Kalahari hiking trail is now open to the public. Expertly planned and professionally managed, this four-day, three night walking trail will take you to some of the remotest regions of our country. \Watch glorious sunsets! See fantastic dawns! Experience Africa! Overnight in comfortable lodgings along the way, where you’ll be spoilt with excellent cuisine and Afrikaner hospitality. Book now, avoid disappointment.

Mieliepap

Mieliepap

Although Vetfaan expressed his doubt about ‘excellent cuisine’ – saying that homemade bread, grilled chops and traditional ‘pap’ was a meal, not a ‘cuisine’ – he nevertheless agreed to be one of the hosts along the hiking trail. Kleinpiet’s farm would be the stopover for the first night, with Ben Bitterbrak offering his services for the last evening.

Surprisingly, a group of people booked for the following weekend. This caused some consternation, for the patrons in Boggel’s place merely agreed to Kleinpiet’s scheme in the same spirit that our government makes decisions in parliament. It is, like we all know – quite relaxing to pass laws and then forget about them. The cellphone ban in vehicles, the licensing of firearms, the laws against corruption – we all know that these were passed as window dressing, and never intended as a honest effort to make the country more civilised. So, quite naturally, the group at the bar thought that nothing would come of the outrageous idea to let cityfolk wander around in the barren wastes of the Kalahari.

Still: necessity is the mother of desperation and desperation in turn, occasionally turns out to be the match that lights the fuse. And so, within the few days at their disposal, the Rolbossers drew up a detailed map (Gertruida, of course) and marked out the route by whitewashing prominent rocks along the way (the men, who else?). By Thursday the three farm houses that would serve as overnight stops were spotless, the pantries stocked and clean towels hung on the coathangers in the bathrooms. They were as ready as they’d ever be.

On Friday they all waited on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place, dressed in their Sunday best, waiting for the hikers to arrive. And, though they still couldn’t believe it, a ripple of excitement went through the group when they saw the minibus drive into town to deliver the group of hikers in front of the bar.

Even Gertruida was impressed. The five men seemed fit and ready. Deeply tanned and kitted out with the latest in hiking gear, they couldn’t wait to be off. Their leader – a huge man carrying a water bottle and a camera in one oversized fist – informed the Rolbossers that they didn’t need anything, thank you. “Just give us the map, we know what to do.”

So, while Kleinpiet loaded the sleeping bags and other baggage into his pickup, the hikers strode out of town, following the detailed map Gertruida had supplied.

***

DPP_0006_1

Fish River Canyon Credit: Findingafricablog

“So, who’s the man?” Kleinpiet sticks his thumbs into his armpits, strutting about like a proud rooster. “You guys thought my idea was a lame duck, didn’t you? Well, it just shows you, doesn’t it?  Once the word gets spread, the Kalahari Hiking Trail will become world famous, just like the Fish River Hike. And, let me tell you: we’re going to make oodles of money.”

Kleinpiet has to leave early, of course, to be the host for the evening on his farm. He tells the group at the bar that he’d be in town early, after waking the hikers for an early start. “Tomorrow it’s your turn, Vetfaan. I hope you’re ready…?”

Vetfaan waves him off and settles down with his beer. All this fuss about some chaps walking across a few farms? How bored must people be in cities! What is the world coming to?

True to his word, a jubilant Kleinpiet stops in front of the bar while Boggel is still having his early-morning coffee the next morning.

“Man! What a nice bunch of guys. They ate, they chatted, they had one glass of peach brandy each – and wham! Off to bed. Just like that! The easiest money we’ll ever make.”

“So, did you give them brebreakfast well, Kleinpiet?”

“Nah! They said they’ll sort themselves out. Offered to make their own coffee and maybe have a snack along the way – these guys are kitted out, man! Quite decent about it as well, I must say. So I left them to come and tell Vetfaan to make sure he’s got a bottle of the best on his farm tonight. If he dishes out a round just after sunset, he might not even have to make supper for them.” He snorts derisively. “Pfft...softies…”

***

That’s where things went wrong. Right there. But who was to know?

Vetfaan waited on his farm from early afternoon. When it became dark, he went looking for the group. And later, when he couldn’t find them, he drove to town to mobilise a search party.

By midnight they were all frantic. Where were the hikers?

“We must have scoured every square inch of the way between our farms, Vetfaan. Not a trace. Not a track. Nothing. It’s as if they disappeared into thin air…”

They kept on searching. When the eastern sky tinged itself with the purple hue of approaching dawn, they all gathered in Kleinpiet’s kitchen. The mood was somber after the group had walked back from Vetfaan’s homestead – again.

Gertruida was just about to suggest a helicopter search (the cost made her hesitate) when a disheveled man stared through the window with bleary eyes. He mumbled a question which sounded like ‘wha day ish thish’ in a voice right out of a Hitchcock movie.

***

The Kalahari Hiking Trail is now closed.

“Never again,” Kleinpiet said as they watched the minibus drive off that Saturday afternoon. “Too many things can go wrong.”

Gertruida went harrumph!, reminding the group that it’s such bad idea to tell your guests to make their own coffee in the morning – especially if they got the water from the bottles next to your still. Servaas laughed, saying that’s why a still is called a still. If you passed out there, you tend to be very quiet for a day or so.

Precilla is perhaps the only one who didn’t complain. She’s never sold her entire stock of Grand Pa’s in a single day before.

grand-pa

The Ghosts of Halcyon Days

Sand-in-Hourglass“I sometimes wish I could go back in time and start all over again.” Kleinpiet has been complaining about his tax return ever since this morning. It turns out he owes the Revenue Service the tidy sum of R752.78, which – he says – could have bought a week’s peach brandy for all of them. Vetfaan scoffed at this, telling him he must take into account that the Rand has been steadily spiralling towards the Zimbabwean Dollar’s worth. This didn’t improve Kleinpiet’s mood.

“I should have included my travelling expenses. I mean, if I don’t drive into town to visit Boggel’s Place every day, I wouldn’t know what you guys say about the drought. As a farmer, such information is vital – and should be tax-deductible. Then the taxman would have owed me, not the other way round.”

“It’s always so easy to have 20/20 vision in retrospect, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida lays a comforting hand on his shoulder. “But we live life on a straight time-line. Going back isn’t an option – unless you happen to be a politician. Those guys are taking us back to the Bronze Age at a tremendous speed.”

“Well, if I could have started over, I’d have changed my surname to Mahlangu, bought a sunbed and claimed the Northern Cape as ancestral ground.” Boggel says the most absurd things every now and then. “Imagine suing the diamond companies for all the diamonds they stole from my land over the years. And now they plan on stealing my gas and oil as well.” He scowls angrily at the thought. “Boy! I’d be a rich man!”

“Ag, come on, Boggel! You know that’s impossible. You’d have to prove your grandfather lived here.” Vetfaan doesn’t want to remind Boggel about him being an orphan, but the point has to be made. “You’d be better off if Boggel Mahlangu got involved in a BEE deal. Then you’d be able to sit back and watch the money roll in. It’s far easier than a land claim, anyway. “

“Nah. If Boggel could start over, I think he should become a politician. Come to think of it: all barmen are politicians – they always agree with everything said to them.  And then they do what they want, anyway. And we all know how they line their pockets.” Realising what he just said, he quickly adds: “I’m talking about politicians, not honest barmen.” Servaas smiles as he gets a friendly nod from Boggel. No offence taken.

“There’s something even better, Vetfaan.” As usual, Gertruida simply has to have the final word. “You should have become a building contractor. Especially in Natal. The chaps involved with Nkandla cleaned out the Reserve Bank, that’s for sure.”

To her surprise, Servaas trumps her. “A negotiator in the Arms Deal. That’s what he should have done. We’d have had a bar in Rolbos that had a fountain of beer and a cellar full of peach brandy.”

Yes, they all agree, anything to do with government would have made Boggel a rich man, but that wouldn’t have helped Kleinpiet at all. The Revenue Service is arguably the only department in the government that deserves the ‘Service’ tag. They’re responsible that the hardworking few in the country can support the masses of unemployed, the sick, the aged and the many single-parent teenagers.

“But,” Boggel holds up a hand for silence, “one must consider what has happened in the past ten years or so, before wishing you had known what would have happened. If somebody told me back then…” And here he ticks down an outstretched finger with every point. “…that we’d have a failing economy, rampant crime, unprecedented number of murders, an AIDS epidemic, a president with multiple wives, Satanism accepted as a religion and a national icon in jail for murder while the president is suspected of massive fraud…”

“Yes, Boggel? What would you have done?”

“I’d find a quiet little place, far from the maddening crowd. I’d look for a community where I can laugh and be happy. I’d consider opening a small bar, where I can listen to people swapping stories all day. And I’ll tell Kleinpiet to remember to add his travelling expenses when he does his income tax return…”

Kleinpiet manages a lopsided grin. “Ja, Boggel, in your dreams, my friend…in your dreams…”

Weekly Photo Challenge – Achievement

Achievements, by the very nature of such events and things, tend to be personal. Talking about achievements – or capturing the moment in a photograph – might sound like bragging, which is not what the subject is about. Most achievements rest on the shoulders of others, after all.

Zambia ekspedisie 067Like going on a walking safari in North Luangwa with some very knowledgeable guides.

428Or visiting a Himba village, where one learns how precious relationships are. Big lesson here: it’s not what you have – it’s about who you are and how you cope.

IMG_2765Or realising that the most precious moments are those filled with peace and tranquility. Drifting silently on the Okavango river, contemplating the wonder of nature, must rate as one of those achievements in the top 10.

aaBut Nature hides bigger challenges, as well. Canoeing down the Upper Zambezi early one misty morning almost got me drowned (fortunately the crocs were still waiting for the day to heat up!). The achievement? Simply getting to the river bank… It sounds elementary, but the relief of safety…

IMG_2904Yes, I know. There’s a lot to look back on, a lot to be thankful for. There are the children and the grandchildren. Academic stuff and a happy career. Books that were published. Stories in magazines. But…maybe the biggest achievement is to get out there, face the challenges of Africa, and come back a little more wise, a little more complete.

Achievements should do that. It fills life with wonder. And that makes one appreciate every day added to live..

IMG_3136And that is one achievement we should all strive towards…every day.