Monthly Archives: November 2014

To eternity…and back (#4)

caregiverhandsFor a while after Gertruida had left, nurse Botha thought that Servaas suffered a relapse. The old man sat upright in his bed, staring into the distance with a completely vacant look. She approached the old man cautiously to fold her hands around his shrivelled hand, ever so gently. To her surprise, he started crying.

“I…I’m sorry, nursie. I just don’t know what to do.”

She sat there, listening to his account of his conversation with Gertruida, nodding as if she understood. Some people are natural listeners, making it easy to impart even the most painful thoughts. Nurse Botha was just such a person. She was neither old nor young, in between overweight and chubby and had the soft eyes of a Labrador. The words tumbled from her patient in an unstoppable torrent until at last he sank back in his cushion with the most distraught and fatigued look. She never interrupted, never asked a single question, knowing he had to hear himself  tell his story to work through this thing.

“So…you think you had this dream about Shorty de Lange for a reason?”

“Y-yes. I…I suppose so. It was too real to ignore and yet it sounds so stupid to take it seriously.”

“And yet you had this near-death experience, didn’t you? Did you take that seriously?”

Servaas blinked. “I did…I do, I mean. Yes. Siena was there, I’m sure. And something…more.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t hesitate to do the same with the dream? I mean, what harm can there be to find out where this…Shorty is? Maybe he’s dead already, and you’re worrying all in vain.”

The old man’s face brightened. He hadn’t thought about that! “But how do you go about finding somebody you last saw half a century ago? I don’t know where to begin.”

“Well, Oom Servaas, I might just be able to assist you with that.”

***

Wilhelm Röntgen's X-ray of Anna Bertha's - his wife - hand. 1895

Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray. Anna Bertha’s – his wife’s – hand. 1895

Coincidence? Fate? Chance? Serendipity? Divine intervention…or divine planning? History is littered with hard-to-explain coincidental discoveries, ranging from penicillin, Viagra, anaesthesia, LSD, the microwave oven and – of course – X-rays. Even Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite was the result of an accidental observation. Although mankind often benefitted from these ‘lucky’ incidents, we must also remember the iceberg that sunk the Titanic or the Curse of Tutankhamun which apparently killed Lord Carnarvon.

Still, the fact that portly nurse Botha had a brother working in the military archives in Pretoria could be considered a stroke of good luck – or an improbable inevitability in the strange set of events surrounding Servaas’s illness  during his stay in hospital.

Within an hour of her telephone call, Herman Botha reported that Jakob Arnoldus de Lange finished his stint as conscripted soldier in 1972, did the obligatory yearly call-up duties until 1986, and then was discharged from any further service. No, he didn’t know his present whereabouts, but he did supply the next link in the chain: the man’s ID number.

Enter Gertruida, our dear know-it-all with her contacts amongst the small but select group of people involved with the intelligence community. The ID number was  given to a retired colonel in the erstwhile National Intelligence, whose  son happened to be a professor in Computer Sciences (cost: 1 bottle of brandy and the promise of Kalahari biltong). and so the hacked records of the Office of Home Affairs supplied an address.

Much to everybody’s surprise, Shorty de Lange’s home address was a smallholding near Prieska, the town he used to represent as flanker on the rugby field.

***

“You mean you found out all that in the matter of about twelve hours?”

Gertruida stared at her shoes for a moment, slightly embarrassed. “Um…yes. I’m sorry it took so long..”

Servaas laughed at this – his first bit of mirth since his chat with matron Krotz dumped them both under a cloud of depression. Matron, by the way, had not reported for work that day; the first time – ever- she had missed a day on duty. Nurse Botha tried to phone, got no answer, and promised herself to visit her stern and unapproachable boss after her shift was over.

“I’ve thought about it.” Servaas sounded the way he looked: completely defeated. He didn’t want to be reminded of the one time he felt as if the devil had taken over his soul and he beat a friend to pulp. During the sleepless night after Gertruida had left the previous afternoon, he had forced himself to relive that incident. In the early morning hours he decided that his religious conviction had been the result of fear (that he might have such an ‘attack’ again) coupled with guilt (that he acted like a complete and demonic lunatic). Did Christ not heal such men through faith? Yes, he decided, Christ did; but he – Servaas – had used his faith as selfish protection against himself. He shielded behind religion to prove to others how righteous he was. That convoluted argument did absolutely nothing to improve his mood. “And I’ll have to see the man as soon as I’m better. Doctor Welman said my recovery will take several months. Maybe after that…”

“No, Servaas.” Gertruida – who knows everything – used her stern voice. “This thing is going to do more harm if you keep on postponing it. It’s not going to go away.You are obviously upset about meeting Shorty, and I understand that. You’re not, however, going to forget about it while you’re recovering. You’ve managed to bury the incident with Shorty under a layer of time – and had you not had that dream, you might well have lived out your life in denial. I don’t know why you had the dream, Servaas, but I think it’s the best thing to come out of all this.” She swept a hand towards the chart on the wall, showing his vital signs and progress. Seeing Servaas’s distress, she sits down on the bed next to him. “I need you to relax now. Breathe deeply and let go of the feelings of fear and guilt. Promise me that.”

“O-okay.” Hesitant, unsure.

“Okay then. Now I must ask you to prepare yourself. I sent Vetfaan to talk to Shorty. I expect them any moment now.”

Servaas’s eyes opened wide, his breathing shallow. “No! For goodness’ sakes, Gertruida. You can’t do this to me! I’m a sick man! I’m not ready, not ready at all!”

Nurse Botha entered the room with an uncertain smile. Her soft brown eyes took in the scene before she shot Gertruida an accusing look.

“I…um…well, the gentlemen are here. Shall I send them in?”

At that moment the door swung open.

Servaas closed his eyes in desperate prayer. Please, Lord, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me…

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#3)

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria, 1970

By now, the Rolbossers had drawn up a roster so that Servaas would have at least one visitor every day.  If one believed in coincidences, then it was by pure chance that it was Gertruida’s turn to drive all the way from Roilbos to Upington on the very same day Servaas had told matron Krotz about his dream and Shorty de Lange. Matron had, after her little outburst, locked herself in her office. It simply won’t be fitting for the nurses to see that she’d been crying. Matrons don’t do emotion – it’s unprofessional. And she, Matron Krotz, won’t allow anybody – anybody – to express any form of sympathy simply because she was upset. No sir, not at all…

Gurtruida brought along the obligatory little bag of biltong and the bottle of Coke (which had been cleverly doctored with a medicinal tot of peach brandy beforehand) and greeted nurse Botha with a slab of chocolates.

“How’s old grumpy today, nurse?”

Nurse Botha laughed softly. “He’s about ready to be discharged. Quite remarkable, really. Ever since matron took a ...special…interest in him, he’s made exceptional progress.” Then, in a conspiratorial whisper: “I think they’ve got a thing going, you know what I mean?” She winked and put a theatrical hand to her chin while rolling her eyes. “Just goes to show – the sky lights up with the brightest colours at sunset.”

This remark made Gertruida stare at the young nurse. Such wisdom…

Servaas greeted her with less than his usual enthusiasm, When Gertruida remarked on this, he gave her an abbreviated account of his chat with matron that afternoon.

“Gee, Servaas, you’ve had quite a time in the hospital. First you have this near-death thing where you get reminded of compassion and kindness. Then this austere woman, our beloved matron, suddenly mellows to become your best friend. Strange, that, don’t you think?” Gertruida noted – with some satisfaction – the blush creeping up the old man’s neck. “Anyway, then you dream about Shorty de Lange, somebody you last saw forty or fifty years ago, and it turns out that he’s the bastard who dumped matron for some other woman many years ago.

“Now, the way I see it, is that we have three persons involved here: you, matron Krotz and this Shorty guy. Without Shorty, I would have thought you and matron might hook up, but once you add this guy, you have to wonder why. And remember: he’s the guy sinking in the sand and you’ve been climbing that dune to rescue him. Now that makes you think, doesn’t it?”

It sure did. It made Servaas open a door in his mind – a door he steadfastly had refused to open for four decades…

***

Mana Pools

Mana Pools

It was just after they had returned from Rhodesia (called Zimbabwe these days). where their unit assisted the Rhodesian armed forces to guard the border with Zambia, near Mana Pools.  It had been a harrowing task: in fact, it was difficult to pin down the greatest danger: the wildlife (lion, crocodile, hippo, leopard, snakes etc), the insects (malaria-bearing mosquitoes and tsetse flies) or the insurgent freedom fighters that were called terrorists back then.

Nevertheless, when the two of them stepped from the train in Pretoria, they had one thing in mind: having the best time possible. Not knowing where the hot spots of social life was to be found, they headed for the ultramodern movie theatre called Sterland, where Love Story was showing. After months in the bush, they admitted – rather shyly, to be honest – that a romantic movie would be ‘nice’. The ulterior motive  – in Shorty’s case – was that it seemed logical that the audience would include a number of young ladies, which turned out to be true.

Servaas wasn’t all that interested. He had met Siena already but she was far away in the Northern Cape. Oh, of course he’d like to chat to a few girls after the stint in the bush with only male companions, but that was as far as he’d go. Shorty, however, had no such qualms. Even though he was engaged, he was determined to blow off some steam (amongst other things).

People who have never seen armed conflict often assume that soldiers spend their days cleaning rifles and discussing tactics. This is, of course, not true. Soldiers (especially the male sort) pass the time by discussing women, often in the most graphic terms. It was natural, then, for Servaas to know everything about Shorty’s fiancee, a nurse somewhere in the Cape Province. Shorty often bragged about the buxom young lady, boasting about his conquest. In contrast, Servaas kept mostly to himself while writing long and passionate letters to his dear Siena.

downloadOne can understand that Servaas sat in the darkened theatre, watching Ali MacGraw die, with an intense longing to be home. He dabbed his eyes, sniffed, and had to close his eyes to suppress a few sobs. Shorty didn’t even watch the movie. By sheer coincidence he occupied the seat next to a stunning blonde student, a lovely young thing with a charming smile to match the voluptuous figure,  who had just completed her final exams for the year.

After the movie, Servaas blew his nose and suggested they return to the barracks. Shorty would have none of it. He was going to party with this girl until the sun came up the next day, and he didn’t need a wet rag like Servaas to spoil his fun. They had a heated, albeit whispered, discussion about morals and needs, and parted on less than friendly terms.

Shorty returned to his bunk the next day, flushed with his success. The young lady, he informed everybody within earshot, was the best lay he’d ever had. He proceeded to – in lurid terms – describe every bit of her anatomy and what he had done with it. Maybe he was still a bit drunk, but the extent of his revelations far surpassed what Servaas considered to be in the worst possible taste of all. True to his nature, Servaas endured the pompous monologue for a short while before requesting – politely – Shorty to shut up.

The other thing about a military environment is testosterone. Soldiers have way too much of the stuff. Add alcohol and a touch of adrenaline, and you produce an unpredictable explosive concoction. During combat, this often produces heroes who seem to ignore danger to rescue a fallen comrade…but inside the confines of a bungalow filled with young men trained to fight? Well, that’s what they do, occasionally.: fight. A fist here, a slap there isn’t unusual when the provocation is sufficient. But that’s not what happened when Shorty snorted, lowered his head and stormed down on Servaas, who had been writing yet another letter to Siena.

The fight became the stuff of legends. At first it was Shorty who threw a few punches while Servaas tried to evade the onslaught. Then something happened in Servaas’s mind. A black veil seemed to lower itself over his consciousness. Pent-up exasperated frustration and aggression boiled over and suddenly Servaas wasn’t Servaas any longer.

Why did this happen? Even after all the intervening years, Servaas was unable to explain what happened. Maybe it was the latent but smouldering fear, uncertainty and trauma of the petrols along the border. Or possibly the even-tempered and mild young man simply reached a point where he simply couldn’t control the demons inside his mind – after living in the bush for too long, being shot at too many times, having killed too much. Whatever the explanation, he became a cold-blooded monster, ignoring Shorty’s efforts while he  waded into his former friend, delivering blows with devastating accuracy.

How long did the fight last? It depends on which version of the legend you believe, At the end, however, they had to cart Shorty off to hospital, where his broken jaw was wired. The damage to the barracks was considerable. Servaas got court martialed, and spent a week in the detention barracks. Afterwards, he was transferred to another unit.

He never saw Shorty again.

***

“Wha…what are you saying, Gertruida?”  Servaas suddenly looked so old, so frail, so tired…

“You heard me, Servaas. You’ll have to find Shorty to know what the dream was about…”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#2)

IMG_2826During the time Servaas spent in hospital, a few strange things happened. There was Matron Krotz, for instance, a formidable huge woman with a  short temper and a large (if sagging) bosom. She reigned over ‘her’ hospital with an iron fist and a booming voice. Hardworking nurses sweated and trembled through her morning rounds, while even Doctor Welman deferred to her many opinions. Called Attila behind her back, she lived up to the name with gusto.

Whenever she came to Servaas’s bed, however, her entire demeanor changed – every time. She’d smile (a phenomenon previously thought to be completely impossible), ruffle the old man’s sparse hair and ever so coyly ask him if he’d had a good night’s rest. Her temper would flare back up to it’s usual and frightening intensity if she noticed that he hadn’t had his morning coffee or if there was the slightest hint that his bed wasn’t made up properly.

Another weird thing she did, was to take her lunch break at his bedside. She’d close the curtains around his bed (‘The patient needs counselling, nurse Botha, and you’re certainly not gifted or qualified to do that properly. Now get out while I attend to the patient you are so obviously neglecting! Go!) and then spend the thirty minutes or so chatting with Servaas.

Nurse Botha grudgingly noted that, while Attila Krotz might be partly human after all,  matron’s conduct was probably proof that hormonal replacement had more benefits than just preventing hot flashes. And, to everybody’s surprise and well-hidden amusement, matron asked nurse Botha the strangest questions about eyeliners, lipstick and perfumes.

Servaas had recovered well enough to be acutely aware of matron’s presence and found it surprisingly easy to talk to her. Whereas other people experienced matron Krotz as an unapproachable and imperious professional, Servaas discovered that she was, in fact, a lonely woman. Her fastidious insistence on perfection in the hospital was simply a way to – as she  put it – do something useful with her life. The hospital, she said, gave reason to her existence.

“The universe never cared about me, Servaas. I’m about to retire – I have to – and then what? After a lifetime of caring for the sick and the needy, I have nothing. What’s a matron after retirement? An old hag with a cupboard full of old uniforms? A nurse with nobody to care for? What use is that?”

Servaas tried to say something about believing that, when God closes a door, He opens a window, but she cut him off. There’s no such thing, she said, only fools believed in such nonsense.

“No, I never married,” she said during one of their lunch hour chats. Servaas had been progressing slowly over the past three weeks, during which their daily chats slowly became more and more personal. Eventually Servaas told matron about Siena – and asked about Krotz’s past. “I was engaged, once.” She blushed, a wry smile eventually fading to a scowl.”Then this hussey came along and he left. I was….twenty at the time. That’s when I said to myself – well, dammit! I shall never allow a man to humiliate me like that again. And…” here she hesitated and glanced with vulnerable uncertainty at Servaas, “…well, I decided to study hard and become the best I can be. I did course after course, ambitiously working myself up the nursing ladder, until I was appointed matron here. That was fifteen years ago. Suddenly there were no more rungs in the ladder, Servaas. I’m stuck in this crummy hospital until I retire. Heaven knows what I’ll do then.”

The other unusual occurrences during Servaas’s stay in hospital, were the lucid dreams he had. These in no way compared to the very real experience during his coma, but they were so intense that he had no problem recalling them afterwards. While most of the dreams concerned past experiences – simple, everyday events – some of them stood out because they seemed so utterly inappropriate.

“There was this dune, you see? One of those dunes with the steep sides and loose sand.” Matron Krotz always listened with rapt attention whenever Servaas told her about his dreams. “Somehow I knew I had to get to the top of that dune, but I didn’t know why. Every time I took a step upward, the loose sand would carry me right back. So there I was: one step up, slide back. One step up, slide back. I was exhausted when I woke up.”

The next day, Servaas could add to the dream.

“I’ve never dreamt in chapters before, Alice.” By now they were firmly on first-name terms. “But my dreams seem to be in sequence these days. Anyway, last night I made some progress up that dune. It was painfully slow, much like you experience in those dreams where you run away from something, but your legs don’t work properly. Eventually, I could see the top. There was somebody there, but I couldn’t see who it was. I reached out, and when I was about to touch that person, the sand slid back again and I had to start all over.”

And then he had one more dream – the last one – before these nightly experiences simply ceased to happen.

“The person at the top of the dune was Shorty de Lange.” If Servaas wasn’t so absorbed in the telling of his dream, he would have noticed matron Krotz’s sudden intake of breath and her pallor as colour drained from her cheeks. “I haven’t even thought about him in years and years, but there he was. Large as life, right on top of my dune. He was slowly sinking into the sand – like quicksand, I suppose – and was pleading that I should help him. I didn’t know what to do…and then I woke up.”

“Who…who did you see there?” Her voice shook as she fought for control.

“Shorty. Shorty de Lange. You won’t know him. A tall, gangling chap I used to know, way back when. He went on to study accounting, I think, and we lost touch. But before that, we went to school together and did a stint in the army – like everybody else in those days. We used to be rather close.”

“Shorty?” The incredulous note in her voice was unmistakable. “Shorty de Lange? Six foot something, thinnish, used to play flank for Prieska’s first team? Brown hair and a little extra pinkie on his left hand?”

Servaas looked up sharply. “Ye-e-e-s?”

“That’s the bastard who left me in the lurch…for that stupid bimbo. May he rot in hell…” Her voice told him: Attila was back. Time to tread softly.

“Then why…why did I dream about him?”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back

Credit: marybreath.com

Credit: marybreath.com

Servaas was sweeping the floor of his little cottage when the attack came. At first it was only a dizzy spell, but he soon had to sit down to avoid falling down. Oh, he’s had similar incidents in the past, especially after that new batch of Kleinpiet’s peach brandy was served in Boggel’s Place, but this was more severe, less ignorable and the headache didn’t wait for the next day – it was there immediately.

He tried to think, realising he needed help, but the more he tried to grab at thoughts – any thoughts – the less he was able to formulate a logical response. Yes, he knew he had to call out…or something. Maybe crawl to the door? Bang on the floor? Get something to make a noise with…?

And then the darkness started approaching. This, he could understand. The darkness would come and creep closer and closer until it seeped into every little crack in the floor. Then it would rise, grow bigger and stronger…and then there would be a bright tunnel of light. This was quite all right, he knew. It had to happen sometime, hadn’t it? And now, with this inevitability established, he felt a wave of resigned peace wash over him. Let it go…let it go…

At once he became aware of Siena. Not Siena the way she looked when she was in hospital after her stroke, no…Siena was young and vibrant and…beautiful.  Yes, he remembered that dress – the white, frilly one with the little flowers around the hemline. And oh! The inviting smile! She was just standing there, waiting with a hand raised, waiting for him to ask her to the dance in Sarel Rooidam’s barn on Saturday. He was trembling, fumbling for words…

“You may ask me,” she said with that familiar smile.

“But…”

He remembered that moment. Amongst the jumble of racing thoughts cruising through his brain right then, that moment froze, focussed, became startlingly clear. He couldn’t back then, neither can he now, bring himself to ask her to accompany him to Sarel’s barn.

“I know it’s hard to take that step, Servaas. So much uncertainty! So much to risk – what if she says ‘no’?. ”

Hey, wait! Siena didn’t say that? Who did? It’s a different, more commanding voice. Servaas tried to look around, but his glasses had fallen off during the dizzy spell. Everything is so…unfocussed. Yet, he could make out the outline of …somebody?

“Yes, Servaas, it’s me. You often wondered, didn’t you? Well, no you know.”

An image of Oudoom’s church now flashed through his mind.

“Oh, I know you tried, Servaas. All of you did, even Oudoom – as you call him. But you know? You guys were only scratching at the surface of Truth. You created a man-made religion with man-made rules.” Did he hear a chuckle in the voice? “It’s funny, actually. I mean: how you pieced together the puzzle and got the completely wrong picture. So, so many wrong pictures, to be exact.”

A thought gelled at last. “Am I dying?”

“Everybody’s dying, Servaas, you just choose to ignore it. Nobody lives forever down here on earth.”

“Will I…will I go to…heaven?”

This time the chuckle is unmistakable. “It depends on whether you want to sing in a choir for eternity, or prefer living in a suburb with pearly gates and golden streets. Then, I’m afraid, the answer is ‘No!’. But, if you wanted to find Peace and Love at last, then I’d say you have a very good chance.”

“But…where am I going now?”

The image faded a little, the silhouette becoming hazy. “To hospital, Servaas. They’re going to make you better.”

The last image Servaas became aware of, is Siena waving a cheery goodbye, her dress held down by a shy hand as the wind threatened to expose a knee. Almost a Marilyn Monroe picture, he’ll recall later.

***

“Servaas….?”

Precilla wipes the sweaty brow with a damp cloth while she whispers his name over and over again. When did she become so fond of the cantankerous old man? Why, he’s forever being obtuse and garrulous, and yet here she is, next to his bed in Upington’s hospital, feeling so sad she could cry for days.

Doctor Welman – who treated him before – told her old Servaas had had a minor stroke but that nobody could predict the outcome. He may be paralyzed, lose some words or parts of memory, even be blind or deaf – who knows? Only time will tell.

There is the faintest suggestion that the frown on the forehead deepened slightly.

“Servaas…?”

***

Siena returned for the last time.

“You’re not ready yet, Servaas.” This time the dress was loose, faintly suggestive as a thin strap slipped from her left shoulder. She’s still smiling that inviting smile, her eyes sparkling with some inner humour. “Don’t worry, I’m waiting for you. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Wha…what is this?” He was thoroughly confused.

“Ag, Servaas!” A slight note of exasperation crept into her voice, like it always did when he asked a stupid question. “This is Life, Servaas. Different, but the same. Here, but everywhere.”

“”I don’t understand…”

She sighed, pulled back the strap. “I didn’t either, when I was still trapped in a body. Shame, man! I know it doesn’t make sense right now. But here’s what I can tell you: you’re living only a fraction of the life you have. You know a little bit of something so big, it’ll blow your mind to know more. You must tell Oudoom that.”

He remained silent, digesting what she had said.

“Listen, Servaas: when you get out of hospital, you must really try to be more…religious.”

This time, it was Servaas who rebelled. “Siena, you know me. Head elder. Upholder of morals. I sit with Oudoom every week to work out his sermion….”

She… giggled…? It was hard to tell, for she had hidden her lips behind a demure hand. “Oh, my old sweetheart!” Yes, there was definitely laughter in her voice. “I know you try so hard. But really, Servaas, do you think that is what it’s all about? Religion is so much more than a sermon or the desire to criticize. No, what I’m telling you to do, is to practice compassion and kindness. Religion isn’t about wearing black suits and white ties and sitting in the front pew. You have to live your religion – every hour of every day. Make people experience what you believe in by the way you act, the words you speak, the  smile to the stranger.” She took a step closer, but stopped suddenly as if she realised there was a barrier between them. “Reading the Bible and praying is good, Servaas, and please don’t stop. But, my dear, those are things you do by yourself and for yourself. That’s a teeny bit of what your religion should be all about. Your religion, Servaas, should be a beacon of light to others, not a series of selfish acts to soothe your conscience. It must be apparent to your friends, your family, the cashier at the till, the newspaper vendor on the street corner. It’s not about knowing which verse to quote under the right circumstances, it’s about living compassion.”

***

“Living…compassion.” Servaas’s eyes flicker open for a second.

“Hey, guys, Servaas is back! He sounds a bit confused, though.” Precilla motions the group at the door to gather around the bed.

“What did you say, Servaas?”

“Living…compassion.”

“Yep, he’s confused, alright! Doctor Welman said it might happen.” Vetfaan stares down at the gray-haired patient. “At least he can talk.”

“I can…do…more. I…must…do more.”

“Yeah, yeah, Servaas. One step at a time, will you? Relax now, everything is just dandy.”

“No…it isn’t. It never was…”

When Servaas slips back into the peaceful void, the little crowd around his bed exchange worried glances. Their old friend seems to be so very vague, so extremely abstruse…

They are so very wrong.

(To be continued…)

The Wings of War

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Pinterest

Precilla received this email. How – in heaven’s name – did Manuel manage to find the address? Precilla, after all, only runs a little pharmacy in Rolbos – an extremely small enterprise which supplies Oudoom’s blood pressure medication and the pills Servaas needs when his gout acts up. This necessitates prolonged and frustrating communications with the medical aid companies, which is why Precilla had to get connected to the Internet.

Be that as it may, the letter remains proof of how small our world has become. It also serves to remind us how important it is to tell our stories with honesty and kindness.

(To understand these letters, please refer to the previous post.)

***

Dear Sir

I no write good English, sorry. I ask my son to help. He in school and has a smartphone. He reads many stories in WordPress – he say it makes his English better. 

I much sepru seprised when he read about Manuel in story. Manuel story is my story. I tell more, yes?

Nossa! When soldiers catch me, I very much afraid. Beeg trouble. But I good soldier, I tell nothing. Many days they ask me cue kwes question, I say nothing. No eat. No drink. Much pain. Then orderly come, he take me away. He hide me. Give naif knife. He say I must go back to farm.

Manuel, he walked back to Angola. Many days he walk. I get much tired a lot. I no know how long. Later, I get to my farm.

You see, I only poor farmer. One day, man with unyphorm uniphorm he come. Say all mans in the distric must go army. I say no, my place need my hands. The man hit me, hit my wife. Then I go. That is how I became soldier. Now, when I get back to farm, I say: no more soldier. 

My wife, she’s very good. Bonito, I say. She go soldier. Say I die in bush and she berry bury me. No mare Manuel, she say. They hit her again. Why? I don’t know.

Many months I hide, help on farm. Then one day the war is finished. No more soldiers. I go home to live with wife. 

Why I write this? Beeg kwes question, no? 

I say obrigado.Thank you. For war, for soldier, for man who made me escai escape. Why? Manuel learn many things in war. He see how war make enemys. Many enemys. Before war, no enemys. During war, many enemys. After war, no enemys. Manuel wonder about this, then decide: enemy only made by war. War made by hombres in Luanda and other places far away. War not made by Manuel’s farm or village. So, Manuel thinks, better to stay on farm. Manuel work hard. Make farm nice. Send son to school. (He write this)

Now, that orderly, he save my life. My enemy, he make me think we are all same. People all same. Have family, maybe a son, like me. Want to love wife and work hard – no? That hombre make beeg risk to help Manuel, but Manuel no forget. Every night Manuel, he pray for man who give Manuel life. And say thank you, Jesus.

So. Manuel say goodbye.

Manuel.

Precilla read the email with tears in her eyes,  How happy Kleinpiet would be when she tells him about the letter! She was about to print it out, when the ping of the computer announced the arrival of more mail.

Hi there.

I’m Manuel’s son, a teacher at our local school. I have sent my father’s letter as he wrote it, simply because I couldn’t have said it better. I think his rough draft conveys his appreciation far better than a formal letter of thanks. 

I have to tell you that he often tells us about the way he escaped. It has become a family and a village legend. I also use the story in class when I want to make my pupils aware of the horror of war – and how a single act of kindness can influence not only an individual, but his family and local community as well. 

Because the story appeared in Rolbos (I use many of these stories in class as well), I assume the author might know the orderly involved in my father’s escape. I’d appreciate you telling him that my father is well and that he speaks highly of him. Maybe he could use my father’s story to tell people how important it is to know that we are all human. Fighting will never solve problems. Uniforms, my father says, change people. That uniform might be a suit or involve tunics and brass – but once a person wears it, he loses his identity. He stops thinking as an individual and becomes a part of a machine with no conscience. This is true for politicians, soldiers and some businessmen. 

My father says we must remain human  – and humane. He taught me to live kindly. That’s why I became a teacher. My school isn’t grand, but we have about 500 pupils. Every year about 50 of my pupils finish school and go into the world to apply what I’ve tried to teach them. They might still find mathematics difficult, but they’ll never forget the story of Manuel and the way a single enemy soldier gave him wings to change our lives.

Kind regards

Manuel Cobado (Jnr)

***

Author’s Note:

If ever you come to Rolbos, ask Kleinpiet about these letters and what they have meant to him. Also ask him to show you these emails. He won’t have it with him, of course, but he’ll gladly go home to fetch it. He keeps it – neatly folded up – in his Bible, next to the sentence he highlighted in Matthew 5:9.

The Chains of War.

Sculpture-by-Bernard-Jack-001

By US sculptor Bernard Jackson.

“Faith, my friends, is loneliest word in the universe.” Oudoom stares through the window, his back towards the group at the bar. The Kalahari sky is strangely overcast, with the faintest of suggestions of a little rain. “It’s such a personal thing. I can’t believe in anything simply because the rest of the world believes it. I – myself – must be convinced about something before I can say I have faith in it.”

“Like love?” Precilla’s voice is soft, her eyes moist.

“Yes, like love.”

It’s been a tough week in Rolbos. They’ve talked, wondered and argued (more like debated than fought) about Kleinpiet’s startling announcement that he was leaving them for a while. Just like that. And then he pecked Precilla on the cheek after shaking hands with the rest…and got into his pickup to drive out of town. No explanation.

Oh, they speculated, of course. Gertruida said they should have picked up the warning signs over the past few weeks – Kleinpiet had been very quiet, sitting on the veranda and staring at the shimmering horizon most of the time. And that one time, when Vetfaan started talking about the Border War, Kleinpiet interrupted him rudely, saying it wasn’t a subject they should be discussing. Servaas reminded them of another conversation that ended bluntly.

“I was talking about Siena when Kleinpiet said I was a fool to love so intensely. He said Siena is dead and I must get over it. I was so shocked…”

“Ja, ” Oudoom said at the time, “he told me I’m a deluded old man when I said something about God loving us all…”

***

Nobody survives – unscathed – the ravages of war. The lucky ones get killed and buried. The rest go home – either as victor or defeated – to live with what they had seen and done. The living have to bear the burden of the dead – and that poison kills a little bit of life in every soldier who unlatches the front gate of his home after the politicians signed yet another meaningless peace accord.

Perhaps it is true to say that depression is born during times of conflict. While these times of frustration may involve less obvious stresses, they do tend to surface especially after periods of battle and bloodshed. And, like a hyena has the uncanny ability to find the carcass a leopard so cleverly camouflaged amongst the thorny bushes, so depression will hunt down the weak in the unguarded moments when memories cause sleepless nights.

***

Angola 1982

Secret

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 15 after capture

The subject still refuses to cooperate. After prolonged sessions of interrogation, sleep deprivation and starvation, he is weak but remains defiant. 

The man repeatedly denied any military involvement, saying he is an innocent farmer in Sector 45(a), north of Lubango (Map SAW 378, position D 22). He can give no reason why he ventured so far south, and was armed with an AK47.

His interrogation will continue after his medical today. 

***

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 26 after capture

The prisoner is in a much weakened state. No further information has been forthcoming. Medical orderly has expressed concern about his physical state. Will discuss possible scenarios during the briefing tonight. Consider  termination?

***

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Final

Prisoner was hospitalised three days ago on advice of medical orderly. Health and mental state stabilised and improving following intravenous medication and nutrition. 

Inexplicably managed to escape from the medical tent during the night at about 3 am. Medical orderly on duty at the time was writing reports in an adjacent tent and noticed the absence of Prisoner 2815 at 03h16, and raised the alarm immediately. 

Tracks were followed in a northeasterly direction, but disappeared in the shallow river three clicks away. Commanding officer withdrew the searching patrol due to upcoming offences. Medical orderly reprimanded.

***

At first it seemed as if Manuel Cobado might make it. The orderly had hidden him at the base of a huge baobab, just south of the Angolese border with South West Africa, providing him with a ratpack and water. Of course the orderly couldn’t visit him daily, but he kept up a steady stream of supplies whenever he could.

It must have been a week after the escape that the prisoner finally spoke up.

“Why you do this for me? Better that I die, no? You get shot if they find you here.”

The orderly managed a wry smile. “You speak English?”

And so a strange and halting conversation started. Manuel admitted to spying on the South African troops, noting movements and supplies. He was supposed to convey these to his superiors in Luanda, but the batteries in his radio had been defective and he abandoned the device before attempting to return to Angola. During his journey back, he was spotted and captured.

“Why didn’t you just tell them that? It could have saved you a lot of pain?”

Manuel shrugged. “Why you help me? What can I say? This is war, no? You soldier, me soldier. We fight, we kill. I no say nothing, I die. That’s okay. But I go back and I tell I was prisoner, they think Manuel tell lie. They think Manuel is now spy for you. They put Manuel in prison and ask many questions. Manuel no can say anything – so they shoot Manuel. Manuel die, anyway.”

This upset the orderly, who argued with his patient. But in the convoluted logic that only exists during wars, they both knew the rules – and that Manuel’s return after being a prisoner would be viewed with extreme suspicion by his superiors.

The orderly suggested that Manuel return to his small farm to wait for the end of the war. Manuel said it wasn’t possible, there were spies everywhere.

When the orderly returned the next day, the hideaway was empty. On the makeshift bed he found the pocket knife he had given to Manuel and a piece of bark on which the word ‘Obrigado‘ was carved out.

***

What happened to Manuel Cobado?  Was he the farmer-turned-spy he claimed to be? Did he make it back home – unarmed and as weak as he was? Did he sometimes sit next to a fire at night, remembering the days of war? And does he, after all these years, still have faith in his convictions? Or did the Russians (or Chinese, or Cubans)  throw him in jail, as he predicted? What happened to his family? And his farm?

Maybe not all soldiers have such questions in the years after the war. Triggers were pulled, men fell, mortars exploded, people were killed. That’s what war is about, after all. But if not all, then many men and women who stow away the uniform in the holdall they hope never to unpack again, will feel their hearts shrink when these memories surface during unguarded moments. Who was that man in the cross-hairs? That face that stared in horror over the low wall as the ccrrrrumph! of the mortar echoed across the killing field – did he have a family? The pitiful, mangled body behind the splintered tree trunk – who did he pray to when the bullets started chipping away at the wood? And do we not all whimper in the same language when the shrapnel tears a chunk out of the uniform? And…what about the ragged, dirty little child that ran to the prostrate body in the village square when the bombing started?

***

Near Rolbos, 2014

 Kleinpiet turns the pocket knife over and over in his hands. He’s camping next to a sandy hill, a few miles out of town. Maybe he’ll return tomorrow, or the day after. But first he has to make peace.

With himself.

With Manuel.

With Love and Faith.

Once he’s done that, he might just manage to shake off the chains…for now..

***

“I think he’s terribly selfish, going off like that…” Precilla dabs the Kleenex to her eyes.

“No, my dear, he’s terribly brave,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “Faith and Love…and depression…are like Ravel’s Bolero. It builds up volume and tempo from an rather inconspicuous start. The trick is to conduct the orchestra in your mind to play the correct instrument at the right time. Only if you do that, can you unshackle the wonderful melody of Hope.”

Of course Precilla doesn’t understand.

ESCOM? Who needs them…?

biodigester-turns-cow-manure-into-methane-gas“Look,” she said, “it’s easy. All you have to do is to produce gas. The rest should be child’s play.”

The exasperating thing about Gertruida is that she has this way of simplifying things to the point where you expect events to follow a logical course – which often happens…and sometimes not. Add a couple of shots of peach brandy, yet another power blackout and a candle, and you find yourself following her instructions as if you had no choice.

The group at the bar had been discussing the dismal performance of ESCOM, the state-run, bumbling organisation that is supposed to supply the country with electricity. Like the SABC and South African Airways, ESCOM has managed to run itself  into shambles lately. Oh, these companies did hang on for a few years due to the efficiency of management in the bad old days of the previous government, but then democracy came along and everything went to pieces. Complete mismanagement has resulted in undiluted chaos, with everybody blaming everybody else. Like Gertruida said: it would have been funny if it wasn’t such a tragedy.

Still, they had to do something. Drinking warm beer in the dark was just not acceptable.

busa1“We must generate our own electricity, that’s all. We have no other option.” That’s what Gertruida had said. Then, reminding them that you only needed a generator (the derelict one behind Sammie’s shop), she suggested isolating them from the national grid (‘That huge switch at the last pole. Just flick it to the ‘Off’ position’). Coupling Oudoom’s car’s one driveshaft (he has the smallest vehicle in town, a 1969 Mini) to the generator, and connecting to their own Rolbos Electric And Light Company. RealCo, she said, would show the rest of the country how it should be done.

“Think of the money we’ll save , guys. In 2010 ESCOM’s salary bill hovered around 14,7 billion Rand – and one can only speculate what it is now. Think about it: those ridiculous bonuses to the so-called executives, the costs of new power stations – Madupi will come on line R150 billion  later – and heaven knows how much they have to spend on infrastructure….well, if the country could save all that money, we’d be able to afford our president. Now, that would be something.”

“That’s nice, Gertruida. But that Mini needs petrol to run, and you know how expensive that is.”

digesterGertruida smiled while she shook her head. “No, there’s a company in Oklahoma with the solution to that one. They call it CRAP Caloric Recovery Anaerobic Process. It’s simple, really. You take a drum, fill it halfway with cattle or sheep manure, add water and let mother nature do the rest. You then produce a very combustible fuel in the form of methane gas and when the process has run it’s course, you’re left with a drum full of fertilizer.

“I’m sure Vetfaan will only have to remove the carburettor from the Mini’s engine, connect up a piece of hose from the gas collecting bag to the engine, and that’s it! We have an engine running off cow pooh, and that drives our generator – and no more  blackouts!”

***

It sounded so simple.

It might have worked, too, if Servaas hadn’t put a match to his pipe while listening to the bubbles rising to the top of the sludge inside the drum.

***

One must give credit where credit is due. Gertruida says a good storyteller leaves the graphics to the mind of the listener.

“Just give the audience enough of a skeleton to hang the details on – and make the listener smile at the pictures created by the imagination. No matter how hard a narrator tries, he can’t beat those images. A picture, especially a mental one, is worth more than a thousand words…”

Nowadays, the patrons in the bar are quite content to enjoy the intimate atmosphere created by a few candles. They poke fun at Gertruida, who says it’s not her fault that Servaas has been banned to the veranda. He should have known better. Anyway, according to her, he should be able to join them inside again next week.

Provided he continues showering three times a day, that is.

Photo Challenge: Angular

An angle can imply many things. Viewing objects and people from different points of view may be as much fun as considering the various meanings of what an angle might mean.

Of course, most people prefer believing what they see. This is a no-angle approach and we all do it every day. What you see, is what you get…

IMG_3324But – very often – what we see isn’t reality. People pretend, others lie and relationships may be complicated. What you see, needs to be analyzed carefully to find out what is real.

IMG_2853You may also think of angles as geometrical, cast-in-stone objects. Although this lacks imagination, it does provide an easier passage through life.

IMG_2453But Life rarely follow easy, repeated and predictable patterns. Once we look at  – and really see – how Mother Nature treats such angles, we realise that Life isn’t a mathematical formula. It’s so much more complicated than that.

IMG_2588That’s why, in South Africa – and elsewhere, I suppose – we dream of an uncomplicated Life, where harmony directs us all towards a better future. Where what you see, is what you get…without any political angles.

IMG_3610

Adam’s Calendar…again?

Adams-Calendar-book-cover-268x300“Those guys are crazy.” Tipping the glass upside down, Vetfaan signals for another beer. “To imply that South Africa has it’s own Stonehenge is romantic and all that, but surely it’s outrageous to suggest that some aliens visited us to start our gold-mining tradition?”

He’s been browsing through Adam’s Calendar: Discovering the oldest man-made structure on Earth – 75,000 ago  by Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger, a book Gertruida donated to the church bazaar. It tells the story of  a series of ruins in Mpumalanga in which the authors describe their ideas of an ancient civilisation in that area.

Ale's Stones

Ale’s Stones

“Oh, people just love such ideas.” As usual, Gertruida has to show off her vast knowledge. “Look, there are megaliths all over the world. Most of these structures are badly eroded, for sure, but they retain a certain aura of mystery.

“How do you explain Stonehenge, or Easter Island’s Moai, or Ale’s Stones in Sweden? It is only natural that some will want to explain these as relics from a distant past as signs of a lost civilisation. There is a catch, however: why are these structures spread out all over the world? South America, England, Malta – you name virtually any country – even Russia – and you’ll find something there that science struggles to explain. So, because we don’t believe Neanderthals were capable of more intelligent thoughts than our parliamentarians, we grab at the next best thing: aliens.”

“Well, Genesis does say something about heavenly creatures who visited the daughters of man.” Servaas has never been able to explain Genesis 6, especially the ‘giants of men’ that were born afterwards. “Maybe it were those big fellows who stacked up stones everywhere.”

“And then the Flood came and wiped them out? After travelling a zillion miles across the universe, they drowned?” Shaking his head, Boggel serves another round. “I agree with Vetfaan about some explanations needing to be explained. Circles within circles, that type of thing. However much we delve into the legends of old, we still won’t understand what a pyramid means, or how it was built. Theories? Yes, there are many of them. But can we duplicate those phenomena by building similar structures with no computers and not even a sliding rule?”

Tellinger-Giant-Footprint

Credit: extraterrestrialcontact.com/

“Still, they say the Adam’s Calendar was used to predict solstices and equinoxes and plan for seasons. The other strange thing is that this so-called calendar is on the same longitudinal axis as the Giant Pyramids and Zimbabwe’s Ruins. And…” Vetfaan taps a calloused finger on the counter top, “they found a footprint.”

“Ag, Vetfaan! The fact that you only found out about these things now, doesn’t mean it’s new news. Mr Tellinger has been going on for ages about the strange finds, the gold mines, and extraordinary devices these ‘aliens’ were supposed to have used. According to him, they used river water and electrons to generate the energy to mine gold. There’s even a geneticist who supported the idea that this is where the ancient humans were genetically adapted to become superior beings.

sagancontact“But, as intriguing as these theories might be, they remain mere stories, suggestions, attempts to explain the inexplicable. The question is: why? Why bother with such things if you know very well you can’t really prove what you’re saying? Or do these ideas contain a certain fascination, some form of entertainment, that makes us forget the real issues of the day – like when you’re watching Carl Sagan’s Contact? ”  Gertruida sits back in her chair, apparently exhausted by her long speech.

“Okay, I get it.” You can count on Kleinpiet to muddle up a scientific discussion. He counts the points off on the outstretched fingers of his left hand. “First, you say primitive man erected massive buildings?” He gets a nod. “Then you maintain that these structures endured through the ages?” Another nod. “And that today, we cannot make head or tail of these things because we simply cannot explain why they were erected?” Yet another nod. “Nor do we have the faintest clue as to their function or use?” Nod, again. “And some allege that strange beings inhabited these places – possibly with the aim of digging for gold?”

A strange little smile – or is it a grimace – curls Kleinpiet’s lips upward when the group at the bar utters a prolonged and exasperated “Y-e-e-es? So what?”

P9200513

Adam’s Calendar

“Them, my friends, Adam’s Calendar isn’t unique or strange. We’ve just witnessed a similar structure being erected in modern times. It’s got all the characteristics: primitive man, no known function, inexplicable… It does have a protective wall around it and contains buildings that apparently are dwellings for a lot of people. It symbolises the solstice of the sun in the life of a single man, and now awaits the winter to come. I’ll bet it even stands on the same axis as the pyramids, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and Adam’s Calendar – just draw that line farther south. And I predict that in a few years, that place will be as neglected as any site where you find archeologists poking around.”

Credit: timeslive.co.za

Nkandla. Credit: timeslive.co.za

They all get it immediately, of course.

“The only difference, Kleinpiet, is that with Adam’s Calendar we’re trying to explain the past.” Getruida pats Kleinpiet on the shoulder. She’s quite impressed with his analogy. “But with Nkandla, we already know what the future holds….”

The Last of the True Afrikaners

IMG_2534Driving from Grootdrink, a veritable bustling metropolis in comparison with Rolbos, you cross the Orange River before passing the little collection of huts where the Geel family stays. Not everybody knows that the Geels and the Kruipers are closely related, and therefore of royal blood – in the Africa sense of the word. Regop Geel, the oldest man in the family, is well known in these parts for his uncanny ability to recite, word for word, the proud history of the San people – exactly as his grandfather had told him.

About ten kilometres farther along the twisting and sandy track, one passes the locked-up homestead of Lothar de Wit, the once-wealthy farmer who – according to Gertruida – couldn’t  live with the past. Perhaps it is true to say that Lothar made his own bed, only to find it extremely uncomfortable; but that would be unkind and even rude in the modern society we live in.

Few people – according to Gertruida, at least – knew the stoic Lothar. Oh, he was a popular figure in the 80’s, being the politician he used to be. But, despite being a well recognised person, he really had no true friends. He was too superior, too supercilious and far too pretentious to bend down to the level of the common folk of the district. Lothar’s sheep were always the fattest, his car the newest and his suits cut according to the latest fashion. He also had a wonderful way with words, which was why he represented the district in  parliament as a respected and convincing orator.

But…like so often happens, he was the architect of his own little disaster, poor man. And that’s a story everybody knows…

***

“Trees,” Gertruida says, “shouldn’t grow high if they can’t stand the wind.”

“A tall tree without proper roots will topple over,” Servaas nods his agreement, “just like old Ben Bitterbrak when he has had too much. I’ve told him to get heavier boots, but he just won’t listen.”

“You can weigh that man’s feet down as much as you like, Servaas, but it won’t help. He collapses from the head downwards – his feet are on the ground already.”

“Ja, just like old Lotta.”

This remark by Kleinpiet stops the conversation. Somehow the subject of Lothar de Wit is one they avoid, simply because his fall from grace had been such a painful one. Even after all these years, Lothar – who was called Lotta behind his back – remains an uncomfortable reminder of who they don’t want to be. Lotta? Last of the True Afrikaners, according to the tongue-in-the-cheek local gossip.

“Listen, we’re all Afrikaners, man! We make mistakes just like everybody else. We live, we love, we hurt, we hope…just like anybody else. We shouldn’t joke about Lothar de Wit.”

Tuynhuys, Cape Town

Tuynhuys, Cape Town

“Shame, you’re right, Precilla. That poor man had the world at his feet, but he believed one stupid thing. I mean, he was a member of the Broederbond, represented the National Party and had a Mercedes Benz. That was as far as you could go in those days. But there was more: he had dinner with PW Botha in Tuynhuys, was an elder in the church and  had season tickets for the Blue Bulls’ games at Loftus.

“Thoroughly respected, he was. Then he started with that True Afrikaner story. Pure blood, he said, was they key to leadership. He reckoned that once you were of mixed origins, you couldn’t claim to be an Afrikaner and therefore would be unfit to lead.. He shouldn’t have said that.”

“Ja, it’s much like the ANC has this obsession about being black. It’s exactly the same mistake. If you are Pure Black, you’re seen in a different way than when you are called Coloured, or Indian, or White. I mean, Hitler proved, in the most terrifying way, that you cannot talk like that. So did the Nationalists, for that matter.” Vetfaan stares at the heatwaves shimmering on the horizon. It’s difficult to see where heaven stopped and earth began. “I don’t understand this absolute emphasis on race. And…surely: can one still claim to be of ‘pure’ blood these days? Aren’t we all carrying genes of mixed origin?”

Kleinpiet shrugs. “I met a man in Rehoboth with the same names as I have. We compared notes and found he’s a distant cousin of sorts. That makes me a Coloured, I suppose. And let me tell you: if ever they start testing the nation’s DNA, we won’t be able to talk about Whites and Blacks any longer. I think we’re all related to one another in some way.”

“Of course. Read your Bible. First Adam, then Noah – that’s where we all come from. Or, if you insist on being scientific, read up on the Origins of Man. It’s obvious either way: somewhere in the distant past we all had common ancestors.” Oudoom looks down at his hands, smiling. “We all share many features, but the opposing thumb – and the soul – separate us as unique in the animal kingdom.”

“Not so, Oudoom. There are apes with opposing thumbs, too. That, according to you, only leaves one singular characteristic for humans: we have souls. That’s all that counts.” Gertruida sits back with a knowing smile. She likes arguing with Oudoom about evolution.

“That’s the point Lothar missed – like the current government, he tried to believe that race is a defining characteristic. That’s all a bit short-sighted. Culture defines you, not colour.”

***

If you should unlock the door to Lothar de Wit’s house on the deserted farm, you’ll find nothing much of interest. A thick layer of dust covers the yellow wood floors that once were polished to a brilliant shine. The tattered curtains are still there, but that’s about all. In the porch, the wall retains the unbleached square where the framed collection of pictures of the De Wit forebears once hung. For years important visitors had to pause at  yellowed photos of the line of ancestors stretching back to Andries Pretorius, the Voortrekker leader. Of this, Lothar was particularly proud and he made a point of making his guests aware of this noble ancestry.

That is, until Regop Geel came to see the politician to discuss  independence for the San people. As can be expected of the Nationalist politician, he listened with apparent interest, promised to look into the matter, and promptly put the matter out of his mind. However, still intent on impressing his visitor, he pointed out his heritage when they passed the photos.

“Andries Pretorius? He’s your great-great-great grandfather?”

Lothar nodded proudly.

“Yes, I have some of that family’s blood too.” Regop Geel stood on tiptoe to peer at the pictures. “Catharina van Bengale, a freed slave girl, way back in the 1600’s. According to my grandfather, one of her sons became a guide to some travellers, which is how the van Bengales got taken up by our family. But that woman, Catharina…she was the great grandmother of Andries Pretorius. That, I think, makes us family.”

Ai Mieta, who worked in the kitchen at the time, overheard the conversation. She, naturally, couldn’t wait to spread the story.

***

“Poor chap. He simply packed up and left. I heard he’s farming in the Karoo now – changed his name and everything – because of the shame of having mixed blood.”

“No, Servaas. It’s no shame to have mixed blood at all. It is, however, unacceptable to proclaim your superiority on the basis of the amount of pigment in your skin. Lothar’s political demise was the direct result of his misplaced belief that purity of race should imply certain privileges. The shame of it all lies in the fact that Lothar was a symptom of a far-reaching, serious disease. It’s endemic to our society – and many societies in Africa and elsewhere. And until we stop thinking that race can – in this day and age – still be pure, we’ll continue to view people of different hues of pigmentation as different to ourselves.”

***

Before you drive past the Geel village, you might want to stop and have a chat with the wizened old man sitting under the lone tree in the clearing that serves as a square for the villagers. Here you’ll be able to hear one of the last oral historians tell you about the Bushman, the San and the Khoikhoi cultures. Be prepared to be patient while he elaborates on the difficult and convoluted history of their struggles for survival. And, if you were to ask, he’ll take you to his humble hut, where a large, square frame filled with old photographs hangs. Then he’ll tell you about Catharina van Bengale and how her offspring influenced events over the centuries.

( Read also about Angela van Bengale, the other slave girl who helped establish wine making in the Cape)