When will we ever learn…?


Master Story-teller: Pieter Pieterse

(Following on the two previous posts)

Not everything was banged-up during the war,” Kleinpiet says in an effort to lift Vetfaan’s mood. “Remember that porcupine?”

Vetfaan nods reluctantly. When he is in the grip of those dark thoughts, he doesn’t smile easily.

Spiesie (Afrikaans for ‘Little Spear’) they called him. He rattled into camp one cold winter morning, apparently oblivious of the fact that there was a war going on and that you needed special permission to get anywhere near the workshops.  Without bothering with the fine military tradition of saluting your superiors, he made straight for the one large shed, where a SAMIL was unloading a new axle for a broken-down Bedford. There, still ignoring the men in their browns, he settled down under the idling engine. He liked it there – it was nice and warm.

“Man, that little prickly pet had a mind of his own. Unlike the other animals in the Caprivi, he had no fear of man…or beast. And he refused to be tamed in any way. But if you had an apple in your tent, Spiesie would find it. The cook had to put the potatoes in a locked cupboard. And don’t think he was deterred by plastic bottles – he simply gnawed his way through them to find out what’s inside.”

Vetfaan straightens his shoulders a bit. “That’s how we lost him, not so?”

“Ja, the poor thing. Spiesie gnawed his way into a 2-litre Windhoek Lager bottle one night. We found his tracks that morning…weaving about in a rather random way. Sometimes straight, then – apparently confused – doubling back.  Once or twice he even rolled about in the sand. But…that was the last. Maybe he simply didn’t like the beer?”

“Nah.” Vetfaan shakes his head. “Wasn’t that. I think he hated that early-morning bugle. And he couldn’t stick to mealtimes. Undisciplined, he was.”

“No, not like that little elephant.”

This remark hits the target. Vetfaan brightens considerably as he signals for another beer.

“Yes, now that was something, hey? Imagine that?”

Elephants aren’t rare in the Caprivi and the Okavango Delta. In fact, one has to be careful driving around there, as one might find one of these giants thinking deep thoughts right in the middle of the road on a daily basis. Usually these encounters occur while negotiating the rutted tracks at speed.

On the day he met Daisy, Vetfaan was driving the SAMIL sedately, nursing an apocalyptic hangover. The previous night had been a hectic affair at Rundu, where the quartermaster took pride in showing off (and sharing) his ‘hidden’ (read: stolen, or more aptly, rerouted) stash of imported whiskies. As a result of the pounding headache, Vetfaan was leaning forward on the steering wheel, staring at the track with half-closed eyes while keeping a gentle (if slightly shaking) foot on the accelerator.

Now, here’s a fact few people are aware of: you want to cure somebody’s hangover? Get rid of the headache and restore 20/20 vision to bleary eyes? It’s simple. Put an elephant in his path. Try it; it works like a charm. In the micro-second it takes to recognise the obstacle, all thoughts of self-pity get replaced by such loud alarm bells that the afflicted forgets – instantly – about such trivia as sore heads and dry mouths. In fact, the tongue becomes even more arid, but that isn’t noticed.

The lorry slewed to a skidding stop only metres away from the giant beast. Vetfaan – now in  total panic-mode – tried to engage reverse, but forgot to use the clutch. The engine died. Vetfaan prepared to do the same.

And waited for the beast to charge.

And waited.

And nothing happened.

That’s when he saw the injury to the pachyderm. In fact the elephant just stood there, swaying from side to side, paying no attention to the vehicle at all. When Vetfaan peeked over the dashboard, he took in the fact that he might just survive this encounter. There was a reason: the elephant’s trunk had been almost amputated by a snare.

The poor animal was in a terrible state. With the wound relatively fresh, Vetfaan saw a drop of blood plopping down in the dust. More relaxed now, he noticed the flies around the raw flesh and the pleading, helpless eyes imploring him to help. What to do? He couldn’t just walk up to the elephant and offer his services, could he? Maybe he should shoot it and get the suffering over with. Vetfaan never shot an elephant before. To be merciful, the coup de grace must be instantaneous and not add to the animal’s woes at all. And, while it may be possible to shoot an elephant with a R1, one had to be pretty sure where to aim at. Where is an elephant’s brain?

Then the miracle happened.

Three older cows emerged from the bush, to gather around their stricken family member. Prodding their patient along gently with soft touches of their trunks and the occasional gentle bump of a head, they herded their injured younger sister along the track.

Vetfaan knew that track well. He realised what they were doing: they were taking the injured one to a river that was about a kilometer away. He waited for a minute or two, and then managed to get the engine going again. Idling along slowly, he followed the four to the place where the river (then only a stream, as it was the dry season) crossed the road.

Daisy’s state was obviously due to two major factors: her trunk was badly injured…and she couldn’t drink with the damaged trunk. Vetfaan watched in complete amazement as the others led her to the water and started offering water to her with their own trunks. One after the other, trunkfull after trunkfull, the other females fed the life-giving water to the greedy mouth of Daisy.

Vetfaan sat there for a long time, watching the spectacle. Daisy certainly perked up and the other cows led her off into the reeds.

In the months following, Vetfaan found many an excuse to return to the river. Sometimes he’d see the four sets of tracks, sometimes not. On three separate occasions he was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the four backs amongst the reeds. Daisy, it seemed, was recovering. Slowly, but surely. And then, one memorable day, the four elephants emerged from the reeds only minutes after he stopped there. Daisy’s trunk was scarred, but certainly functional. Standing proudly amongst her saviours, she raised het trunk halfway as if to tell Vetfaan she’s well enough to help herself again.

And they turned away, ambled off towards the bush…and Vetfaan never saw Daisy again.

“Yes,” Vetfaan says, gulping down the beer, “the animals. They were special. I leant a lot from them. Spiesie wanted food and warmth – just like us. And like us, he got drunk and lost his way. But Daisy and her helpers?  They showed me what Life is all about. Or at least, how it should be.”

Gertruida puts down the book she’s been reading, peering at Vetfaan over her glasses. “That, Vetfaan, is what we’ve been doing for the last few days. That elephant recovered from that dreadful wound due to the others helping her. I just so wish you’d get rid of your snare.”

And Vetfaan, still wounded by the war, smiles gratefully at her, gets up, walks over to the austere woman, and gives her a hug.

“It takes time, Gertruida. A lot of it.”

Sometimes the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place is upbeat and frivolous. Not always. There are times when the ghosts of the past join the group at Boggel’s counter, to remind the customers if the price they had paid for the privilege. The war, the struggle of the oppressed masses, the mad propaganda justifying murder and mayhem, the injustices preached by the media and churches alike…the list goes on and on. Somehow, everybody in the country can look back at history with sadness. Was it really necessary for so many young men to lay down their lives? Why did we allow politics to divide the country so? And yet – despite the knowledge of the past – aren’t we hard at work repeating all the same mistakes?.

That’s when Vetfaan remembers the animals during the Border War, knowing they, at least, survived because they cared. The thought always gives him hope.

1328929_140116135753_Birthday_3237PS: These animal events and encounters are based on fact. Pieter Pieterse witnessed and described them (in a different context and style) in his beautiful book: Winterwerf in die Kavango, published by Tafelberg in 1989. The book is out of print now, but if you can lay hands on one, it’s well-worth reading. I hereby acknowledge his valuable contribution to Afrikaans literature and so wish I could swap stories with him. Sadly, he was brutally murdered in 2002 – yet another victim to the endemic violence so prevalent in our beautiful country..


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