Even after all these years, when people talk about Gert Smit, they do so in hushed tones – like when you speak about death or war or love. Of course, if he still lived on his farm, things would have been different. People would have been able to ask him about his tomatoes and maybe he’d be able to prove that everything they say, is only gossip. That would have been nice. But now he’s gone and the questions remain.
Gertruida will tell you: it’s always difficult to say where to start a story. There must have been a real jackal and a real wolf sometime – or, as the more sophisticated readers might relate to: what actually happened to Little Red Riding Hood’s mother? There must be a reason why she’s not in the story. Is it, after all, not her fault she allowed her pre-pubescent daughter to wander off – unattended – into the woods? Maybe the mother didn’t care, or maybe she liked peach brandy too much – and that would have given the story a different start indeed.
So, to know where to begin telling a story is very important. One must begin at the beginning – and that makes Gert Smit’s story so difficult.
One may be tempted to look at the history of the Smits, for was it not his great-great grandfather, Hieronymus Smit himself, who shot the Englishman at Magersfontein in 1899? Or was it a Scot? It doesn’t really matter: he ended up dead, and it is questionable whether dead people’s nationality counts for anything Up There. Or Down There, if you want to argue who was right.
Of course many other Boers bragged about that battle afterwards, but it was Smit who saw a kilted Higlander running towards the kopje – and he was a thousand yards away. Shooting with a Mauser at that distance is an art, especially if you don’t have binoculars or a telescope. But Hieronymus, a gifted hunter and an even better poacher, dropped the man from almost a mile away. Even General de la Rey congratulated him afterwards, saying he kilted the kilted man. English, as we know, wasn’t de la Rey’s strong point.
But maybe it’s better to roll back the history even further, to 1865, when an Englishman, William Hunt by birth (but by then known as the Great Farini), organised the expedition that claimed to have discovered the Lost City of the Kalahari. At that stage Hieronymus was a lad of scarcely 15, but his knowledge of horses and guns (and poaching) saw to it that he succeeded in convincing Farini that he was indispensable to the success of the expedition.
Then again, you may want to skip to 1874, when the great Dorsland Trek happened and the most obstinate (or intelligent) Boers saw that the annexation of Transvaal by England was imminent. They trekked across the Kalahari in search of freedom, with Hieronimus as one of the guides. Whichever way one considers Gert Smit’s story, old Hieronimus seems to crop up all the time.
Or maybe one should look at the later stage of the Boer War, at the 27th February 1900, when General Piet Cronje surrendered to the English at Paardeberg – and by doing so, created over 4,000 prisoners of war for the English. Hieronymus was amongst these, and eventually ended up in St Helena.
It was during his forced stay at St Helena that Hieronimus rewrote the Bible. He gathered all the Christians in the concentration camp (which was everybody), and asked them to tell him what they remembered about the Book. Not having access to a Bible was a grave concern to all those who prayed that the English would lose the war, so they made their own one. The final product – a staggering 75 page manuscript – contained many verses which likened Queen Victoria to The Snake, or even Delilah, and served as basis for the religious services whenever somebody died. You can start with that book with it’s 75 pages, telling your audience that was the only school-exercise book they had and it only contained that many pages. It’s not wrong to do it that way, because in the beginning was the Word, remember? You’ll get people’s attention that way, but without mentioning Farini, the story does tend to lose it a bit of its charm.
This Bible also contained detailed maps of the Kalahari, which Hieronimus still saw as the way to cross Sinai to reach Canaan. Be that as it may, the Book was passed from generation to generation and faithfully preserved.
So, Gertruida will tell you, nobody really knows where the story starts. Yet, she says, it is important to know that Gert Smit inherited a lot from his forefathers: the knowledge of the veld, the ability to use a gun, a love for the Kalahari and a hatred for anything that threatened his independence. And, of course, the manuscript the old man wrote on St Helena. Maybe the Book is more important than the genes, come to think of it.
Here we must quickly refer to the fact that the Smits were a notoriously obstinate group of people, and maybe it is even possible to start the story with his great-grandfather, who was killed in the 1914 rebellion. He had refused to join the South African forces to fight alongside their previous enemies (the English) against their previous friends (the Germans). At first he was interred in the Booysen Camp (Johannesburg), but was later transferred to the camp near Upington. He died while off-loading bags of supplies from a train – the train started moving unexpectedly and he was crushed between two waggons.
Of course you can start the story there – you can talk extensively about a man who respected his friends, hated his enemies, and died in the Kalahari. It’ll make the listeners nod and say, yes, once upon a time there were men like that. Real men. Not like now. And they’ll beg to hear more.
However, his son – Gert Smit’s grandfather – was also a hardworking man. He married young, started working in a mine, and everybody thought he had a bright future ahead of him. He died, like so many of his fellow-workers, of Black Lung, but not before he fathered a healthy young boy, Gerhardus, who became the father of the first Gert. Gerhardus also met his end in a way you can start the story. He followed his father’s footsteps as a miner – work was scarce even back then – and seemed set to become a foreman at a young age. Because of his bright prospects, he had no difficulty in persuading Petronella Volschenck to marry him, just before Christmas 1959. However, in January 1960 he (and more than 400 other workers) died in the Colabrook Mining disaster.
Gert Smit’s father was thus born without a father, which might explain why all the old Smit-rebellious tendencies manifested themselves so clearly in the young lad, so it won’t be wrong to start the story there, either.
So, no matter how long ago – or how recently – you start the story, you can do it in such a way that your listener will never imagine that tomatoes had anything to do with it. That’s the beauty of Gert Smit’s story: the ending doesn’t fit the beginning. Or maybe it does, if you consider Farini’s taste for the red fruit. But if you told it that way, you’d be giving the ending away, and that – Gertruida will tell you – is disrespectful.
Because that little patch of tomatoes next to the little fountain in the dunes should not be subjected to light-hearted banter. Not after what happened to Gert Smit.
No, sir, it demands a quiet moment of reflection. Maybe even a few minutes worth of contemplation.
But, however you choose to start telling the story of Gert Smit’s tomatoes, one can never forget to mention his wife, Lettie. Or the fact that he, Gert, almost died in the Border War. Those stories deserve a telling all by themselves, which makes it even more difficult to decide where to start.
Gertruida once said Gert Smit’s story doesn’t have a proper beginning, and she might be right, At least that’ll be a start that fits in with the ending – and of course a good story always completes that circle. We all know how important the end of a story is…
Otherwise, one should not even tell the story. It just won’t be the same.