“I remember those days,” Vetfaan stares at the rising sun, recalling the time after the war, “because so many of my friends struggled to adapt to civilian life again. We got so used to the danger and the constant vigilance. Me? I found it hard to sleep. Nightmares. Struggled to relax. Missed the other guys…”
“True. I remember the traffic. Everybody drove so fast! And I had to learnt to speak properly again – all the jargon and swear words didn’t go down well when you tried to chat up a girl. They also didn’t want to be called ‘your goose’ and things like that.” Kleinpiet has to smile at the memory. “And why did we call each other ‘my china’?”
They’re sitting on the stoep in front of Boggel’s Place, waiting for the rest of the town to join them. The Himba man promised to tell the rest of his story and finally get to the point of the purpose of his visit.
Gertruida, who knows everything, joins them with a steaming mug of coffee. “Yes, many – many – soldiers came home as changed men. In those days the term ‘Post Traumatic Stress’ didn’t even exist. It wasn’t fair. The troops were simply sent home to cope with the demons in their heads. There weren’t debriefings, counselling by chaplains and psychologists or sessions with psychiatrists; leaving the soldiers with impressions and memories that haunted their quiet hours. It’s sad, really. They risked their lives for their country an many of them felt their country didn’t appreciate their efforts.”
“Some felt betrayed.” Vetfaan puts down his mug with more force than he intended. “Abandoned.”
An hour later the Himba man makes himself comfortable at the bar. He is pleased that everybody is here again – they are genuinely interested in his story. This town, he realises, is unique: they’ve fed him, housed him, and this morning Oudoom found a set of western clothes that fits him.
Precilla thinks he’s looking rather smart, and tells him so.
“Yes, my journey was that of a traditional Himba man who travelled to show his respect. But you know? To survive, we Himbas must move on with the times. That’s why I became a ranger at Etosha.”
“And that’s where you heard about Sergeant Ben?” Servaas wants the man to get on with his story.
“Yes. Remember, I was eight when the war stopped. My family embraced me, and slowly, over the years, the memory of Sergeant Ben faded. The money from the Himba Trust built a school and that changed many things. Children from the surrounding kraals attended this school, and suddenly the families didn’t live in such isolation any more. We became a community – and I made many new friends. So, Sergeant Ben slowly disappeared in the bustle of my new life.
“Oh, I’d think about him, sometimes. Wonder what became of him. In the beginning I tried to believe that he’d come and visit, but that never happened…”
Boggel returns from his little kitchen with a tray laden with steaming scrambled eggs and more coffee. “So you became a ranger, and…?”
“Well, it was quite a coincidence…”
“You’re a Himba?” The old lady in the back of the game-drive vehicle was one of those quiet tourists. You get them: they hire you to show them the Big Five, or to do bird-watching, and then they’d just sit there in silence, drinking in the beauty of the surroundings. The Himba man preferred the quiet ones: they respect nature more than the talkers.
“My son used to write home about the Himbas. He was a soldier, you know? And…he died there,” she pointed vaguely towards the north, “during the war.”
The Himba man turned slowly in his seat to face her. “Mrs Badenhorst? You had a son killed in the war? Was he with the Equestrian Unit?”
“And so it was. She was Lieutenant Badenhorst’s mother. I couldn’t believe it!” He shakes his head in wonder, still slightly overawed at the thought. “We forgot all about sightseeing that day, of course. When she learnt how Badenhorst saved me, she broke down completely. After all these years, she said, she finally found out exactly what happened. And to meet me as a grown man…well, she maintained that our meeting was of great comfort to her. She had accepted her son’s death, but seeing me and hearing about what happened afterwards, seemed to make her proud.”
Mrs Badenhorst insisted that he join her for supper that evening because she wanted to hear more about the man her son had helped save. Later, over coffee, the Himba man asked if she knew sergeant Ben?
“Ben who? Do you know the surname?”
Sergeant Ben had always been just that: Sergeant Ben. As a child he never asked about his surname and later he never wondered about it. Sergeant Ben was the complete name in his mind – no other names were necessary. Shame-faced, he told her so.
“There were others: John, the Herero cook, and I remember some of the other soldiers. It all happened a quarter of a century ago and I was very small still… Oh, and there was that Brigadier. I remember him. Knoetze. That’s right, Brigadier Knoetze.”
The old lady promised to make enquiries and let him know. “I’ll do that for you. You’re living the life my son would have loved. You know, meeting you has been a blessing. I’m at peace now.”
“Two weeks later, I received a letter from her. She had traced the brigadier to an old-age home, and he remembered Sergeant Ben. The sergeant, he remebered, came from a family that farmed near Grootdrink.
“But, Mrs Badenhorst wrote, Sergeant Ben withdrew from society. The war… Anyway, that’s all she could find out. Oh, and his surname is Liebenberg.”
“What! Benjamin Liebenberg is your Sergeant Ben?” Gertruida jumps up in surprise. “Really?”
“You know him?”
“Yes. No. Well…I know about him. About the Liebenbergs, at least. They have a small farm next to the Orange River, near Grootdrink. I heard that their son, this Benjamin, stays in a rondawel on the farm. Never comes out. His father looks after him, they say. He’s apparently…not normal…”
“Mrs Badenhorst wrote something like that. Called him a recluse and a hermit. It saddened me because I remember how he told me his family had been killed in a landmine explosion. And I…well, during the war he saw me as his son. A son should never abandon his father. For many years Sergeant Ben was a vague memory, but after hearing from Mrs Badenhorst, I simply knew I had to see him. That’s what a true son should do.”
“But I heard…,” Gertruida begins, but the Himba man cut her short.
“Will you take me?”
Of course they agreed to do so. All of them. It’s quite a convoy when they drive out of town.