‘While the whole Riemvasmaak community was forced to comply with the defense force’s demands to move, Geel escaped back to civilisation. He was an articulate, educated man in his sixties, respected for his entrepreneurial skills and the easy way he had with strangers. Mr Gibson, the manager CJ had appointed many years before, welcomed his friend from the Kalahari with open arms. Together they set about expanding BCS – Bothma Courtier Services – to satisfy the international demand for the secure transfer of documents, packages and even money.’ Gertruida brightens at the thought. ‘The two of them were really a remarkable team.’
It took many months for the Riemvasmakers to settle in remote Damaraland; in the area they were supposed to stay there was no real infrastructure. Susan insisted that she and Herman remain with the people she loved and very soon it became abundantly clear that Herman would have his hands full, taking care of everybody. Babies were born, stomach and lung problems were common and malnutrition took its toll.
Soon, however, Herman’s services were in demand on a far greater scale. There were no doctors for many hundreds of miles around the new settlement. Farmers and their families, their workers, policemen, missionaries and travelling salesmen soon queued up in front of the tent they stayed in. Within six months Herman had to build a small building to house a clinic. Medicines were brought in (later via BCS!) from Windhoek. And before he could build a house for them, the first of several rooms were added to the clinic, to house much needed beds for the sick and infirm.
‘Yes,’ Gertruida says, ‘they did get married. Right there, in front of their tent, by one of the German missionaries who had come for treatment of his gout. It was a simple service, but the entire community turned out to witness the start of an amazing marriage. Their meal on the day? A barbecued chicken, donated by the ululating crowd around their tent. At least, the missionary paid for his treatment with some sherry. As far as honeymoon nights go, it must rank as one of the most strange, ever. True to their nature, the newly-weds smiled and took it in their stride.
‘Some time later Herman suggested that they hand over the reins of their businesses to Geel and Mr Gibson. Susan had been the only heir to CJ’s estate and it was impossible to manage the growing little empire from the wilderness of Damaraland. Susan immediately agreed and so Geel became the owner/CEO of CJ’s legacy. He did send a portion of their profit to the people in exile every month, and it did a lot to make their lives easier.
‘Susan, in the meantime, studied Herman’s books and became a rather efficient pharmacist and assistant in the busy practice. She also assumed the role of mother to the Riemvasmakers, listening to complaints and helping out where she could.
‘Griet Loper springs to mind when I tell you about that time in Damaraland. The Riemvasmakers were a determined, hard-headed bunch. No government was going to force them into being second-rate citizens. Griet was a restless soul and eventually made off with a small bundle of clothing. Just took to the road and kept on walking. Eventually, she came to a little cluster of buildings next to the dusty road with the name of Solitaire. The kindly owner, a Scot by the name of Moose McGregor took pity on her and employed her in the kitchen. In those days Moose sold petrol along this long and corrugated road to the coast and he thought it a good idea to make an extra buck by selling refreshments.’
Much to Moose’s surprise, Griet produced a real German apfelstrudel one day, using some left-over apples a broke traveler had exchanged for a cold Coke. Griet used a recipe handed down by her great-grandmother, who had been a cook to a German garrison stationed at Numatoni, in the Etosha region. Of course, that was before the horror of the war against the Herero’s, which almost wiped out that entire nation. Incidentally, that war was the reason why Griet’s family fled South West Africa to settle in Riemvasmaak, in the beginning of the 1900’s .
‘Well, that apple pie was something else! Moose McGregor became famous for his delicious apfelstrudel, a reputation that is alive and well today, even after his death. Needless to say, Griet’s future turned out to be a happy and content one in the many years she spent at Solitaire.
‘Oh,and there’s Lena, Mama Namibia herself. Came from Riemvasmaak as a young girl, but, wow, did she turn out to be a gem! Today she runs Wilderness Safari’s luxury Damara Camp in the remote Damara desert landscape, a woman of importance! And what about Petros Sand, the man who started farming with vegetables in the fertile Swakop River bed, near Swakopmund?
‘But I digress,’ Gertruida sighs, ‘the most important part is still to come. And it involves all of us…’
To be continued…
Whenever Gertruida gets near the end of one of her lo-o-o-ng stories, she’ll order a round of Cactus Jack, like she does now. That usually serves as a sort of warning for the audience to steel themselves – the climax is near. And that could be happy…or sad. Whichever way it goes, it helps to be prepared.
‘You know, the young doctor simply sat down, took her hand very gently, and shared in her grief. The church was full of people – Francina had been a very much-loved member of the community – but the petite Susan suddenly felt alone – with him. It was a comfortable feeling. They shared one of those moments in which words would have spoiled everything. Just being felt so good.
‘And then Susan had the strangest dream. Or vision. Or Imaginary moment. Whatever you call it, doesn’t matter. What matters is that she saw, or felt and heard, her mother. Francina was smiling, waving as she walked away from her. She blew a kiss and whispered goodbye. She was dressed in white and held a twig of Namaqua daisies in her hand. Susan saw her mother disappearing as if in a thin mist, and just before she was completely gone, she dropped the flowers.’
Susan Bothma listened to the last Amen . So, that was the end of her journey with dear Francina, the mother who loved her so much? How sweet and short and cruel the voyage through the stormy waters of Life! Why so fleeting the passage, why so inevitably final the end? But she remembered the words old Andries spoke when they returned from Upington with her terminally ill mother…
‘Look at the animals of our veld, Miss Susan. They are there season after season. Sometimes you see the same animals as last year, sometimes you see the next generation. And, Miss, they continue to feed on the short grass in our desert and they continue to be content – they never move away to places with more water and more grass. When it rains, they rejoice. When it’s dry, they endure, We must learn from them
‘You mother is dying, Miss Susan. Soon, she’ll know the world is on the other side. But we’ll stay behind for a while. We’ll join her when the time comes. But now, in this time, we must endure. Think about it: do we have a choice? Can the Gemsbok wish for more grass when the drought has withered the veld? No, they know how to endure – and that is what we must do now. Yes, we must grieve, but we must grieve with gratitude. Be happy for the past and look forward to the future. The rain will come again. The season will change. And we’ll be together again when the time is right.’
She glanced at the two men next to her: CJ, the big brother who worked in faraway Natal, and the young doctor – a man she hardly knew but felt strangely comfortable with. Her father was in the aisle, in his wheelchair, stone-faced and grey. Three men. Three pillars.
When they trooped out of the church, sniffing and silent as is customary under such circumstances, she noticed Andries waiting for her next to the steps of the building.
He was holding some flowers in his hands. It wasn’t much. Just a little green branch with some daisies at the end.
‘When Susan was twenty-one, she and Francina were sitting on their porch one sunny spring morning. Life was sweet. CJ Jnr wrote home every week, telling them about his happy life as game ranger. Because he had grown up among the mix of cultures in the Kalahari, he found working with Zulus quite easy. The two women were talking about his latest letter when Francina felt a twitch of pain on the left side of her neck. Her hand went up to examine the area. And then she felt the lump.’
Gertruida says – because she knows – that Life is never a straight line. Just when you think you’re winning the game, the winger drops the ball five yards short of the tryline. Or the guy at silly point drops a sitter. Or somebody says something about expropriation of land without compensation. She says these mishaps are important, otherwise we’d never know when to be happy.
‘The nearest doctor was in Upington, a certain young man who’d just started practicing there. Geel used the pickup they normally utilised for the natural remedy herbs, to transport the two women to see the man. What they imagined would be a short consultation, turned into a week-long’s worth of agony.’
Francina had an extremely malignant form of breast cancer. Because it had spread, there was no sense in trying to operate on the tumour. Some journals contained articles on a new field of medicine, but chemotherapy was not widely available – maybe at teaching hospitals for selected cases, but definitely not for a terminal patient in the faraway Kalahari. The young doctor, Herman Viljee, sympathised – but he was also honest in the most kindly manner.
‘It is a matter of time, Mrs Bothma, I’m sorry. I can help you with pain and support you and the family in any way I can, but the outcome of this is predictable.’ And then he spent two precious hours, explaining again and again the results of the biopsy he had done, the pathologists report, and the prognosis.
‘Men are such predictable animals,’ Gertruida says in her knowing way. ‘No matter what the circumstances are, they are always aware of gender. These days the world is trying to rid itself from sexism, but that is a lost cause. The day a man does not respect the beauty of a woman; or doesn’t step back at a door, or doesn’t compliment elegance – why, that’s the day we all deny who and what we are. The key, of course, is the word ‘respect’.
‘Be that as it may, Doctor Viljee could not but help noticing the innocent beauty of Susan Bothma at his patient’s side. In those days doctors were very much aware of ethics and what was considered to be proper. Viljee took note, that’s all. But deep inside (if he were completely honest with himself) he promised himself that he’d like to see her again in the future, when the time for such advances was appropriate.’
Geel took the women back to the village. A paper bag full of morphine drops and aspirin tablets sat on the seat between Francina and Susan. There wasn’t much to say. To discuss such matters was to try to avoid the ultimate outcome. It was time to absorb, reflect, rebel and accept – and that is exactly what the corrugated road to the village afforded them.
However, when they arrived back home, the aged old Andries was waiting on the steps of the stoep of their house.
‘I know, Miss Fransie. I had a dream. And I’m sorry.’ He held both Francina’s hands in his as the tears streaked down his dust-coloured cheeks. ‘But life comes and life goes. Seasons. Once we are young and once we are old – if we are lucky to live through the years. We should never be afraid of the journey, Miss Fransie. Every step is a blessing, even the hard ones.’
And, oh! He said, he’d already spoken to Mister CJ. There was no need to hide anything – they were in this together. The journey wasn’t for just one person. They’d see: the journey would bless them all.
‘And so it was,’ Gertruida says. ‘Viljee’s medication helped, but it was Andries’s remedies – especially his root-cure – which relieved the pain and anxiety Francina lived through in the next three months or so. She took solace in what she saw: how everybody took care of CJ and how the villagers showered them with love and affection. The morning before she died, she called everybody together, blessed them and bid them goodbye. Then she called Andries and told him it was time. The old medicine man simply nodded. He knew what to do.
‘It was during a prayer at the funeral service, led by Oudoom in Upington, that Susan felt her hand being taken by somebody sitting down next to her. She peeked. And that’s when she knew: it was going to be alright.’
‘To describe the mindset of the Bothma family back then, you only have to consider what the average farmer feels like today.’ Gertruida makes a vague gesture with her free hand (the other holding a cold one, despite Tannie Zuma’s decrees). ‘Abandoned. Forlorn. Angry. Depressed. Like today’s farmers, they were realists. The war was drawing to a close after more than 11,000 South Africans – Black, White and Coloureds – died in battle. We simply do not know how many casualties our forces suffered, nor how many struggled with mental illness afterwards. What is known, is that the Afrikaners were fed up with the Smuts government.
‘Of course CJ and his family didn’t want to return to their previous lives. CJ Snr was incapacitated in the worst possible way, Francina was afraid that the Smuts people would jail her again and little CJ Jnr did not want to leave the village-life they had become accustomed to. When the legendary Peter Stark – the famous White Bushman of South West Africa – was 15, CJ, too, was learning the intricate culture of the Damaras, the San and the Hereros. He stood with his two feet planted in two cultural kraals – Western and the heady mix of African ways and histories. Lastly, CJ Snr felt embarrassed and guilty about his war wounds – appearing in public would have been just too painful.
‘Still the nightmares continued. One night, after a particularly violent nightmare-storm – this one ending in blood welling up from the ground – Francina soothed her husband like she usually did. What was unusual that night, was CJ’s response. He often complained that the dreams were frightfully terrible, making his feelings of guilt and incapacity even worse. A man should weather these storms, not so? A real man doesn’t sob himself awake in the middle of the night and then expect his wife to comfort him? A real hero has two legs and a string of medals.
‘Francina understood all these things. And then, on that wonderfully fateful night, she proceeded to prove to her husband that he was still the same man that left for Egypt in uniform.’ Gertruida sighs dramatically. ‘You men are all the same. Primitive, simple-minded creatures. Once your ego get stroked, you plop over in a blissful slumber. And that, gentlemen, is exactly what happened that night. Little Susan Bothma was born in that same hut, nine months later.’
Servaas raised an eyebrow. So this is the Susan that would have a relationship with Herman Viljee…interesting!
The years that followed, were as peaceful as one could wish for. The Bothmas adapted to life in the Kalahari and the Riemvasmakers adapted to them. A house was built next to the huts – the first of many to follow. The natural remedy and CJ’s courier business continued to thrive under the care of Geel and Mister Gibson. A healthy trickle of cash flowed into the village’s coffers, where CJ saw to it that there was a fair distribution among the villagers. CJ Jnr grew into a strapping young man and little Susan was the darling of everybody.
While South Africa drifted sideways and backward on the tide of inappropriate legislation, Jan Smuts lost the 1948 election and the Nationalists eyed the prospect of a republic. Unfortunately, that is not all they did. History would judge the leaders of that time harshly, and rightly so.
Malan and Strijdom used the churches, the newspapers and the radios to re-educate an entire nation. Blatant propaganda focused on the danger of communism and the deterioration of independent African states. The progressive destruction of the country’s motto – ‘Ex Unitate Vires’, In unity lies our Strength – created an unbridgeable divide between the peoples who live in this beautiful country.
‘CJ Jnr wanted to see the world, but he had no formal education. Francina and Geel had taught him to read and write, and he had a natural aptitude for numbers. His father knew the boy could not spend his life in the village. Life in the city was not an option. In the end he wrote – without much hope – a letter to Ian Player, a war veteran like himself, who at that time worked in the Natal Parks Board, one of the early South African efforts to conserve game, nature and the environment.
‘Much to CJ’s surprise and Francina’s joy, Player not only answered the letter, but also invited CJ Jnr to come and see him. The rest, you guys know, is history. CJ Jnr was a fierce fighter for RR – the NPO he started. Rhino Rescue remains testimony to his singleminded goal in life to protect those huge pachyderms from extintion. He died in his eighties, peaceful and content with his contribution to Life on Earth.’
Gertruida wipes away a tear. ‘At least he had that, didn’t he? His father died in the sixties, a rather fortunate situation, for he was spared the hardship and anguish of the forced removal of the Riemvasmakers from their ancestral grounds. He did, however, witness the wonderful relationship between little Susan Bothma and Herman Viljee. I suppose one may think that he died in peace, despite the loss of Francina, the poor man.’
The group at the bar sits up. ‘Francina died? Why?’
To be continued…
Giuseppe Verdi: Va pensiero
Some of the words:
|Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,||Golden harp of our prophets,|
|perché muta dal salice pendi?||why do you hang silently on the willow?|
|Le memorie nel petto raccendi,||Rekindle the memories of our hearts,|
|ci favella del tempo che fu!||and speak of the times gone by!|
‘The journey to the Northern Cape was long and painful. CJ’s leg stump throbbed and the glands in his groin were swollen and tender. Near Upington he started sweating – when Francina placed a hand on his brow she glanced over at Geel. They both knew…’
Gertruida doesn’t have to tell them about the dangers. Molly (Loser’s wife) died of puerperal sepsis, didn’t she? ‘Blood poisoning’, the old folks called it – rather aptly, when one considers the pathology. ‘Geel reached over to the driver – another member of the Kruiper clan – and told him to step on it.’
By the time they got to Oupa’s village, it was dark. Despite this, Oupa was waiting with a huge fire in the clearing in the middle of the circle of huts. A three-legged pot was steaming over some coals next to it. And next to Oupa, a grizzled old man – more wrinkles than anything else – was sitting on a magnificent Eland skin.
CJ Jnr stood behind Oupa. He had been prepared as well as Oupa could, but still the sight of his critically sick father was almost too much to bear. He fought to keep his emotions under control, straightened up and hugged his parents. Francina wept with joy – and with grief. How big her son had grown in just the few months! How tanned and healthy he seemed! And now, in the light of the fire, how terrible the sight of her husband; the deterioration over the last few hours had been dramatic and frightful.
Once a semblance of order had descended over the reunited family (Geel hadn’t seen Oupa for many months, as well) Oupa cleared his throat.
‘This here is !Garuksab, but we call him Andries. He is from the Original People, the parents of the Kruiper family.’ Geel translated smoothly. Oupa nodded his approval. ‘He had a dream, so he came here. He knew he’d be needed.’
‘Nobody knows how the San-people do this. Some call these clairvoyant members of the tribe shamans or witch doctors, but that is not correct.’ Gertruida, who likes to think she knows everything, tries to explain. ‘These people live near nature. In fact, if there is anybody on earth who understands the way of Time, of the seasons and of human nature, it will be found in the San culture. These ‘wise men’ as they are called, are able to imagine (or travel) different times – future or past. They are the keepers of oral history and the prophets of the future.
‘Westerners are skeptical of this, of course. It is because we’ve confused the term ‘modern’. We think smart cellphones and Space-X are modern. But…to really come to an understanding of Life and Nature and Time – now that is really modern. I’m afraid we, the Western civilisation, have lost the desire to explore the most important aspect of the Universe: the reason for time, for humans – and for our relationship with Nature. Exploration shouldn’t be out there,’ she says, pointing, ‘but in here, where you feel the regular pulse of your heart.’ She places a hand on her chest, smiling sadly.
!Garuksab, also known as Andries, had ordered his two apprentices (nameless young men who have been with Andries for a few seasons) to lay CJ down in one of the huts. He lit a precious candle and told the older apprentice to remove the bandage on the stump. As layer after layer of bandage was removed, the cause of CJ’s deterioration became clear. Green pus stained the bandages. The remainder of the leg was grossly swollen and red. The stench made the younger apprentice gag – something which drew a hiss of disapproval from old Andries. He said a few words in a rapid sequence of clicks.
”Andries says there is bad blood under the skin. It needs to come out, he says. And tomorrow they will hunt for an Eland. It is a holy animal, but it is necessary to save a life.’
By this time, little CJ Jnr had learnt not to question the older members of the tribe, but Francina had not. ‘How will an Eland save my husband? We need to get to a hospital. Can’t you see he’s dying?’
Andries smiled. He put a withered hand in to the pouch the younger apprentice carried. Took out what looked like a piece of root. He held this out to Francine. Clicked a few words.
‘Andries, he say, you must chew.’
Francina only woke up the next day, when the men were slaughtering the huge bull Eland.
To be continued…
‘Imagine the scene, guys.’ Gertruida closes her eyes to see the picture in her mind. ‘Oupa’s village was situated near a fountain, not too far from where Riemvasmaak is today. That area, like you know, had been home to the Khomani people for as long as they can remember. Of course, they preferred to be called Riemvasmakers, because of the history. Originally the group moved there from South West Africa, so in reality they weren’t necessarily San people, but more like the Damara lineage.’
Way back, in the early 1900’s, some of the people living near the fountain lived through a period of drought. The only way to feed the group, was to steal some cattle – which was exactly what they did. Unfortunately they were caught and, well, severely reprimanded. In the end they were tied to some rocks with rieme – strips of animal hide, like thongs. The next day, when the rest of the group came looking for the thieves, they only found the thongs. Ever since then, the group was known as the ‘people that were tied by thongs’ – Riemvasmakers.
For once, Gertruida wasn’t one hundred percent right. The Riemvasmakers were a diverse group – a minor rainbow nation, comprised of Khomani, Nama, Xhosa, Coloured and Herero people, as well as the Damaras. Although they called themselves Riemvasmakers as a collective term, the individual groups retained their cultures and oral histories. Oupa’s group was a minority. The Khomani once lived in scattered groups in the Northern Cape, South West Africa and Bechuanaland Protectorate. Quite a number of them settled in the Mier area, where their culture was preserved to some degree.
Oupa knew all this, of course. During little CJ’s sojourn amongst Oupa’s people, he heard the stories of the hardships the tribe had lived through. Their escape from German oppression in South West Africa to the Northern Cape was followed by more disruption when the Kalahari Gemsbokpark was established in 1935.
‘It’s the story of Africa,’ Geel translated. ‘People moved, settled, were displaced. Maybe it’s the story of the world, as well. The Vikings and the Romans and the Israelites – I cannot think of a single nation that wasn’t – at some stage or other – involved in a territorial dispute. My father says it was hard to move this way and that. For a while he was angry. But then he had to make a very important decision: was his life in the hands of the past, or of the future? If he chose to allow the past to dominate his future, his future was doomed. Because nobody can change the past, the past is cast in stone. The future, however, is yours to change at will – be it for good or evil’
CJ Jnr listened and learned. The village took good care of him and took time to teach the boy about nature. Trips to a nearby waterhole became classrooms of the veld. Reading spoor, understanding the habits of birds and other animals and learning about the very delicate balance between nature and human behavior were only a few things CJ gained in the months he spent in the Kalahari.
It changed his life forever.
Meanwhile, Francina was forced to work as a gardener in the prison grounds. While her sentence included the dreaded term of ‘hard labour‘ then head of the prison, Konrad Geldenhuys, took pity on the kind-hearted prisoner. It was also known that CJ Snr was MIA in North Africa.
Francina also knew what had happened to her son. The bush telegraph of messengers, delivery men, cleaners and other workers associated with the prison and the warders, brought weekly updates about the boy in the Kalahari. Francina’s anger still burned white-hot, though. She would never forgive the government for the death of her husband.
When at last she received news that CJ Snr was alive and being treated in England, she was overcome by emotion. A few days later, a letter arrived at the prison. It broke her heart.
To be continued…
Tsung – with the click in the beginning (!Kung), which the Western tongue finds so difficult – turned out to be a fountain of knowledge. When CJ asked him about his flu remedy, the old man (he was only 40, but seemed far older than that) was reluctant to speak about it.
‘Look, Oupa,’ CJ sat down with a sigh, ‘you can spend your life here on Market Square. If you like chopping up chickens and sheep, that’s fine with me. But there is an alternative, you know?’
He talked. Tsung (now called Oupa) listened. Geel sat nearby and helped to translate the bits his father didn’t understand. They looked around. There were several people browsing around in the market and quite a number of them sniffed or sneezed or coughed. One or two of these shoppers seemed feverish.
‘I hear people in Natal are suffering from some sort of cold or flu. Obviously it’s coming here. If we sold them your remedy, we can make some money. How about it?’
And so, without knowing how severe the impact of the 1918 flu would be, an agreement was reached. It was the start. African Natural Chemicals would only be formalised a few years later, but in the beginning it was merely an effort by Oupa, Geel and CJ to make ends meet. It was a spectacular success. Initially, Oupa managed to get the willow bark, buchu, thyme, and some tubers and roots from local sources (friends, ‘smouse’ – pedlers of wares – and other African herbalists) ; but soon the demand was so high that he had to send Geel back home to act as a procurement agent. His recipe for ‘sickness medicine’ (as he called it) had been in his family since they ‘came from the north’ – at term he was unable to explain.
The network of street urchins continued the errand business, but now they also acted as agents. They sold the powder at a shilling a pouch, of which they earned a penny commission each time.
When the big wave of Spanish Flu hit Johannesburg, Oupa’s Powder (as it became known) was sold on every street corner. The shillings rolled in. The street boys made a packet! Back home, Geel and his village were amazed at the amount of money they were making. It was the worst of times. It was the best of times.
‘That was the start of CJ’s second little empire – African Natural Chemicals and the courier business. With Oupa as an equal partner, the ANC became famous for not only the flu remedy back then, but today their profit is driven by another two remedies.’ When Gertruida tells a story, she’ll sometimes stop – almost at mid-sentence – to frustrate her audience. She says that’s the most effective way of emphasising a point. Once she is sure everybody is anxious to hear what the remedies are, she continues. ‘The one mixture of herbs is an excellent appetite suppressant. People simply stop eating – it’s really amazing.
‘But it’s the other remedy which brought them fame. It’s a laxative. Oh boy, does it work!! They use it for colon prep in hospitals, but if it’s available, you can be sure nobody is constipated. A single sachet is enough for an entire household. Yep, the African Natural Colon Exerciser – sold as ANC-exec – has no equal in the production of faecal matter anywhere in the world.’
Nobody laughed. It was just too near the truth to be funny. Gertruida seemed a bit disappointed, but soldiered on.
‘The other good thing that happened during the flu epidemic, was Francina Malan, a young nurse who had heard of Oupa’s Powders. Unlike most of the Johannesburg Hospital staff, she wasn’t a nun. If I have to guess, she might not even have been a qualified nurse, and maybe just a sort-of helper, a nursing assistant of sorts. All we know today, is that she worked in the Barney Bernato wing of the hospital, where a lot of flu patients died.
‘Anyway, most probably out of sheer desperation, she bought some of Oupa’s Powders from one of the street vendors and mixed it into a patient’s soup. The patient made a wonderful recovery. She then wanted to know more about the remedy and, following the trail back to Oupa, she met CJ.’
‘It wasn’t love at first sight. Francina wasn’t beautiful. She wasn’t slim and trim and didn’t look sexy in her starched nurse’s uniform. Her teeth were skew. The most beautifully alluring aspect of Francina was her generous and caring heart. Once CJ noticed that, their fairy tale started. He, too, had grown up with a distaste for the effects of wealth, He. too, knew happiness was impossible if you didn’t care about people- and things.’
Gertruida says it works like that sometimes. If you don’t want something, it’ll sniff you out and and grace you with its presence. And, depending on what was that you avoided. this life-tendency could be a curse or a blessing. She often urges the Rolbossers to face their demons, telling them that ignorance is never bliss – it always comes at a price.
‘One would wish they lived happily after, but it wasn’t to be. CJ and his little troupe of streetchildren, Oupa and the village in the Kalahari became comfortably independent through the sale of Oupa’s remedies. Despite her looks, the photographs of Francina and CJ’s wedding remains as a testimony that beauty is rarely a physical thing. Francina became the mother of two beautiful boys, the boisterous CJ Junior and little Frans, the boy born with a weak heart. I suppose he had a congenital defect which would have been operated if they had lived today. Poor little Frans only lived for six years. He died at the beginning of the Great Depression, which wiped out wealth faster than the Spanish Flu.
‘CJ and his businesses made it through the depression – just. Because money was never a big thing in their lives, they could scale down their standard of living easily. And they had their savings, of course. CJ didn’t trust banks – or maybe it was because he was so ashamed at being illiterate – so his money was stored in the form of Kruger pounds. Gold was the thing, you see. After all, they lived in Johannesburg, on top of the worlds riches gold deposits.
‘Well, they managed the hardships of the Great Depression – and then the world war broke out. 1939 saw their fortunes change – radically. It was such a pity…at first the war seemed like a great adventure. It surely wasn’t, was it?’
‘CJ was one of the first to start coughing in September 1918. At first he thought it was the usual cold or flu he was prone to, running around in the wind and rain while doing his errands like he did. But then he got sick. Really, really sick. It was the best thing that ever happened to him.’
When Gertruida tells a story like this, Boggel always arranges with Precilla to bring in snacks – meat pies, sandwiches and biltong. It is good for business. The whole town is there to listen and they like to drink something while eating and listening. Gertruida – who knows everything – knows she will be served free of charge. Boggel says it’s her commission.
Anyway, the Rolbossers had nowhere to go. Upington and Grootdrink were still in lockdown, so there was no sense in leaving the town. Boggel has a well-stocked store-room. Why leave? Especially when there is such a good story to share.
CJ never considered going to hospital. When he got sick, the big wave of Spanish Flu cases hadn’t hit South Africa yet. In fact, very few people knew anything at that stage about the flu that would terminate the lives of half-a-million South Africans. He was also fortunate that he got the earlier, milder form of the disease. It was the later mutation that was so lethal. With so many mouths to feed and so many street children to look after, his errand business – a primitive courier service – did not allow for any luxuries. If you got sick, you got in to bed and waited for the fever to go.
But this flu was different. It didn’t want to go. CJ got sicker by the day and started coughing up green phlegm. That’s when the little yellow child, the one they called Geel, offered to help. He was one of the fasted runners CJ had, a reliable young teenager with lively eyes and a ready smile.
Geel could speak enough English to get by, but his first choice was the language of the Khomani people. His father was from the Kalahari from where he had traveled, much like Loser, first to Kimberley and then to Johannesburg. Geel never mentioned his mother, who apparently stayed behind. His father, Tsung (actually !Kung), worked as a helper for a butcher on Market Square.
‘You need father’s help. He know sickness.’
CJ scoffed. ‘Your father? The meat-man? What – is he a doctor now?’
‘No. No doc-ter. Father will help.’
CJ remained skeptical. The discussion went nowhere. Geel did not understand why CJ was speaking about a white man’s shaman. Why, was he not offering the wisdom of his very own father? Why would CJ be so disrespectful to his family?
‘Forget I speak of father. You go doc-ter. I don’t see you no more.’ Geel left CJ lying in a pool of sweat and left in a huff. Two days later CJ sent a message, pleading with Geel to fetch his father.
Tsung was maybe 40 years old, but looked to be 80. He was shrivelled, wrinkled, bent and arthritic. He arrived at CJ’s shanty after work, just as the sun was setting in the west. He did not introduce himself as he sat down – on the floor – next to the bed. He sat there for a long time, just looking at the sick white man and listening to his breathing. He never touched him at all, nor did he say anything. After what seemed an eternity, he got up quietly and left. CJ would have laughed if he wasn’t so ill.
The next morning Geel arrived with a small pouch filled with a rather pungent powder. He was so short of breath and weak that he only managed a weak ‘What?‘
‘Father sent, He say you may die. Maybe. Perhaps. This is help. You make so.’ Geel imitated the action of somebody taking snuff, taking an imaginary pinch and sniffing the powder. CJ tried it. He almost passed out coughing.
‘The story goes that he first almost died coughing before he coughed himself back to health.’ Gertruida is obviously enjoying the story as much as her audience. ‘But, two days later the fever broke and the next day he started feeling better. There was no doubt about it, the powder did magic. He sent Geel to fetch his father, thinking to thank him. Geel would have none of it. He said if you wanted to thank somebody, you went to him. It was rude to summon somebody who helped you.
‘Well, CJ got up, walked to market square and apologised to Tsung. He said he was doing things the white man’s way, which may certainly seem rude. But, more than just saying sorry, he also expressed his thanks. Tsung smiled and nodded. Yes, he said that’s allright.
‘Then CJ did the smartest thing in all his life. He asked Tsung what was in that powder. That one question changed his life. Forever.’
To be continued…
Gertruida will tell you – because she knows everything – that all winds are not necessarily sad. There are, for instance, Happy Winds which are completely different to the Dismal variety. Happy Winds are frivolous and naughty. They get into papers and hair and skirts. You’d recognise a Happy Wind instantly, she says, simply because its effect will make you smile.
Happy Winds also bring relief and joy as it fulfills promises (like rain), which Dismal winds never do. When you get Gertruida talking about these winds, she always tells the story of Herman Viljee and little Susan Bothma. She says it describes exactly what a Happy Wind is capable of.
Susan Bothma was a petite young lady with an athletic body and a strong mind. Born to an older couple – after years of trying to fall pregnant – she was spoiled from day one. Her room was spacious and overflowed with Teddies, soft toys, lights of various colours and soft music. The Bothma’s were an extremely rich and clever family. Their fortune was built up over many generations, starting with some shares Great-great Grandfather Loser Bothma won in a poker game in Kimberley.
Loser Bothma lived up to his name all his life. Nothing he tried ever worked or turned out to be even moderately successful. Maybe because he had nothing to lose and maybe because he was an eternal optimist, he was also a habitual gambler. The only certain thing about his gambling, was the inevitable outcome.
In 1891 he was 52 years old, digging for diamonds as a humble labourer in somebody else’s claim. (It is still unsure who owned that claim, although the family believes it was Cecil Rhodes himself). Loser knew he was way past his prime and that his later years would be spent in abject poverty. And then, one day, as he shoveled one dejected spadeful of dusty gravel after the other on to the sieve, a little gust of wind changed his fortune in the blink of an eye. He noticed the spark of reflected sunlight first and when he forced his aching back to bend a bit further, he picked up a pure blue diamond the size of his thumb. It was perfect in every way.
Of course, the diamond didn’t belong to him. But… the claim had delivered only a few, inferior quality, diamonds in the past. He was working alone. And nobody saw him pocket the stone. He went home to his dilapidated tent that night to sit down beneath the torn canvas and to consider what to do. There was no way he could claim the diamond as his own to sell; people knew him and who he worked for. A diamond that pure of that size would be impossible to sell without divulging its true origin.
For once in his life, Loser made the right decision. He buried the diamond under his mattress and continued working on the claim. He did find two or three small, insignificant diamonds, which he duly delivered to (the family believes) Mr Rhodes. And then, when his time was up, he folded his tent, stuffed the diamond in his pocket and left for the Witwatersrand, where gold fever was at its height.
Loser was careful. He had a few pounds and the clothes on his back, as well as a donkey to carry the tent, his mattress and a few pots and pans. He reached Johannesburg, pitched his tent and started looking around. At last, he heard about the gentlemen at the Rand Club. They were rich, he heard, and had a penchant for gambling – especially poker. This was, as his name indicated, a game he was most familiar with.
And so, on the evening of a warm day in December, 1894, Loser presented himself at the club and asked if he could join the game.
‘One must bear in mind,’ Gertruida says – because she knows everything, ‘that Loser was dressed in the only clothes he had. He was dirty and dusty and his hair was all over the place. The doorman threatened to throw him out. Loser showed his diamond. At that precise moment Alfred Beit arrived at the door. He, Rhodes, Wernher and Herman Ecksteen was planning on a leisurely evening of friendly poker. He saw the diamond, the scruffy, down-and-out miner and immediately invited Loser in.
One game and one game only, was offered to Loser. ‘The highest hand wins. No comebacks, no second chances.’ Beit smiled the way a hyena would. Easy game, easy prey and easy winnings. And the buy-in, Beit said, would be £ 5000, just about the price for the diamond – quite incidentally. Loser was to hand over his diamond, but Beit said everybody else was good for the credit. When Loser objected, Rhodes sent the barmaid downstairs to fetch his valise from the safe, guarded by an armed employee. The man came back to check. Rhodes raised his voice. The valise was on the table a minute later.
‘There,’ Rhodes said. selecting a document from the briefcase, ‘satisfied now?” It was a share certificate was worth just over £ 5000.
Loser swallowed hard and nodded.
They sat down in plush chairs on the first floor of the building with a beautiful view of Marshall’s Township, Loser’s opponent was selected by drawing lots. Beit won and sat down opposite to Loser.
The cards were shuffled, Loser was offered the cut and the cards were dealt in a way Loser had never seen before – five open cards in the middle with two face down in front of both players.
‘Make up the best hand of five cards and decide if you’re in. Once both players are prepared to play, the highest hand will win.’ Ecksteen, the dealer, smiled so his gold tooth showed. ‘Mister Bothma?”
Loser checked his two cards, careful not to show them to the others. He had two Kings. It was a good hand. He nodded. Beit smiled.
Beit nodded and carefully replaced his cards on the table. Just then, a Happy Wind breezed through the open window, ruffling the cards on the table. Loser saw the two aces in Beit’s hand.
‘Gentlemen, show your cards.’
Gertruida knows more about Texas Hold’em poker than what Loser did. His two kings were weaker than Beit’s two aces. ‘He stood up to go, so used was he to losing, but in those days gentlemen played like gentlemen. It was Rhodes who pointed out that a third king was laying there, face up, amongst the five open cards. Loser had a triple to Beit’s double. He had not only retained his diamond, but he also had won the share certificate in the De Beer’s Mining Company – doubling his fortune.’
Beit was gracious in defeat. ‘He offered to buy the diamond for £ 5000, which Loser was happy to do. He wanted cash for the diamond and that’s what he got. Plus the shares. However, unbeknownst to him, Beit sold the diamond the next day for double that figure, ensuring everybody ended up winners.’
Vetfaan gets up, stretches, and smiles. ‘So that’s how a Happy Wind got its name?
‘No Vetfaan, not at all. That would only come years later. Sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.’
To be continued…