They promised me freedom.
As soon as this bloody war ends, you’ll have a house. A piece of ground where you can keep cattle. A place for your children to be educated. A clinic nearby. That’s what they said. Those things are important – but it was the freedom that made me help them.
They said it better than the Chinese and the Cubans and the Russians – even the Americans, later on. Help us win this war, and we’ll look after you. Just help us; you’ll see.
The Afrikaners understood me. They are from this continent, this soil. Oh, we’ve fought in the past. Fought; until my ancestors were almost completely wiped out. That’s why I hesitated when they asked.
Those other people from other countries over the waters: they don’t understand the Kalahari or the Caprivi. They have fountains in their houses and the meat is so plentiful, they keep it cooled for another day. It’s not like here. If you shoot a Kudu, you eat it immediately. Trying to keep it for tomorrow is useless, as the vultures and the hyenas and the flies and the beetles will finish it before you do. And water…we have no water in our huts. We keep it in an ostrich shell under the ground. If we’re lucky, we can find it again before a jackal digs it up to slake his own thirst.
But the Boere – they understand this. They understand a little of the Kalahari. They even – and this is a guess – understand my people. Anyway, they do it better than the Chinese. Or the Russians. Or the Cubans. That’s why, when they said I must help them, I went to the elders and we discussed it.
Look, I said, this is not our war. I know that. But if they lose, we’ll lose the bit of ground we had. We won’t be able to hunt here any more. The country will belong to many other peoples, but not to us. But these men said they are strong. They’re not afraid. They say they’ll win and then we’ll have this ground. I must go.
Of course, my job was not to fight on their side. I did what they couldn’t do. Not with their big machines and guns and canon could they do what I do best. Give me the spoor of an Eland, and I’ll find that antelope. Show me the tracks of a boot, and I’ll find its master. This is what my father taught me. I know I can do it. I can follow that track faster than their machines can make their way through the thick growth of thorn bushes we have here. I can jump across riverbeds and wade across swamps while I follow a spoor. They can’t.
I can name the operations I was involved with. Savanna. Protea. Many others. I was there, finding the strongholds and secret caches. When they came too near, I was often the one to warn them. My ears and my eyes are tuned to the veld – not like their city ears and eyes.
I saw many of them die. Sometimes they were careless, and didn’t spot the disturbed earth where a landmine was waiting for a hasty foot. Others were unlucky and walked into traps. I even saw men killed by their own canon fire. In war, all casualties are equal: you’re not immune to a bomb with your country’s flag on it – it kills whoever is nearest to it.
But there was one man[i]. He was good to me. Happy Hatting was one of those people you take an immediate liking to. He said his father taught him kindness, and I believed him. He shared his rations with me – he didn’t smoke, I did. Sometimes he’d bring me a beer. And once – it was Christmas – he brought me a present of biltong, saying everybody deserved a Christmas present.
It was near Cuito Cuanavale they shot him. In the head. I saw it. The fighting was ferocious and the bullets and shrapnel filled the air with their sharp whooshes and high-pitched voices. And there was a rule: if you get wounded, they’ll help you. If you get killed, you get left behind until after the shooting stops. Everybody thought Happy was dead.
Everybody, except me.
I couldn’t believe that smile was dead. Not all that kindness and humour and friendship. Not Happy.
San people know about being invisible. We can creep up to an Eland or a Springbok without it noticing us. It’s a strange thing: becoming one with the veld and the grass and the bushes. But we can do it. Those Cubans never knew I was there.
I was right. Happy still breathed. The top of his head was blown away, causing his right eye to droop down on what was left of his cheek. But the left eye: the left eye was awake and watched me as I drew near.
“Go away,” he said, “you’ll be killed too.”
But I refused, saying I want to help him.
“You’ve done enough. This is useless. We’ve lost. Go back to the Kalahari and live like a free man. They won’t find you there. Don’t worry about other people’s laws. You’re yourself, that’s what counts.”
It was a remarkable speech, considering the circumstances. Mortars were arching overhead; the MIGs were shooting the veld to pieces. Screams and blood and gunshots mingled into awful minutes of chaos.
I’m here, now. I’ll help you.
“No,” he said, “you can’t.” He slurred the words, struggling to get them out. I knew he was dying, but I couldn’t leave him there, alone. No matter what the people in Pretoria or Moscow or Beijing said – this was a human being and he was dying. Surely they don’t want such young men to die alone? If they insisted on killing people, shouldn’t they allow them comfort in their last seconds?
I held his hand and felt it go slack. I thought he was gone, when he cramped up the last time. “Go back, now. Go back and help people to …”
He never finished the sentence.
And now I’m back in the Kalahari, doing exactly what he told me to. I left that war that same night, put on my loincloth, and came back.
I am Ouboet Geel. I am free.
And I still help people to fight their wars…
Ask that lady, Martha. She’ll tell you: the worst wars aren’t against other people. They’re against yourself.