Wherever you go in Africa, you’ll find rhythm. Unlike China and America, Africa exudes a simple rhythm; a strikingly basic one; and it is not generated by small plastic objects with LED lights and earphone plugs. In Africa the beat often blends so smoothly with the background that one has to concentrate to be able to hear it. Only then do you realise that Africa is, in fact, rhythm.
Of course, music is part of this pulse. So is the flapping of a big bird’s wings; or the stampede of hooves across the Serengeti. You can hear it in the beat in a thousand waterfalls, or in the tapping of a humble toktokkie. Africa is filled with it. And people – even people – contribute to the repeated melody that makes Africa so unique.So do events, wars and history. It’s been like that since the dawn of creation. It’ll be like that forever. Africa’s never-ending melody of recurring stanzas will continue to mesmerise future generations.
Ben Bitterbrak; the dour, angry-at-life farmer so aptly nicknamed; doesn’t hear Africa any more. He doesn’t need to. Africa – especially the South – made him that way.
It started way back in the sixties when the brown envelope arrived. He still had two years of schooling to do, but already the government was busy preparing him to fight. They were clever; these faceless minds that made young boys want to go to the army. South Africa, they said, was the last bastion of civilisation in Africa. Look, they said, at what happened up North. The Mau-Mau murders; the Uhuru shouts; the English driven from Kenya; the war in Rhodesia; the bloodshed in the Congo… Africa was burning and it’s coming to your street, your people, soon…
While America reeled from the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s murder, South Africa staggered when the Prime Minister was stabbed to death in parliament. Daily newscasts reminded the citizens of the Red Danger and the Black Danger; the only solution was to fight, the way they had to so often in the past. Remember Amajuba? Victory was assured; as long as State, Church and Citizens stood together in the frontline against Evil.
When Ben turned eighteen, he proudly shook his father’s hand at Upington station. He was going to defend his country. Father and son knew the risks involved, but no sacrifice was too big to protect the hallowed ground their forefathers fought for.
Ben breezed through the training camps. He was an excellent shot, superbly fit and totally committed to the cause. His almost-reckless bravery made him an obvious choice to join the new battalion stationed on the banks of the Okavango River, where he donned the beret with the buffalo emblem. Promoted to corporal, he wrote home to tell his father he then held the highest rank their family had ever attained.
War wasn’t just trenches and explosions and guns. There were endless patrols, nights in the rain and malaria. Sometimes their provisions ran low or the water ran out. Back at the base, drinks were cheap and hangovers were common. And there were times of unmitigated boredom when sitting under a tree and waiting for time to pass were the only options.
It was a Saturday afternoon that the chaplain sat down next to him and sighed. I’m sorry, he said, staring into the distance. Your father was involved in a landmine incident. Ben remembers those words. Involved. Incident. It sounds so much better than saying blown to pieces in a senseless attack on an innocent old man.
Later, after the funeral, Ben Bitterbrak went AWOL. Unlike some of his compatriots, he didn’t sneak off to Rundu or Katima for a taste of civilisation and some freedom – he went on patrol all by himself. They killed his father. They… Sure as Hell – they were not going to get away with it. He’ll punish them right back.
Late one night he crept across the no-mans land that separated South West Africa from Angola. There’s a village, unnamed and unimportant, where a few old men and women stayed. The young men were part of FAPLA or SWAPO – it didn’t matter – and it was here Ben headed before sunrise that morning. He carried enough ammunition, a rucksack full of hand grenades and a mind filled with smouldering rage – the perfect combination to fan the flames of revenge. An eye for an eye…
The village – a few huts and a communal fire – woke up that morning to a beautiful sunrise. The red and orange and ochre painted the night’s dark canvas with light as the villagers slowly made their way to the fire. Shuffling old feet carried ageing bodies to the smoky remains of the previous night’s embers where a wrinkled old woman blew flames into the bundle of dry grass she put on top. Twigs, and later a log, made sure they’d be able to make a simple meal to lessen the constant hunger they endured.
Ben had a clear view of the opening between the huts. He had a good rifle. Taking care to remain quiet and unobserved, he slowly got the gun into position. The little lever to select automatic fire was in the right position, the safety was off. At the range of maybe fifty yards, he wouldn’t have any difficulty to finish them all off.
While he was selecting his first target, an old woman sat down next to the fire. To his surprise, he saw she had a guitar – and she started playing on it. One by one, the other villagers started swaying with the simple rhythm – to and fro, side-to-side – keeping in time with the tempo of the strumming fingers.
Ben Bitterbrak released the pressure on the trigger, watching the scene unfold before him. A moment ago he was looking at the people – now he saw them. They were thin. Hungry. Old. Defenceless. Living in the most basic of conditions.
And they were dancing.
Nowadays, Ben comes into town occasionally. Groceries, paraffin, booze. He never buys a newspaper, and when he stops for a beer at Boggel’s Place, Boggel turns the radio off. Ben once told him it’s all lies, you can’t believe a word. Ben is strange, in that way. You don’t argue with him. There are embers smouldering in his eyes that tell you to shut up and move away.
Oudoom once rode out to Ben’s farm, all the way out there near Bitterbrak. Ben saw the cloud of dust and waited at the gate. No, he said, no more lies. Oudoom had to turn around and drive all the way back.
Oudoom said Ben wasn’t angry or anything. He simply stood there with his hand on the gate, waiting for Oudoom to leave. But there was one thing that seemed out of place, Oudoom said later. He always thought Ben lived alone. The little collection of huts behind the house was a surprise.
That, and the strangely rhythmic melody drifting on the wind. Surely Ben doesn’t have a radio there, does he? Or was it somebody playing a guitar?
If Ben had the ability, he’d be able to explain what happened that morning in the bush. Or maybe the music does it better. Once you understand it, you’d know why Ben doesn’t listen for the rhythm of Africa any more.
He doesn’t need to.
He’s become part of it.
(PS: watch the lady’s crafty left hand – there’s a lot of grace and elegance in the way she plays)