“Sergeant Ben did one more thing before the Bedford loaded them all up to take them to Grootfontein.” The Himba man smacks his lips and gobbles down one more lamb chop before continuing. “He bribed a helicopter pilot to take me back to the place where Badenhorst was killed.”
All the troops gathered to say goodbye to the young Himba boy. In the two years he had spent in the camp, he had grown into a handsome young lad, much loved by everyone. In his now almost-excellent English, he thanked them all, giving a little speech that brought tears to many battle-hardened eyes. The captain was busy telling him how much they’ll miss him, when a camouflaged Land Rover drove up and the brigadier in command of the area stepped out.
Everybody knew Brigadier Knoetze: he was a fierce little man with an extremely short temper, A disciplinarian to the core, he was feared and respected by all. Knoetze held up a hand and the captain faltered, stepped back, and waited for the rebuke.
“The war is over, men.” Surprisingly, Knoetze’s voice carried a note of sad resignation. “It has been hard for all of us – the killing, fighting,..the uncertainty and death. You’ll go home with many memories you’d rather forget, but cannot. It is hard to find something good to say about our time up here in South West Africa…”
The brigadier scanned the young faces in front of him, his gaze finally coming to rest on the Himba boy’s worried frown.
“You chaps have kept this boy hidden in your camp every time I came here. You transgressed a number of military laws in doing so, and I should have had you all court marshalled – especially you, Sergeant Ben, and the captain.” His last words carried much of his well-know barking style.
“But you know,” he says in a softer tone, “all is fair in love and war. Especially in love. In this godforsaken, horrible time, you men have found kindness in your hearts. I knew about the boy from the start – that is a commanding officer’s duty, after all. And I saw the effect it had on you all. This boy,” he pointed at the child, “brought sanity to your lives. He reminded you of the importance of kindness and caring. That, in my opinion, will sustain you when you go home. You’ll remember him, and you’ll know that your future doesn’t belong to hatred and violence.
“Now I know, Sergeant, that you plan to steal a helicopter to try and find his village. This is, to say the least, highly irregular. And since you all,” and here he swept his hand to include the whole assembly, “aided, abetted and helped to break military laws – which now includes hijacking an aircraft of the state – some disciplinary steps will have to be taken.
“After serious consideration, I suggest that every one of you sign a debit order for a monthly deduction from your future salaries for the sum of R 50…every month for ten years. I shall see to it that you each get the information and account number of the Himba Trust, which I have established. The proceeds will go to this young man and his village, and its aim is to further their level of education.” The brigadier paused before adding softly: “I’m informed that he is a rather sharp lad. It is your duty now, Sergeant, to establish the whereabouts of his village, so that we know where to send the money. Is that clear?”
Sergeant Ben gaped at the man at first, not believing his ears. Then he nodded, smiling as he snapped to a smart salute.
“Now Captain, see to it that this rebellious group of men disperse orderly and quietly after the helicopter has taken off. I’d then like to see you in the bar. And if the men won’t mind, I’d like them to join us.”
“I cried a lot. Many men cried a little, too. We hugged and said nice things. Then Sergeant Ben picked me up and carried me to the helicopter. I remember reaching up to wipe a tear from his cheek. Funny, that. The two things I remember best about him are the thump of the bullet against his chest, and that single, large tear. Oh, I remember many other things as well, of course. But those two I’ll never forget.”
They found the place of the skirmish quite easily, after which the boy recognised some landmarks, leading them back to the village. They landed outside the thorn-branch perimeter. Neither the boy, nor Sergeant Ben, knew exactly what to expect – the boy had been missing for two years, and how much could have changed in all that time? Would the villagers welcome them? Would there be anger?
Miriam, the First Wife, appeared at the gateway, uncertain about the sudden arrival of an air force helicopter. By then, the villagers had become hostile to all the sides in the war, and were afraid that these soldiers only meant more trouble. Miriam did not realise that this was the last operation of the SADF in the war, and fighting and bloodshed had no part in it.
Then she saw her son.
“Mama forgot all about etiquette and custom in the moment she recognised me. She shouted out, she laughed, she went crazy. She ran towards me, calling the other villagers to come out. And then she knelt in front of me, touching my face to see if I’m real. And then she, too, cried.”
Sergeant Ben said a hasty goodbye, telling the boy he had to return to base as soon as possible. Miriam tried to persuade him to stay; they’re going to slaughter a cow, she said, and have a feast to celebrate. No, the sergeant said gently, it was time to go. He said he wasn’t good with farewells, and it was better to leave immediately.
Then, after a long, tender moment, he took the chain from his neck; the one with a spent bullet dangling from it.
“This is the bullet from the Bible, son. This is what brought us together. I want you to have it. Keep it. Maybe it’ll remind you that the world isn’t such a bad place; that even bad things can have good results. And one day, if ever we meet again, you can tell me it brought you good luck. Now go to your mother. I have to go.”
And with that, Sergeant Ben turned on his heel and marched back to the waiting helicopter.
“And that was the last I saw of Sergeant Ben. I was eight years old, a child still, but I was already a man at heart. I waved until the helicopter disappeared over the hills. And then I had to tell my story to my family.
“We had a tremendous feast for three days, during which I had to tell and retell everything. It was an amazing experience.”
The years flew by. The money from the Himba Trust started coming in; an astounding amount that saw the establishment of a small school near the village. The boy was a diligent student and eventually enrolled in a course to study conservation. He also married his sweetheart and is already the father of a strong little boy.
“…and now I’m a ranger in the Etosha Game Reserve. My life has turned out well.” He digs into his pouch to produce a gold chain with a bullet dangling from it. “Two months ago, I was talking to one of the tourists. That’s when I heard what happened to Sergeant Ben, and that’s why I knew I had to return this bullet. I had to do it the Himba way, see? The way he saved me, the way he looked after me.
“So I dressed like my custom dictates. I didn’t want to use transport – I walked. It is our way of showing respect. A man that wants to show his love and appreciation, doesn’t look for the easy way out. If you do it the hard way, you do it right, even if it means walking a thousand miles. I did it…for Sergeant Ben. I owe my life to him, after all.”
“So what did you hear?” It’s Servaas who can’t contain his curiosity any longer. “What happened to Sergeant Ben?”
The Himba man takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell you tomorrow, if you don’t mind. It’s been a long day, and I’ve come far. Please?”