!Ka smacks his lips – the coffee is strong and sweet, a special treat after the months of desert-living. The thick slices of bread, generously covered with butter, disappear one after the other amidst numerous clicking sounds of appreciation.
Vetfaan once asked him how old he was, but the old man simply shook his head and said he was born after the Year of the Fire. When he asked Gertruida about it, she said fire destroyed most of he Kalahari grasslands in 1932, which meant the old man could be nearing his eighties. His wrinkled face and the gaunt body make it impossible to guess how old he might be, although the lack of most of his teeth suggest many, many seasons in the veld.
The first time Vetfaan met the withered old man, !Ka ran away. He had just shot a klipspringer and was so intent on skinning the animal that Vetfaan was almost next to him before he noticed he had company. Grabbing the slain little antelope, !Ka set off across the sand. Vetfaan shouted for him to stop, but of course that didn’t help. On impulse, Vetfaan took his rifle and fired a shot in the air.
In Africa you learn to use whatever form of guile you can fool your opposition with. It’s an essential part of survival. Animals use camouflage for the same reason. Humans can be more inventive. !Ka threw his hands in the air, imitating having been shot, and fell face-down in the sand. Of course, by the time Vetfaan reached the spot, !Ka and his antelope were gone. Not a trace. Not the slightest hint of a spoor. Vanished into proverbial thin air.
The ruse had been so skilfully executed with such stealth, that Vetfaan sat down and laughed. It was a laugh of merriment, of appreciation, even respect. Then as he scanned the horizon, he thought he saw !Ka move behind a bush a distance away. In fact, it wasn’t !Ka, it was the foot of the antelope that protruded from the hiding place. !Ka realised it might be visible to his pursuer and dragged the carcass deeper into the shadow of the bush. Had it not been for that single movement, Vetfaan would never have found him.
To !Ka’s mind, it was useless to flee. The White man had a gun, after all. The stories the old people told about how the men with horses and guns hunted down their ancestors, were all to clear in his mind. When Vetfaan strode towards the bush, !Ka stood up. He waited, whites of his eyes showing clearly against the walnut-brown of his face, and when Vetfaan was near enough, he bent down to lay the small buck on the ground in front of Vetfaan’s boots. The message was clear: I’ll buy my life back from you with this animal I had killed. A taken life for a given life. Fair exchange…
How do you explain your intentions when the language-barrier is so daunting? Vetfaan knew enough about Bushman-lore to know you shouldn’t refuse a gift. He also knew the meat represented quite a number of meals for the man’s family, who must certainly be around somewhere near. So he sat down, making sure !Ka saw how he moved the gun away to one side. I’m not here to hunt you, Old Man, the gesture said. And he smiled, took out a packet of cigarettes and offered one to the scared man with his dead antelope.
It was difficult at first. Finally realising the futility of long sentences and excessive gestures, they started at the beginning. Me, !Ka. You? They finished the packet of cigarettes and shared water from Vetfaan’s bottle. Vetfaan tried to tell !Ka that he was curious to know more about Bushmen, and meant him no harm. It was impossible to say whether he had been understood.
In the end, Vetfaan clapped his hands together in a gesture of gratitude, and accepted the klipspringer. Then he picked up the gun and indicated that !Ka must follow him to the Land Rover. The herd of Gemsbok he had seen that morning was only a few kilometres away.
The joy on !Ka’s face was overwhelming. A Gemsbok! Now, that was a prize! He thanked Vetfaan with many clicks and gestures, and was overcome by emotion when he realised Vetfaan would supply the transport back to his family as well. By that time the nagging suspicion that the White man meant him harm, had disappeared.
Vetfaan was welcomed at !Ka’s little settlement as a king, after a long and elaborate explanation by the Bushman. Families gathered around the carcass. The gift of the Gemsbok meant a sudden abundance of food and was celebrated with much singing and dancing. Still unable to communicate with any sense of purpose or certainty, it was made abundantly clear that Vetfaan was welcome at !Ka’s fireside whenever he wanted to visit.
And so their infrequent meetings at irregular intervals started. Sometimes, when Vetfaan patrolled his farm, he’d pick up the little man’s footprints. Occasionally, it was !Ka who found his way to the homestead. Slowly, over the years, they started understanding words and phrases, which made communication easier. !Ka knew Vetfaan would always help with the hunting in the dry seasons when animals were scarce and scattered over vast areas. And every meeting brought deeper understanding in how different their lives were.
Now !Ka puts down his mug on the step of the stoep beside him. He’s here for a reason, but this time it’s got nothing to do with hunting. His wife (he indicates breasts) is ill (eyes crossed, tongue lolling to one side, breathing fast), and has a fever (hand across the brow, wiping away sweat). Vetfaan gets the Bushman to get into the Land Rover and sets off in the direction !Ka indicates. His first-aid kit nestles between them.
Bushmen live a simple or complicated life, depending on how you view it. Simple, because they need only the bare necessities. Complicated, because they survive on those only. !Ka’s family have erected their shelters next to a rocky outcrop where a damp spot on the ground told them about the water below the surface. The huts ware fashioned from twigs and grass, with animal skins supplying shade during the day and warmth during the night. A small fire was kept going in the clearing between the shelters.
!Ka’s wife tries to get up when Vetfaan enters her shelter, but she is so weak, she almost topples over. A wet sheen of sweat covers her diminutive face, and even in the half-light inside the shelter, she seems pale. It takes only a cursory inspection to realise this woman needs expert help. Asperin and Band-Aids aren’t going to fix her.
Vetfaan makes carrying motions, points at the vehicle, and lets his hand cruise up and down, indicating a journey over the dunes. !Ka is aghast.
It takes three months. !Ka’s wife had a ruptured appendix and needed repeated surgeries to fix everything up again. Vetfaan travelled to the hospital in Upington and back once a week with a wide-eyed !Ka in the passenger seat. It was difficult to say which was the more frightening to the small man: the trip to the hospital, or the pathetic little woman who seemed to be slipping away. In the end, she started getting better, filling out the wrinkles as the pipes and drains got less. During that time, !Ka stayed in a backroom on Vetfaan’s farm; doing odds and ends to earn his keep. They also found it easier to communicate as time went by, learning words in each other’s language as they went along.
When at last the day of her discharge arrived, the entire hospital staff was there to bid her goodbye with singing and dancing like you only find in Africa. The old lady must have made quite an impression. !Ka responded with a long speech in his language. Nobody understood the words; but his gratitude was so obvious, he didn’t need an interpreter.
The following morning !Ka is waiting for Vetfaan in the kitchen. He’s dressed in his traditional loincloth, barefoot, and has his bow in his hand.
I’ve come to say goodbye. It’s time.
But no, you can’t. She’s just out of hospital…
She needs the sand. The desert. The space. She’ll be better out there. These walls prevent her from being in the Kalahari.
!Ka solemnly shakes Vetfaan’s hand. Then, as a gesture of thanks, he places a small leather bag in his friend’s hand.
I go. Someday maybe we’ll see each other again. Thank you…
Vetfaan watches as the two stride out towards the horizon. Two small persons, heading back to family and home – wherever home might be. Then again, home is where the others are; the little ageless people who roam free in a kingdom they have made their own. He can hear their melodious voices chanting a happy-sounding song, over and over again, as they grow smaller and smaller in the distance.
He sits down on his stoep, unravels the thong around his present, and drops its contents in his hand. It is a large stone, almost transparent – and it feels surprisingly cool to the touch.
What do you do with one of the huge diamonds that get mentioned in so many Bushman legends? This one is half as big as a man’s fist and must weigh almost a kilogram. Do you sell it on the black market? Take it to the police and explain where you got it? Get somebody to cut it up in smaller bits, work it into jewellery, and sell it as heirlooms?
Vetfaan pours another mug of coffee while he admires the large, seemingly flawless stone. Then, after wrapping it up again carefully, he buries it next to the old tree behind his house. Buries it in the sand – the red sand of the Kalahari – where it came from. It’s not a rejection of a heartfelt present, not at all. !Ka will tell you: presents are to be cherished and embraced. Gifts are like sliced bread, he once said. It must be given with love and appreciated with respect. It may not be rejected and cannot be returned.
“This is appreciation and respect,” Vetfaan tells himself, “this stone belongs here. No money can compare with the friendship this stone represents. It’ll be safe here, it’ll stay here.”
He smiles when he remembers one of their halting conversations. Friendship, !Ka said, is the generous helping of butter on life’s slice of bread. It tastes as good, but fortunately, it lasts longer…