Found in Translation

download (13)“He’s back! It’s Henk Kleingenade. He’s in the bar…” Gertruida went over to Sammie’s to tell Vetfaan, who had been talking to the shop owner about ordering a new battery for his Massey Ferguson.

“Is he…?”

“Yes, The usual. Sits in the corner, drinking coffee and reading that Bible.”

Hendrik Malherbe is a quiet man who farms with goats (he’s got a contract to supply goat’s milk to some baby-food company) on Kleingenade, not far from Grootdrink. His visits to Rolbos are rare; usually he pops in for coffee, before he has a chat with Oudoom. Then he’d get into his old Ford 100, and the townsfolk wouldn’t see him again for extended periods of time. Like so many of the farmers in the district, he lives an isolated life, not bothering others and relying on himself – and Mother Nature – to get by.

His infrequent visits are – of course – ample fuel for discussion. Why does he come here? What is this thing he has for talking to Oudoom? And why – oh why? – does he only drink coffee? Everybody knows Boggel’s coffee tastes like donkey droppings without Amarula, yet there the man sits, sipping the stuff with that faraway look on his suntanned face.

***

May 1986, Somewhere in southern Angola.

The young soldier was frightened. Not scared like the youths of today when they watch Nightmare on Elm Street or a stupid movie about sharks or chainsaw murders…really, really frightened like in soil-yourself-while-praying-scared. There was nothing virtual or unrealistic about his surroundings, no pause-button to push and no way to stop the carnage around him.

His patrol had simple orders: survey the countryside around the little village at the confluence of the Cuzizi and the Lomba Rivers – a hovel with a few goats and chickens and some old people. These civilians were, like so often happens, unfortunate victims of war. Operation Modular was about to start and the South African forces planned to engage the combined forces of FAPLA, FNLA and some Cubans in this region. The object? To strengthen the only allies Pretoria had in Angola – Savimbi’s UNITA.

Although the young soldier’s patrol reconnoitred an outlying fringe of the planned operation, they were nevertheless in confirmed enemy territory and very well aware of the danger. They planned well. With enough food and ammunition, they should have been able to face almost any opposition and slink away into the bush.

Should have.

But they were not to know about the light armoured vehicle  travelling to the same little village with the same object. War is like that: all generals will want to know about the terrain, the roads, the infrastructure. And, after FAPLA’s losses during Operation Iron Fist the previous year, it was only logical for the Cubans and Russians to do their homework after they received news of the South African build-up just south of the border.

The South African patrol entered the village confidently. The latest intel-report stated that the people there supported Savimbi; so after chatting with an old woman they found on the track leading to the village, they were quite happy to follow her there. She’d introduce them to the local chief, enabling them to check and gather more information.

And, while they sat under the branches of a large acacia tree, the armoured vehicle appeared. Who was more surprised? It’s hard to tell. For a few seconds the scene in the village froze. Everybody simply stopped what they were doing, standing and sitting stock-still, hardly remembering to breathe. Then all hell broke loose.

To describe what followed, defy the rules of writing. No amount of words, no matter how cleverly they get strung together and irrespective of the genius of the writer, can paint the picture accurately enough for the reader to live through such carnage. The crashing of the little canon in the turret of the vehicle, the malicious crack of rapid rifle fire, the terrified screams, the awful boom of hand grenades…

The young soldier remembers these, of course. The picture in his mind doesn’t have to rely on words – he was there! And he remembers how a chicken fled in a mad dash to get away and how it simply disappeared in a explosion of feathers and blood when a stray bullet put and end to its escape.

And then, suddenly, it was over. The armoured vehicle stood burning in the clearing. There were bodies. Old ragged bodies. Young uniformed bodies. A dog lay to one side, whimpering, bleeding. A hut billowed smoke.

Silence. The dog died quietly.

The young soldier moved. His hand patted his legs, his body, his neck. Somehow, he seemed to have escaped any damage. Tentatively, carefully, he rolled over. He had to brush the sweat and dust and tears from his eyes to see.

And he saw. A man – a Cuban? – was looking at him from behind an upturned drum. not ten yards away from him. He had a streak of blood across his face. He had a Cuban uniform. He had a rifle. It was pointing at the sky.

“No more shooting, for God’s sake!” The young soldier’s voice cracked like a teenager’s.

The Cuban put down his rifle.

The next ten minutes saw them moving about, checking bodies. At first, the Cuban looked at the Cuban and black soldiers, the South African at his mates. Then they didn’t care any more and checked whoever they found.

“They’re all dead.” The young soldier said, like one would announce the score after losing a rugby match.

The Cuban muttered something that sounded like ‘muerto’.

Later, afterwards, they sat down outside the burning village, enemies united by loss. The smell of death bound them together in a quest for survival. The Afrikaner boy and the Cuban youth and the pungent scent of cordite and smoke and blood sat down next to a thorn tree. They couldn’t  speak to each other for many reasons, their different languages being the least of these.

After a while, the young soldier took the little red Bible the army had given him from his breast pocket. He paged to Psalm 23. To his surprise, the Cuban produced a small black book, glanced at the young soldier’s, and found the same psalm in his own language.

They read the psalm out loud, each in his mother tongue, sentence for sentence, listening to the strange sounds telling the same message.

And then the exchanged Bibles, shook hands, and set off in opposite directions.

***

Oudoom watches as Henk Kleingenade strolls down Voortrekker Weg. He actually enjoys these visits, rare as they are. Henk wants Oudoom to read Psalm 23 again, as usual. And while Oudoom gives life to the letters in that psalm, Henk will stumble over the strange words in the little black Bible, And they’ll do it together, marvelling that you don’t have to know all the words of all the languages to embrace David’s message.

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