Monthly Archives: May 2014

Weekly Photo Challenge: Split-second Chameleon.

For this challenge, you have to take an early-morning walk in the Namib Desert. Look carefully for a little fellow that stays in trees in more forgiving surroundings. Here, he makes do with what he’s got: a desert with almost no vegetation. Be careful, for he’s a master at disguising himself.

IMG_2645Okay, you’ve found him. It’s still cold, so he’s turned black to absorb heat. He won’t do much. WAIT…be patient.

IMG_2648There, he’s warmed up, turned pink to ward off the heat, and on the hunt now. More patience, the desert is a big placeIMG_2649At last! He’s found breakfast. But…how long is that tongue?IMG_2651Pick him up carefully. Careful now! He’ll turn blackish again to show his discomfort. Work slowly…his bite is far worse than his bark…IMG_2652Now tempt him with a dead fly. Will he? Won’t he…?

IMG_2653Yessss! There you go. Action shot of a nice, long tongue. It took a few hours (well, it felt like that in the hot sun) but the split-second was worth it, wasn’t it?

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The Conversion

blkfrock“Hallelujah, Bothers and Sisters. Salvation – at last – reaches your fine town. Praises be, look, I am here!”

The group at the bar swivel round as one, to stare open-mouthed at the figure in the doorway. One cannot blame them for doing so. The man with the brilliant smile is dressed in a black coat with tails, a white shirt and tie, and a top hat. In his left hand he holds a silver-topped cane, while his right hand clutches a black book of considerable size.

“Well,howdydoody to you, too, Come on in, have a drink.” Boggel recovers first, despite the feeling of unease coursing through his mind. “I’m Boggel,” he says, extending his hand.

“Jeremiah Terblanche. My friends call me Bull. You know, Jeremiah was a bullfrog?  Well, the Bull part stuck. And no, my Brother, I shall not touch alcohol. It’s a sin, didn’t you now? No, not for me! If you have nothing else, I’d just settle down and get on with your conversion. You fine people need worry no more. From now on, this moment, you will be able to pass the threshold of ignorance. Wisdom, my friends…wisdom is at hand!”

“My word….” Gertruida whispers with that voice she uses when she is surprised. Like we all know, that doesn’t happen frequently – but today she is.

“Yes my dear Sister. The Word! I have come with it. No longer will you wonder about salvation! I have come to set you free. Aren’t you the luckiest town in the Kalahari? Wow!” The man bangs his cane on the floor, smile spreading even wider. “Come now, gather around, let me be your path to enlightenment!”

“Er…Mister Terblanche…Jeremiah…what denomination do you represent?” As elder in Oudoom’s church, Servaas feels he has the responsibility to protect the town against false prophets, Despite the man’s obvious zeal for his calling, one must be careful about these things.

“Oh no, Brother, don’t start with that! Why do people insist on denominations? This church, that church! And why? Because of Mammon, my friends. It’s the money! Church buildings cost money. Preachers must be paid. So there! Without a building or a salary, I am free to preach anywhere I like, and nobody has to pay a cent! So call me non-denominational and let’s get on with it.””

“No church? No salary? Then you are going to ask for donations.” Vetfaan doesn’t like the man or his demeanour. “Not from me, thank you. If you feel you must, then deliver your message and get on with it. We have serious issues to discuss. The drought, for instance. And my tractor. It won’t start again. ”

The man takes a deep breath. obviously fighting to keep the smile in place.

“An unbeliever! You see, Brothers and Sisters, that’s why you need me. One bad apple and the whole town is doomed….”

He is about to continue, but Kleinpiet interrupts him.

“Now wait a second, Mister! I’ll have you know that Vetfaan is a loyal supporter of the church. He donates a sheep to the bazaar every year and even helped when we fixed the roof of the vestry last summer. Call him a bad apple again, and I’ll make you eat your silly coat.”

Later, they’ll all agree that something strange happened to the man when Kleinpiet addressed him in such a rude manner. His eyes darted this way and that and for the first time they noticed the trembling lips when he forced his smile even wider. At the time, everyone in the bar thought he or she was mistaken, but when they discussed it afterwards, they all mentioned the phenomenon.

Jeremiah draws himself up to stand ramrod straight, takes a deep breath, and soldiers on. “The problem,” he whispers, “is the blindness that cloaks the world. Giving sheep won’t get you to heaven. Salvation isn’t bought by hammering nails into a rusty roof. No sir! Salvation comes from here.” He taps his chest with the black book. “Without it, you’re lost.”

“…And salvation is in here, as well.” Gertruida brings a finger up to her head. “Salvation, Mister Terblanche, involves the realisation that one must be careful with your thoughts and your words. Salvation isn’t something you give – it’s something you receive. Yes, preachers must preach and the Word is a guide…but in the end it’s a gift we receive, not something you have the power to dish out to people you know nothing about. Salvation, my friend, is the whisper directing our actions; not the shout that leads us astray.”

By now, Jeremiah Terblanche seems a bit deflated. “But,” he tries once more, “I only want to help…”

“You can help by telling us a bit more about yourself, sir.” For some reason, Precilla feels sorry for the man. Why would he barge in like this? What drives him?

“Listen, Jeremiah, come here and sit down. Let’s top the charade. Rolbos is a quiet little town and we love to hear people’s stories.” Gertruida can be extremely persuasive when she sets her mind to it. She pats an empty chair next to her. “Come on, Boggel, give him a lemonade.”

And so – in bits and pieces – they hear the sad tale of Jeremiah ‘Bull’ Terblanche. After losing his job as a clerk in Prieska’s co-op, he found out that able-bodied, middle-aged, white men have just about a zero chance of finding employment is South Africa. He tried everywhere, even to the point of applying for the job as a cleaner at the Oasis Casino. Eventually, broke and disheartened, he made a decision.

“Look, there’s one thing we all worry about: what happens after this life is over? We can fool around with words, but nobody really knows what happens next. So that was my ticket to escape my dilemma. If I could tell people to live right and be saved, I’m not harming anybody, am I?  And yes,” here he hangs his head, “I do ask for donations. The bigger the donation, the more I promise. Who’s to know whether I’m right or wrong? Anyway, it sure beats knocking on doors to ask for work you know you won’t get. In a way, I’m living my faith, see?” He’s almost pleading now.

“No, you’re not.” Gertruida now uses a soothing voice to calm the man down. “Faith isn’t always something you preach, but it’s always something you do. The old saying is true: actions convey a much more convincing message than any sermon ever preached.”

“And humility gets that message across, my friend, not arrogance.” Servaas has to get in his two cent’s worth. “Religion isn’t a fancy coat or a frock. Faith doesn’t wear a white tie and a top hat. Faith’s hands, my friend, are dirty and calloused. Those hands work harder than the mouth. That’s when you know it’s genuine.”

“That means I’m finished. Completely. No work, no faith, no nothing. If I can’t even get simple people in a little village to listen to me, I have nothing left. Might as well die…”

“And then?” Servaas downs his beer. “What awaits you on the other side? And how do you think your reception will be once you get there?”

Jeremiah doesn’t answer. Without his top hat, he seems to be much smaller, almost shrunken, as he sits with his head in his hands.

And now, right at this moment, the rumbling of Kalahari Vervoer’s lorry rattles the windows of Boggel’s Place when it trundles down Voortrekker Weg, A few minutes later, the driver enters the quiet little bar to stare at the group at the counter.

“Jeremiah? Bull? Is it really you? Man, I’ve been looking all over for you!  Fists Fourie, who owns Kalahari Vervoer, has been looking all over for you. He needs somebody to do his bookkeeping after Miss Joubert had to leave so suddenly. You remember her? We used to call her Wigglebottom, because…” He stops in mid-sentence, blushes, and rushes forward to greet his friend. “Anyway, if you’ve got nothing to do, I’ll give you a lift to Upington.”

***

It’s funny to take step back from Life every so often to look and really see the way we are directed to live our faith. Sometimes you have to reach rock bottom to realise what faith means and how precious it is.

Take Jeremiah, for instance. He got the work as a clerk for Mister Fourie and is currently doing a correspondence course in theology. This, of course, doesn’t surprise the patrons in Boggel’s Place. What really impressed them was the rain the day after Jeremiah took that lift to Upington. That, and the way Vetfaan’s tractor started with the first try the next day.

Servaas says they should read something in that.

They’re still talking about it…

The Terrible Reality of being a Hybrid Society

adam-and-eve-24 (2)“The original sin,” Oudoom tells the group at the bar, “wasn’t something stupid like eating an apple.” He waits until Servaas stops shaking his head before going on. “It was defiance. There were rules and the First Man, Number One, decided to challenge them. That, my friends was the start of all sin: the intent to break the rules. It began when Number One thought those laws applied to everybody else – but not him.”

The patrons in Boggel’s Place shift around uncomfortably. Oudoom is right, of course…it’s the implication of what he’s saying that worries them. Thoughts are private things, after all, and do they not – all of them – sometimes think thoughts they are not proud of? Gertruida is quick to change the subject.

“There’s a legend about the apes that used to live in the Kalahari, It’s an old story, but it ties in with Oudoom’s statement. And it says something about the result of sin as well…”

***

A long, long time ago, in a cave near an oasis in the desert, a group of apes lived happily together. They’d share food, groom each other, and watch the children play. They lived a simple life, never quarrelled and slept soundly at night.

One day, because it was winter and the cold wind forced them to remain in the  cave, they were faced with a problem. The small ones were hungry while the adults huddled close. At last – not being able to listen to the whimpering of the hungry children any longer – one ape stood up and said they had to do something about it.

“Look,” he said, “we can’t listen to this wailing all day. One of us must go to fetch some roots and berries for the children to eat.”

“Who are you to tell us such a thing?” One of the females scowled at the One Who Had Spoken First. “If one of us must go, we all must go.”

“Think about it,” the One Who Had Spoken First said, “the rest of us will remain warm in here while only one will suffer a bit. We can, of course, reward the one who fetches the food with an extra portion. That way, it will be worthwhile to face the cold and everybody will be happy.” 

“Then you should go. It was your idea.” 

“No, I can’t.” He held up a perfectly healthy foot. “I sprained my ankle, see? One of you will have to go.”

They all knew he was lying, of course. But, because they didn’t want to confront him with the lie, they all remained silent.

“Then we’ll have to choose one to go,” the female said eventually. Even in those times, they thought elections were the way to solve issues. Somehow this idea still persists to this day, even though everybody knows it only causes more problems.

And that’s how the first elections took place. Yes, they all agreed, the One Who Had Spoken First should go. He grumbled, declared they were all unfair, and sulked in the corner. The rest of the tribe wouldn’t have any of that and said they’d all go out .

“We’ll gather enough food for all of us and come back. But…you won’t get anything. If you don’t want to share in the work, you can’t expect us to feed you.”

And so it happened that the shivering troupe of apes went out in the freezing wind to fetch food for the little ones and for themselves. During their search, they came upon another cave, a bigger one, much better protected and warmer than their old home.

“I’ll go fetch the children,” the Female Who Had Answered the One Who Had Spoken First said. “We’ll stay here. It is nearer to the water and there is enough berries around to feed us all through the winter.”

And this she did. When she got to their old cave, the One Who Had Spoken First was glad to get rid of the wailing children. He also thought it was a trick to get him working as well, and refused to go along. He stayed behind in their old cave.

***

“Now, one must be very careful with good fortune. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – we all know that.” Gertruida sighs. “But those apes didn’t. They couldn’t believe their good luck. They moved into that new cave, without The One Who Had Spoken First , celebrating with the berries they had found.”

***

However, there was a very good reason why that cave was uninhabited – or at least seemed empty. Far back in the dark recesses of the cave lived a huge python. It was his cave, And any traveller or animal that sought shelter there, was sure to end up as the python’s next meal.

The python couldn’t believe his good luck. He was also very clever. No, he decided. he won’t eat them all at the same time. He’d slither out of his hiding place late at night, and swallow one of the apes every time the moon turns dark. The apes were upset, but they never realised what – exactly – was happening. All they knew, was that every so often, one of them would disappear. 

Then, one day when there were only a few left, the apes decided to return to their old cave. They discussed moving the next morning, not realising the python was listening to everything they said. So, that evening, the python set about swallowing the rest of the apes. One by one he’d slither up to a sleeping figure and do what he did best – first strangulating his victim before gorging himself.

***

“Well, you can imagine the scene: slowly, relentlessly, that snake devoured every single member of that clan. By the time he reached the last ape, the python was so full, he could hardly move. His movements became sluggish and slow. Exhausted by his efforts, the snake tried to wrap himself around the last ape’s neck.” 

Gertruida’s story has them all hanging onto every word. Here and there a hand went up to a throat, while an involuntary shiver ran down quite a few spines.

***

The remaining ape woke up with a start. He saw the snake. He looked around. And he screamed like no ape had done ever before. The python, however, would not be denied, and although he was very slow about it, he eventually silenced the ape by swallowing him as well.

The One Who Had Spoken First, heard those terrible screams during the night. Not daring to venture out in the dark, he waited until dawn to investigate. He came upon that cave where the huge python lay with the massively bloated stomach. His fright at finding that such a horrible thing had happened, was complete. Regret about his selfishness and unwillingness to help his family, mixed with the realisation that he was responsible for the demise of the clan, made him stand there, mouth agape, unable to move.

***

7“He’s still there, on the other side of Bokkop, if you cared to look, you’ll find the place where he’s still standing. Over the years he has turned to stone as a reminder of the terrible destruction one causes when the intention to lie becomes a way of life. Anyway, that’s why we have no apes here in Rolbos.” Gertruida finishes her story so suddenly, that the group in the bar lets out a collective groan.

“Magtag, Gertruida! That’s a terrible story.” Servaas pulls at the collar of his black suit. “Whatever has that to do with Oudoom’s statement. You know? The fact that the original sin wasn’t eating the apple, but the intention to do so?”

“You should have a look at that boulder, Servaas. It is both ape and rock. It’s a hybrid, you see? Just like we are hybrids:  we mix lies and truth. We love and we hate. We have the capacity to laugh and to cry. In the end, we’re composites of quite a number of conflicting abilities and emotions. Most of all, we manage to mingle good and evil into our daily lives so delicately, we don’t even notice it any more.

“Think about the ape who spoke first – he was just lazy. Then he told a little lie about his foot. and that, my friend, caused the destruction of the whole clan. One individual, their Number One, wasn’t truthful about a small thing. What happened?” Gertruida pauses a while, letting her words sink in. “Number One destroyed their happy way of life, that’s what. That stone on Bokkop is a monument of the horror he had caused by his intention to make the others do all the work.”

Oudoom shrugs. “Ja, Gertruida. Our Number One will do the same. Already we have many monuments to attest to his intentions. Schools without books. Hospitals with no back-up generators. Corruption. Crime. Rape. Murder. Our beloved country is a hybrid of beauty and horror.The python is swallowing the country, while we sleep on blissfully.” He leans over to pat Servaas’ slumped shoulders. “Maybe that’s our biggest sin…”

“You mean, it’s goodbye Paradise for us, Dominee?”

“We left Paradise a long time ago, Servaas, when we became hybrids.  A very long time ago, when lies stole our purity  and we got swallowed by the python called politics…”

Coppertone and the Donkeys

 

Credit: custommade.com

Credit: custommade.com

“Is it the same bloke?” Kleinpiet spreads the magazine on the bar’s counter, pointing at the smiling man in front of the huge house. “If that isn’t old Coppertone, I’m not me. It says here he’s one of he wealthiest men in Wellington. He’s still making those silly copper donkeys, apparently. Some guy from China buys all his stuff – not a single one gets sold locally. It seems this Chinese gentleman fell in love with old Coppertone’s art and has bought the rights to distribute it in China.”

“Imagine that happening to old Coppertone!” Boggel eyes the dull handles on the door as he pushes over a fresh beer to Vetfaan. “Man, that man could put a shine to everything. Remember how he cleaned up the church’s bell? And we all used his services for such a long time.”

“Ja, I remember. Once a month or so, he’d come to town with his donkey cart and his rags and the Brasso. Everybody brought their pots and pans and ornaments, and he’d sit there under the tree in front of the church, humming to himself while he polished things up. He just loved copper and brass. Said it was the shine that made him happy.”

“It was in his genes, guys. His great-great-greatgrandfather – or whatever you call him so many generations ago – was one of the guides when Simon van der Stel explored Namaqualand in 1685. They found copper  there, and a bit of silver. That’s when it started – this love affair with copper and brass.” Gertruida, who knows everything, proceeds to lecture them on that historic trip.

“Well, he sure was good in getting our old ornaments looking like new again, that’s for sure. But as a copper smith, he was rather useless. I remember those copper donkeys. All skew and silly. You could recognise the four legs on most of them, but the bodies and the heads were never quite right. And he wanted a fortune for them, because he said they were hand-made. Shame, nobody ever bought those donkeys.” Kleinpiet draws a donkey with four short legs on the counter with the froth on his beer, smiles at the picture and wipes it out with a cloth. “Anyway, who wants a crooked donkey on the mantlepiece next to the picture of the Voortrekker Monument? It just won’t do.”

“Didn’t he go to Cape Town in the end?” Concentrating hard, Vetfaan remembers something  the old man said long ago. “He wanted to become a sailor or something. Said there was more brass on boats than in towns.”

“You’re right! He saw a photograph of an old ship in Die Huisgenoot, and was fascinated by the portholes and fixtures on ships. He said he’d never have a dull moment if he worked in a harbour. So he packed up his donkeys and rags and left.”

“And now he lives in a mansion!”  Pointing at the picture of the smiling old man in front of the huge house, Kleinpiet shakes his head. Life s so unfair! Here he is, working so hard on his farm, and he’d never own a property like that.

“There was a story,” Gertruida says, “that he dug out his own copper ore to make those donkeys. Somewhere near Springbok. He really produces those donkeys from scratch. Melts the ore, hammers it into shape after making moulds with clay he found in a riverbed. He never disclosed the site, though. Only said it’s in the Richtersveld, but that was all. Said it was a family secret.” She scans the article and sighs. “See, here they say the same. He still goes there to get his material.”

“Well, good luck to him. If those Chinese think his work is good enough for them, it just shows how stupid they are. No self-respecting farmer – who knows what a donkey should look like – will buy one of those donkeys. What will other people think of him? Or, for that matter, how will his own, real donkeys feel like if they saw these little statues? The district will be filled by donkeys trying to look like that.” Vetfaan closes his eyes to see scores of donkeys hobbling around on uneven legs. No! That won’t do…

Kleinpiet turns the page to show them the photo of Nkandla. Yes, they all agree, life is sometmes completely without any form of logic or justice.

1010They don’t know about the little mine in the remote Richtersveld, where the man they know as Coppertone has discovered a strange line in the rocks. It doesn’t look like much, one must admit. Just a vein in the rock formation, shining dully if the sun catches it at the right angle. It is here, in this remote outcrop, that Coppertone gets the metal he melts to purify before creating his donkeys.

However, the donkeys aren’t completely finished when they are exported. When the little statues reach the rich man in Beijing,  the statuettes get the final touch.  It is only here the man takes out the punch to carefully stamp 24 Ct on each of them.

Weakly Photo Challenge: The Unexpected Twist

What a wonderful theme – and Africa is always so willing to oblige.

It could be an address…

IMG_2914Or a railroad going nowhere:

IMG_2986Or even finding out the Bushmen used the twigs of these plants to be candles at night:

IMG_3245Or finding a stuffed leopard in the bar:

IMG_3443

Or even a tad more bizarre: a live, real, huge, hippo sleeping peacefully in the lounge of your lodge:113

 

Twists in Africa? Of course…they’re everywhere!

Oh, Mister Dickens!

367px-Greatexpectations_vol1“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” 
― Charles DickensGreat Expectations

Gertruida sits down after discussing that wonderful work of literature by Charles Dickens. Boggel wipes a tear: he just loved the coming of age by the orphaned Pip, identifying strongly with the character.

“We all have great expectations, I suppose. We hope and pray for many things. Love. Health. Even money, at times.” Precilla – who’ll never be a mother – stares wistfully through the window at the empty horizon. “But sometimes we have to make peace with what we’ve got. And then, just like Dickens describes, we often find that people we despise are actually the heroes – and the heroes turn out to be villains.”

Kleinpiet, highly sensitive of what Precilla is saying, squeezes her hand. “Ja, that’s so. What I liked about the book is the way it ended. Pip gets Estella and now faces a future with her at his side. Good triumphed over evil. What an array of characters! Quite astounding!”

They’re silent for a moment, reflecting on the great writer’s ability to create poignant moments in his writing.

“Sooo,…” Vetfaan sits back, not quite sure what to say. “What are our Great Expectations for this year?”

“That’s easy.” Gertruida, who knows everything, smiles happily. “We’re going to get published. We’ll make history.”

Oudoom, who’s confined him to his study lately while working on a complicated sermon (Why do we have a corrupt government when the Bible tells us everything works out well for those who believe?)  frowns. What is Gertruida talking about?

“Oudoom, you should pay more attention. There are two books about Rolbos in the offing. One in English, one in Afrikaans. And no, it’s not a translation either. Two completely different collections of short stories. As far as I know, the simultaneous publication of two volumes of short stories by the same author in two languages has never happened in the Northern Cape. Maybe not even in the country…”

“…or the world, for that matter.” Boggel finishes her sentence. “Now the selection of stories are complete, it’s being rewritten and then the final editing has to be done. Exciting times, I’m sure. With a bit of luck, we can look forward to publication in September or so.”

“Yes, it’s been a long process,” Gertruida agrees. “You know how set that editor is on delivering perfection. She’s quite a tiger when it comes to sorting out the minutest details. I’m glad I won’t have to field her criticism.”

“Well, we know some of the stories at least. I heard the English version is arranged in different moods. So you’ll have sections on Love, Sad Stories, Nostalgia and so on. There’s even a section about Vrede.” Servaas, uncommonly dressed in khaki, fondles the dog’s ears when he sits up on hearing his name. “The Afrikaans book tells the story of Rolbos, and is arranged to follow on each other. In a way it’s a long story made up by many short stories. I hope readers will like that.”

Boggel serves a round on the house. Yes, they’ll be quietly optimistic about the reception of the books. And like things turned out for Pip, they expect happy smiles on the faces of readers once they get tstuck into the weird adventures the townsfolk become involved in.

“Let me quote something from Wikipedia.” Gertruida knows it’s useless to explain what Wikipedia is. They won’t understand.  ” Critics hailed it as one of Dickens’ greatest successes although often for conflicting reasons: GK Chesterton admired the novel’s optimism; Edmung Wilson its pessimism; Humphry House in 1941 emphasized its social context; while in 1974, JH Buckley saw it foremost as a bildungsroman”

“Huh?” Servaas doesn’t understand.

“What I’m saying, Servaas, is that readers experienced Dickens’ book in a variety of ways. Just like us, the characters interacted with the readers on different levels. Some will laugh, others cry, and yet others might frown. 

“Now that’s my Great Expectation: that people will read about us and feel – rather than read – our stories. That, I’m confident, will happen. But…only time will tell. So let’s hold thumbs.”

They fall silent after her little speech, remembering the words of Joe in Dickens’ book:

“Give me,” said Joe, “a good book, or a good newspaper, and sit me down afore a good fire, and I ask no better.”

Great expectations, indeed…

Writing Prompt: A form of Flattery – A tribute to Herman Charles Bosman

HC_BosmanWrite a post about any topic you want, but in the style of an author or a blogger you admire.

Herman Charles Bosman was born in 1905 in Kuils River. As a school teacher, he spent a mere six months in the Bushveld, where his Groot Marico tales started germinating. Then, in a terrible accident reminiscent of the Pistorius case, he fired into a darkened room where his stepbrother was involved in a tussle –  killing him instantly. Bosman attempted suicide directly afterwards, but recovered to stand trail. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted afterwards and he spent four years in prison,

He then started writing under the name Herman Malan (his mother’s maiden name), becoming especially known for his dark stories and macabre plots. Later, paradoxically, he started writing extremely humorous stories in which Oom Schalk Lourens was the narrator.

Bosman died in 1951, aged 46. It was only after his death that the public took notice of his work and recognition- like it so often and so cruelly does – finally came for the brilliance of this enigmatic man.

****

“Now look,” Oom Schalk Lourens said, puffing his pipe as he stared at his empty glass, “those scoundrels at Rolbos must think they’re quite fancy because their stories are read in so many countries. In my time, Herman used a pencil and paper. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. He wasn’t paid much –  three guineas for a thousand words. I remember something he wrote:

I, like other simpletons, sweat, pore, write, rewrite, retype (many times over), curse, burn midnight oil to produce something between 2000 and 4000 words… I have spent a few bob at the races with just as much chance of remuneration (or loss) as writing a short story.

“Ja, I remember those days. Good days they were, even though they were bad. It’s like the way life treats you, man. Some days the sun burns the hell out of you, but at night the cold wind bites through your blanket.”

Jurie Els shakes his head. They’ve been sitting in the old post office drinking peach brandy all afternoon, and Oom Schalk keeps on harping on about the old days. Can’t the man move on with the times? After all, the town has progressed remarkably in the last few years.

“Oom Schalk, let that sleeping dog be, man. We’ve got a black mayor now, and he’s promised to fill up the potholes in the street – as soon as he’s finished building a few more houses in the location.”

“That’s the problem,” Oom Schalk sighs, “the location has been upgraded to a township now. Whatever will they think of next? We don’t even have squatters now; they live in an ‘informal settlement’. You’d think that would bring down the number of thefts in town – but what happens? People don’t steal any more. They call it affirmative action. No man, I liked it when somebody stole and you could call him a thief. Now they say everything is a legacy of the past.”

He sighs, staring at the unopened postal bags. “The past…man, those were good days. You worked, you got paid. Now people get paid for doing nothing. Look at those bags: when do you plan on opening them?”

“I’m on strike,” Jurie says, smiling broadly, “it’s my constitutional right, see? It’s like a holiday. And when enough people didn’t get their post for long enough, they will say yes, Jurie does a sterling job. That’s when they will increase my salary. It’s the modern way, Oom Schalk.”

Sometimes, Oom Schalk Lourens says, he thinks back on the time he spent in jail, that time he tried to smuggle cattle from Bechuanaland. He talks about the clothes he got for free and the three meals every day. He also got a few other things, like lice, for instance. But, he says, that’s progress for you – it always comes with a price.

We always laugh when he talks about these things. Laugh loudly, slapping him on the shoulder and telling him how good his memory is. We want to make him talk about long ago, see, so he won’t talk about the present. And when he gets going, we make sure his glass remains full and then we laugh some more.

But always, when the bottle is empty, Oom Schalk falls silent and tells us his hayfever is acting up again. That’s when he borrows Floris van Barneveldt’s handkerchief to wipe his eyes and nose. And then he’d stare out of the window; stare at the potholed road that leads to the township; and he’d shake his head.

“There was a time you could tell these stories. You know, the things that really happened. But now we can only sit on these post bags and talk about them softly.” That’s what he said last time. “I’m glad Herman isn’t around to see this. He wouldn’t be able to write his stories now. They’d call him names, they would. But, ” and here Oom Schalk took his time lighting his pipe, “maybe it’s good to think back on the life and times of Herman Charles Bosman. No matter what the politicians do, they can’t wipe out his words.”

Of course we laugh when he says this, like we always do. This time Oom Schalk surpises us by digging out his own handkerchief. He says nowadays a man must carry his own in his pocket, because there’s so much dust in the air.

And we won’t laugh at that. No sir. Something as serious as that deserves a quiet moment. We’ll just sit there and wait for the next bottle of peach brandy to be opened. After all. the past is always present, not so? Especially these days…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Work of Art.

The challenge: “Art” isn’t just paintings and sculptures, it can be anything in which we find beauty and meaning — even food. Show us a thing, place, or person that’s a work of art to you.

Of course this creates a problem when Africa is there to constantly remind you of her beauty. Her plants, trees, sunsets, creatures, people… Where do you start? So here’s a random selection of pictures. They represent memories from recent trips, each of which contributed to the stories on this blog. Which is the masterpiece of Nature’s Art? Your choice…

Our Teacher: The Humble Ant

The enigmatic Eugene Marais

The enigmatic Eugene Marais

“I feel sorry for them,” Fanny says as she sees another ant tumbling into the antlion pit. “They really have no chance.”

“Ants, my dear, have been around longer than humans. They’ve evolved with time and now inhabit every continent except Antarctica.” Gertruida just can’t allow a chance to lecture pass by. “Remember Eugene Marais? He wrote The Soul of the White Ant, a stunning piece of work for that time. First published as a series of articles in Die Huisgenoot,  from 1925 to 1926,  the English and Afrikaans versions were only published in book form later.

“Marais was a keen observer. Trained as a lawyer, he had considerable medical knowledge as well – seems he picked this up during his studies in London from 1897 to about 1902. At the time, he was a widower, a morphine user and a seasoned journalist. He picked up other skills as well, the most notable of these his ability to hypnotise both people as well as animals.

“Anyway, he was the first author to promote the idea of a termitary,  where all the creatures combined their abilities to form a composite animal. At the time, that was quite a revolutionary concept.”

“You mean like bees work together as a unit, so do ants?” Kleinpiet thinks of all the cans of Doom he’s emptied on the lines of ants carting off his sugar.

“Indeed. They are, per definition, socialists. The individual is less important than the society. They work together to create a better world. No strikes, no protests. Every ant does what he is supposed to do, because then the entire colony benefits. And what’s good for the colony, is good for the individual. Win-win…and they all live happily ever after.”

Precilla arches an eyebrow, nods when Boggel offers a fresh beer, and taps the side of her head. “I remember something about Marais.  Didn’t he write books about baboons and apes as well? He was a sort of social recluse, lost in his world of depression, malaria and morphine. And yet he left a legacy like no other?”

“That’s true, Precilla. Much like Darwin, he formulated certain ideas about Nature, and strangely Darwin died of melancholy as well. Darwin just didn’t want to go on living, it seems. And Marais…well. he shot himself.”

“But he did a lot of good, as well.” Defending the memory, Precilla forges ahead. “Despite his lack of training, he delivered babies, operated on extremely sick men and women; and as far as I know, he never lost a patient, either. That’s not bad for a lawyer. There’s also a famous story about how he hypnotised a paralysed woman and she started walking again.

“Yes, he did that. After 17 years, she walked again.” A small frown creases the space between Gertruida’s eyes. “In a way he was much like us. An outsider, looking in. A loner who needed people around him. But while he used opium or morphine, we are much more civilised with our Cactus Jack. Like him, we observe and comment, without getting involved. Mind you, he had Piet.”

“Piet?” They chorus together, not sure if she’s referring to Kleinpiet’s family.

“Piet was a baboon he brought up. Used to ride next to him on his donkey cart – even steered the donkeys with the reins. That baboon was quite clever. Dressed himself warmly in winter and insisted on wearing a type of hat in summer. A lot of that experience prompted him to study a troop of baboons, which formed the backbone of his My Friends, the Baboons. I remember a poignant chapter from that book, where the primates tried to save the man they had learnt to trust.”

Vetfaan uses his scuffed boot to divert another ant from tumbling into the antlion’s trap.

“A collective unity. ” He muses. “A composite animal. They dig for water and save for the hard times.  Equal in duty, equal in reward. Every one pursuing a common goal.”

“Ja,” Oudoom sighs as he sits down for his daily snort. “The Bible teaches us to go to the ant and become wise. Marais may have been the first to make scientific observations regarding that, but the advice was given centuries ago.”

“…and it’ll be centuries before mankind stumbles upon that solution. Or never. At least, I can’t see it happening in South Africa soon.” Kleinpiet smirks at his clever remark.

“Oh no!” Gertruida wags a friendly finger at him. “We’ve got ants. Lots of them. Fire ants are what we’ve got. Nasty critters with venomous stings and strong little pinchers. They raid and kill. Sadly, they don’t live in mounds and ant heaps – they have huge houses they build with taxpayer’s money.

“Maybe that’s why he wrote:

‘n Druppel gal is in die soetste wyn;
‘n traan is op elk’ vrolik’ snaar,
in elke lag ‘n sug van pyn,
in elke roos ‘n dowwe blaar.”

(May be translated as:

You’ll find a drop of gall in the sweetest wine,

A tear in every happy tune,

In every laugh hides a sigh of pain.

In every rose a wilted petal.}

“We can dream, can’t we?” Gertruida sighs as the ants now forge a new road, around the antlion’s trap. “Maybe, one day, we’ll learn about ants and antlions; about working together and the beauty of caring. Until then… Marais said the ruler of the colony determines the activity in the nest. In the ant’s case, it is the queen who does this, of course. In our case we are ruled by a government and the president. We’ll just have  live with what we’ve got.” She smiles, shrugs, and then adds:  “The ants, I think, are extremely fortunate. They haven’t discovered politics and democracy yet…”

This is Randall Wicomb’s interpretation of one on Antjie Krog’s poems. It says something (to me, at least) about the life and times of Eugene Marais…

Fairytales, Antlions and Love.

Antlion1_by_Jonathan_Numer“Those creatures give me the creeps.” Precilla points at the little hollow next to the steps up to Boggel’s Place.  “I once saw a picture of one of them, and boy, are they ugly!”

“Well, they have a distinct disadvantage when you compare them to jackals and swans, if that’s what you’re getting at. But we mustn’t be harsh. When last did you see Boggel before he brushed his teeth in the morning? Man, now there’s a sight to scare small children with.” He’s teasing, of course. Kleinpiet actually likes the little bent barman a lot.

In the stifling heat of a typical Kalahari day, the townsfolk have assembled under the veranda in front of the bar, where Gertruida now stops fanning herself. 

Antlion_trap (1)“One must never underestimate Nature, guys. That little antlion has survived all the millennia to come and make it’s nest here.  There is evidence of antlion fossils dating back 150 million years! Droughts and floods, progress and war have not changed its lifestyle one bit. It’s a true survivor.”

“But it is rather primitive, won’t you say? It digs a hole, waits for an unsuspecting passer-by and then devours it. And, I heard, those jaws are quite poisonous. Got a venom in there that stuns its prey.”

“That’s right, Precilla. It sucks the victim dry, chucks out the hard bits, and lives on the fluid it gets in this way. Never drinks. And…it doesn’t have an anus. What it takes in, remains in. At least, until the change comes, it retains everything inside.”

“Ugh! That’s despicable! Imagine that? A lazy little blob, waiting at the bottom of the pit for a free meal…it sounds like the parliament, if you ask me.”

“Now there’s an unlikely comparison if ever I heard one! It takes the concept of bottom-feeder to a completely new level. A low level, I might add.”

Gertruida gets up to stand behind her chair. They all know she wants to deliver another lecture, so they quickly order another round. Gertruida can lecture the legs off a donkey when she’s in the mood.

“One of the most beautiful things in nature happens with that poor animal you so wrongly judge to be ugly. Sure, it’s got jaws. And sure, it has a bit of venom. And yes, it waits patiently at the bottom of the little pit it dug without hands or tools. 

“At least, it isn’t devious about what it’s doing. That hole is there for anyone to see. If you get trapped there, it’s because you weren’t paying attention. The antlion only does what it has to do.

“Now, consider the 2,000 species of insects in the family Myrmeleontida. They occur world-wide, but prefer to live under inhospitable circumstances. They don’t like a crowd, you see? They are called by many names: Little Dog of the Wood, Pit Elephant, Doodlebug, Little Armadillo and Vulture Louse. The Spanish call it Tonto – Little Bull – which always reminds me of the famous Indian in the cowboy stories.

“What is interesting, is the little pit you observe down there. That’s made by a larva – the baby that emerged from the egg it’s mother laid. At first, it practices its trade from a small pit, catching small prey. As it grows, it makes larger and larger pits to catch more appetising meals. 

“But it is completely defenceless, as you can see. The little pit is exposed to wind and rain and anything that treads, trots or slithers across it. Whenever the pit is destroyed, the antlion simply constructs a new one. It has to, to get to the next stage.”

“What next stage?” Vetfaan has seen large areas of the Kalahari with these little pits, and never thought much about it. An antlion is an antlion – you don’t end up studying them, for goodness sakes! Now, with Gertruida in full cry, he is strangely intrigued.

“Well, they evolve, you see. Once the larval stage is over, they turn into lacewings.”

424px-Antlion_life_cycle.svgWarming to her subject, she tells them how the helpless, ugly creature becomes a little silk-lined cocoon. After a month of so in this pupal stage, they finally emerge as an adult insect.

“The transformation is remarkable. The helpless, immature larva emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful little animal, much larger than the antlion, it is able to fly.  People often confuse them with dragonflies, unless they pay attention to the clubbed antennae of the lacewing.

“Mostly nocturnal, they even get swatted by people who take them to be largish mosquitoes. 

“So, my friends, don’t look down on that hapless creature surviving below the surface in that hole. It’s really trying to find a way to become what it should be: a flying beauty.”

Ever the romantic, Precilla smiles shyly.

“Wow! At first an egg. Then an ugly larva – and then, under the right circumstances, it spreads its wings to discover a completely different way of living. That’s so sweet!”

Distoleon_tetragrammicus01Gertruida isn’t finished yet. “There is a fable, Precilla, about these antlions. A small group of San people say that ithey represent the way it is with men and women. They revere the antlion as a sort of good luck sign. You see, they say we are all born to be helpless and then we try to fight our way through life. But…as we all find out, it is often through many trials and tribulations that we realise we have the ability to fly. We can leave the pit of selfish existence to spread our wings in search of a mate. When those San people see the the fluttering lacewings, they tell each other about a better life; a life where they find freedom and love. To them, an antlion is a sign of love.”

They watch as an ant tumbles down the steep side of the pit. The waiting antlion pounces immediately, dragging it’s prey below the surface.

“Ugh,” Precilla says.

“It’ll fly one day,” Gertruida smiles, “become something beautiful.”

“Like love, Gertruida?” Vetfaan doesn’t get it.

“Exactly, Vetfaan. Antlions are Mother Nature’s fairytale. It’s the story of Cinderella who gets rescued from hardship. Or Sleeping Beauty who wakes up. Even…Pinocchio who gets to feel what it is to be alive. The beast, turning into beauty. Love does that, my friend. It is only once we discover the wings of love that we finally discover the wonder of flight.”

Boggel gets up put an empty bottle near the antlion’s pit.

“Just so we don’t step on it accidentally,” he explains. “Even an antlion needs some protection sometimes.  It’s the least we can do.”

Gertruida smiles quietly. Yes, she thinks, love is such a vulnerable thing