Category Archives: smalltown short stories

The Goldilocks Zone of Kindness.

extra-Paint-CansBoggel, the bent little barman behind the counter, often tells his customers that kindness and rain have a lot in common. Too little makes things die. Too much, on the other hand, washes away the honesty of caring. Like the theme in the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears suggests, the trick is to get it ‘just right‘. Too little – or too much – will spoil the original intent of empathy and care.

While his patrons might debate this issue, Boggel can’t forget an incident – so many years ago – just after he had left school to seek his fame and fortune in the big, wide world out there.

***

Having managed to pass matric, Boggel had to leave the orphanage. This was a sad day, indeed, when he hugged the others before closing the garden gate behind him for the last time. His worldly possessions included the clean change of clothes in his little suitcase, a small Bible in his pocket, and fifteen Rands and seventy-five cents carefully knotted in the washed handkerchief in his hand. With no specific plan how to conquer the world, Boggel felt like the loneliest young man in the world.

He timed his leaving well, and had just reached the bus stop when Kallie Mann stopped the lumbering bus next to the bench under the huge old Acacia.

“Going places?”

“Ja, Oom. Upington, I think.”

Kallie wouldn’t accept a bus fare from the young lad, knowing all too well what his background was. In a place like Grootdrink, even the orphans were celebrities (of sorts). Anything or anybody out of the usual, mundane normality, was a source of debate, discussion or plain gossip in the little town. Boggel, as a hunchbacked orphan, was a well-known and much talked about young man.

 Kallie, too, had a bit of history. He had married his childhood sweetheart, Sally Kleyngeld, set up home, and was soon able to announce the imminent arrival of their first child. It was not to be. A complicated birth, two graves (a big one, a small one) and an empty house termitted away at the life of this once-popular man. He resigned his work at the bank and became a bus driver. That way he rarely had to spend an evening amongst the ghosts and shattered dreams of his of his past. He said he needed the openness of the veld around him – the small office in the bank had too many walls.

A few miles out of Grootdrink, Kallie asked his only passenger what his plans were. Boggel shook his head.

“Why don’t you move in with me for a while? Until you find something else, I mean. The place is huge, I’m alone and you need a bed. Seems the logical thing to do.”

And that’s what they did. Boggel moved in. Kallie’s house, however, was in a state of total disarray. Kallie apologised, saying he’s never at home and…anyway…cleaning the place would be like throwing Sally out. Her towel. Her nighties. Her slippers. These all remained where she had put them before the catastrophe. Even the baby room, so carefully prepared, waited in vain for the whimper of a hungry infant.

Boggel started knocking on doors the next day. The butcher said his back would never be strong enough. The postmaster shook his head. The restaurant advertised a job for a waiter, but the manager said he was afraid the hunchback would scare his customers away. Door after door closed behind him. The message was clear: conquering the world was reserved for ‘normal’ people, not for cripples like him.

013001056A week or two later, Kallie had to take a busload of tourists to the Augrabies Falls; after which followed a week-long sojourn in Springbok to view the magnificent splendour of the annual flower season. Kallie said goodbye to a depressed and dejected Boggel, who vowed to have a job by the time his benefactor came back.

Boggel redoubled his efforts to find employment. The hospital didn’t need porters, the undertaker had no vacancies for grave diggers and the municipality said they’re sorry, their budget won’t allow another road worker. He had knocked on all the doors. Upington would not be the launching pad of his brilliant career.

Boggel didn’t know what to do. Being idle had never been part of his character, and there he was: unemployed, bored, and disappointed.

Well, he could fix up Kallie’s house, couldn’t he? The idea galvanised him into action. He swept. He dusted. He washed. He tidied room after room, cleaning windows and washing curtains as he went along. Then he took his money to the hardware store and asked the owner for as much paint as his money could buy. The owner took pity on the young lad, and produced a variety of half-empty paint containers – left over from the contract to renovate the town hall. No, he said, no money. He had seen how the hunchbacked youth tried to find employment and took pity on him. Do a good job – and maybe it’d be the start of a career, the man remarked.

Boggel was overjoyed. He painted from dawn to dusk. His back was a problem, of course. To get to the higher parts of the walls was impossible with his hunchback, so he painted as far as he could reach while standing on a chair. Room after room he did in this fashion. Kallie, he was sure, wouldn’t mind doing the upper bits of the walls.

The lounge was blue. There was enough green for the kitchen. The dining room looked magnificent in beige, while the large container of yellow sorted out the rest of the house. Boggel realised he was a very, very good painter. Not a drop was spilled on the carpets or furniture. The dried walls were a smooth as plastic, with no streaks and sloppy lines. This, he told himself, was a huge success.

Kallie nearly died when he returned. When he pushed open the front door, he stood riveted to the floor for a very long time. Then he started – softly at first, but growing in volume – repeating a single word.

“No….no….no.…”

He calmed down after a while. Sat staring at the blue walls around the fireplace, talking to himself. Or rather, talking to Sally, who wasn’t there. He asked her to please, please, come back.

Boggel left that same afternoon. Got on the train after buying a ticket to Cape Town, where he eventually learnt his trade in a tavern near the harbour. (Nobody wanted to work there – it was considered too dangerous.). Here, Boggel’s disability and the way he handled it, generated not sympathy but respect from the rough men who had come ashore from the ships. He built up a reputation as a fair barman, especially after sorting out the wrestling champion with a cricket bat. It’s quite a story, but he rarely talks about that time. He is an outspoken pacifist and hates to be reminded of his more, er, angry days. Even so, his little altercation with the burly athlete saved them both a lot of trouble. The wrestler apologised to the pretty barmaid and became a huge fan of the tavern. laughing at the way Boggel placed the bat on the counter every time he walked in…

***

The_three_bears_pg_11Boggel says that’s the way to dispense kindness. A lick of paint – or a cricket bat – at the right time, can work wonders. But the key is to time it right.

And…not too little.

Not too much.

Just right.

Just like in the story of Three Bears.

 

Gertjie and the Inevitability Syndrome

20140916_083622_1st_500“That is one unhappy camper.” Vetfaan saunters over to the window for a better look. “It’s been a long time since I saw such a sad face…. It looks like Gertjie – that chap with the short fuse. We’d better watch out…”

That much, they all agree, is true. Gertjie – medium-sized, mousy hair, 5-day stubble and yesterday’s clothes – kills the rattling engine of the old Volkswagen and gets out. His drooping shoulders, mouth corners and arms tell a story as he turns slowly to face Boggel’s Place. After a moment he seems to come to a decision, straightens up a bit and walks over to the bar. At this, the patrons in Boggel’s rush back to the counter to discuss the weather.

A timid knock.

“Can you believe it?” Kleinpiet strides to the door and yanks it open. “Nobody knocks here, Gertjie. Come on in.”

“I…I really don’t want to.” Hesitant, soft, unsure. “I need a place to rest after…what happened. I was hoping to find a bed. A place to stay. For a while.”

Now, in a place like Rolbos, saying things like that is like telling children there is a circus in town. Gertruida is already lining up questions in her mind while Precilla – with a guilty sidelong glance at Kleinpiet – feels sorry for the man. Gertjie’s short-tempered reputation seems completely inappropriate as he shuffles in.

“No hotel in Rolbos, you should know that. Only cold beer. There is a guest house in Grootdrink, though. You must have passed it on your way here.” Boggel offers a beer, but the man shakes his head.

“N..no, thank you. Need water.” Nevertheless, he sighs heavily as he sits down mumbling: “No hotel. Typical.”

Gertruida (who else?) takes the lead. Telling Boggel to get a glass of cold water (an almost impossible request – nobody drinks water here) she sits down next to the man and introduces herself.

“Oh…sorry. I’m Gertjie Bosman. From Prieska. My dog is gone.”

“That’s a shame. We love dogs here. We’ve got Vrede.” At hearing his name, the town’s dog thumps his tail on the floor below the counter, where he naps on Boggel’s cushion. “I’m sorry.”

“Ja, it was the tractor. The tractor took him.”

“Didn’t they see him?”

“Not like that, it was dark. He was brown. And the flames weren’t as big then.”

“Flames?”

“At that stage it was only the barn.It was before….before the house, you see. The flames were small then.”

“Your barn and your house burnt down? That’s terrible.”

Gertjie sighs again and downs the water. “My wife has left me. On the tractor. It…it was the new one. Bought it only last year. Still have to pay back the loan. The bank will fry me.”

“Sounds like you’re fried already,” Vetfaan gets a nasty look from Gertruida, but Servaas has to concentrate hard to keep a straight face.

You can only test Gertruida’s patience that far before her curiosity takes over. “Maybe you should tell us what happened?”

The story gets told in bits and pieces. Gertjie used to be a successful farmer. Living with his wife on the piece of land he had inherited, he slowly built up the place and managed a sizable flock of sheep. Some chickens supplied eggs to the shop in town and the lucerne growing next to the small dam not only saw them through winter, but he could also sell some to his neighbours.

“We were happy, you know. Tess an me. Things were going our way.” Gertjie falls silent. “But we needed more water. To expand, you see? Water was the problem. The dam was enough for the lucerne and the sheep…but just. I reckoned that we needed another borehole and a cement dam – then we could support another hundred or so sheep.”

“Bigger is better,” Kleinpiet says.

“But it’s the money. Always the money. After the loan on the tractor, I didn’t want to dip deeper into debt.” He falls silent, shaking his head.

“And…?” Gertruida shifts about on her chair. This is exciting!

“I had to go to Upington. For supplies, understand? Had enough money for the stuff I needed to buy, a hamburger and a Coke. Worked it out nicely. The supplies weren’t the problem. It was the hamburger. The price had gone up since last I was in town. And they don’t sell half hamburgers. So I stood there at the counter and counted my money. They offered a toasted cheese, but I wanted a hamburger.”  Suddenly angry, he bangs a fist on the counter, apologising immediately.

“Damn it! After working so hard, a man should have a hamburger! No, they said, no hamburger. I didn’t have enough money. So I stormed out, see. Ashamed and angry. And I drove off. That’s when I saw the Oasis Casino. And the sign said they had a jackpot. A million Rand!” He drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Imagine what I could do with that? A deeper borehole, a new dam, and as many hamburgers as I like! So I turned in there and went in.”

By now, even Vrede is listening.

“I stood in a queue for that machine. Everybody was losing their money – everybody. And I thought that was a good thing, because they were increasing my chances. Eventually, the chap in front of me said something ugly as the machine swallowed his last coins and left. It was my turn. I had nineteen Rand. Pulled that lever eighteen times, I did. Nothing. Then I put in my last coin. Pulled the lever. And four sevens lined themselves up neatly on the line.

“I jumped up and shouted hallelujah! And then the power went off. The whole place was dark. Later they said it was load shedding. When the generator kicked in, all the machines rebooted. No more four sevens.

“I made a hell of a fuss. The floor manager said there was nothing he could do. If it wasn’t on the machine, I had no proof. I shouted at him. Told him he was a nasty man. And they tried to throw me out. Just like that. Disturbing the peace, they said. Unruly behaviour. They called the cops when I refused to go.

“Didn’t have a choice, did I? Had to leave in a hurry, or spend the night in jail. So I raced back to the farm. I don’t know how I got there, I was so angry. And I looked at the electricity pole next to the barn. It was them! The electricity people. Escom! They cheated me out of a fortune. I walked over to that pole and kicked it. Almost broke my foot, but the pole didn’t feel a thing. So I told the pole I’d show him and fetched and axe.”

“And burnt down your farm?”

“No.” The man drooped even more. “When I looked for the axe, I had to hobble over to the shed, where we kept the firewood. That’s when I saw them.”

“Them?” The group at the counter chorussed.

“Ja. Japie Verster, my neighbour. Him and Tess. In the shed. My blood was still up, understand? What were they doing in there? I stormed at him and whacked him a solid blow to the jaw. Tess screamed at me, but I paid her no heed. Whacked him some more until Tess bopped me one with the spade. Right over here.” He parted his hair at the back of the skull, where an impressive lump was visible.

“Tess was still shouting at me, but Japie took off like lightning towards the barn. I followed. There was lucerne – bales and bales of it – stacked in the barn. I knew he was hiding somewhere.” Gertjie swallows hard. “So I started looking, but it was dark in the barn. Lit the lamp and looked some more. Put the lamp on a bale and told him to come out and fight like a man.”

“Was he there?”

“I don’t know. I was dancing around, showing him that I know something about boxing. I was practicing my uppercut when I bumped the lamp from the bale. Tess stormed in, got on the tractor and drove off while I was trying to put out the flames.” A soft sob. “Rover – my dog – went with her.”

***

Gertruida says Life works like that. A simple thing – like the price of a hamburger – could be the start of a series of unforeseen events that is totally out of proportion to the initial issue. She calls it the Inevitability Syndrome.

“It happens everywhere, guys. Something seemingly insignificant crosses your path and you decide: ‘Mmm…maybe it’s not a bad idea‘. And you make a choice, only to find that it leads to another decision and another decision…and another decision. And every time you decide, it leads you deeper into trouble. And then, when you wake up at last, you can’t get out of it any longer. You are stuck with the result of a series of bad decisions and now you’ll have to live with the consequences.

“This happens to all of us – even with friends and with family. Decisions determine the way we see people – it tells us who they are – and sometimes that’s the key that locks a door forever. Not avoidable…inevitable. “

Boggel says that is true. Gertjie burnt his farm down because he wanted a hamburger. And he never bothered to ask Tess why she and Japie were in the shed when he got home. How was he to know that Japie, too, needed and ax after his one snapped its handle that fateful morning?

But, Kleinpiet says, that’s nothing. Gertjie’s insurance will pay out. Tess might want to return with Rover if Gertjie plays his cards right. But…our president? Did he consider carefully what his friendship with Eastern businessmen would lead to? Or that the architect’s suggestion of golden taps in Nkandla would cost him the respect of the country in the end?

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, Gertruida says, and it would have been nice if the Inevitability Syndrome postponed the lasting consequences of bad decisions until after death. It doesn’t. The skeletons of some burnt barns – and bridges – are just too visible to ignore…

Will the Honourable Cockroach please step forward?

Julius-Malema1“Politicians are a really crazy bunch of people. Imagine calling somebody a cockroach?” Precilla pulls a face, disgusted at the thought.

“Oh, I don’t know…” Obtuse as always, Gertruida jumps at the chance to differ. “Cockroaches have been around since forever, and they still will be – according to some – long after humanity finally manages to be stupid enough to start pushing little red buttons on firing consoles. They’re very resilient – able to withstand freezing, submerging and the lack of oxygen. While most people think of them as pests, one has to admire the way they survive under even the most inhospitable conditions.”

“You just love arguing, Gertruida.” Servaas bunches his bushy brows together in protest. “You don’t call anybody a cockroach in Africa. The Hutus did so with the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide in ’94; completely dehumanising them. No, let’s face it: a cockroach is a pest, an unwanted, despicable insect nobody likes having in their homes. By comparing poor mister Malema to such a creature, is an insult.”

Boggel suppresses a snigger while he serves another round of beers. Poor mister Malema, indeed!  Servaas has been an outspoken critic of the EFF in previous weeks, but since they kept on insisting that the president must pay back the money,  Servaas has toned down his disapproval. He says a man must use what’s available. If you don’t have the right spanner, a monkey wrench will just have to do. It’s a variant of the old adage about my enemy’s enemy…

“Ag, drop the pose, Servaas!” Gertruida sees how the old man’s jaw sets and hurries to defuse the situation. “You’re right, although cockroaches aren’t just bad. All I’m saying is that it won’t do much harm to take a new look at one of the world’s most common insects. They actually have their place in folklore and literature.”

“You telling me somebody was deranged enough to write a story about a cockroach?” Precilla shivers at the thought.

150px-Metamorphosis“Well, many authors did. Maybe the story of Gregor Samsa by Franz Kafka is the most notable. In Metamorphosis, the travelling salesman is transformed into a giant, cockroach-like creature. He withdraws to his room after being paralysed by his father throwing an apple at him – and dies there eventually. It’s a poignant, sensitive, moving novella about acceptance and rejection – and what it means to be a family. It is, arguably, one of Kafka’s greatest works.

220px-TheRevoltOfTheCockroachPeople“More to the point, Revolt of the Cockroach People is a book about the downtrodden minorities in America in the previous century. Acosta’s protagonist, Buffalo Zeta Brown, rises in protest against an unfair society, even when he knows that he has no chance to win the battle against the laws and conditions of the time. Still, the book speaks of survival despite overwhelming odds.”

Precilla studies her shoes – she has no desire to hear how wonderful cockroaches are. They’re creepy, they’re horrible and they’re pests.

“Moreover,” Gertruida isn’t finished yet, “they have medicinal uses.”

Precilla’s face gets a green tinge as Gertruida continues with a smile.

“In olden days they treated diseases with cockroach tea – did you know that? Killed them, boiled them up, and added a bit of honey for flavour. And in northern China they extracted molecules from cockroaches that can be used to cure heart and liver diseases. Apparently those substances are great for treating burns and other wounds as well.”

wall-e3“Look, nobody’s going to give me a cockroach pill when my liver packs up.” Vetfaan runs his calloused hand over his tummy. “But I did enjoy the cockroach in Wall-E. A real little hero, that one. I remember he was called Hal, after the producer, Hal Roach. Har! Now there’s a movie I enjoyed; not the drivel the modern artists turn out.”

“Well, Madonna made a famous statement.” Oudoom almost bites his tongue – he doesn’t want the group at the bar to know about his secret fascination with the wild personality. Still, her quote is apt under the circumstances. “I am a survivor. I am like a cockroach, you just can’t get rid of me – her words, not mine. I think it implies a certain determination to ignore criticism.”

“Our clergyman have emerged from his dark and humid cupboard, guys!” Kleinpiet high-fives the reluctant reverend. “Like Gregor Samsa, he has to show his true colours!”

“Leave Oudoom be, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida’s scowl is enough to make his sit down again. “Do you know who the first mother in space was? Of course not. She was Nadezhda the cockroach, who mothered 33 babies in space. In Russian, her name means ‘Hope’ and she was returned to earth successfully with her offspring.”

When Gertruida falls silent (at last!), the group at the counter settles down in deep thought. As usual, Gertruida surprised them with her vast knowledge. Servaas says Gertruida should write a letter to Malema, explaining that being called a ‘cockroach’ is actually a compliment, but Vetfaan disagrees. He reckons the political waters in the country is muddled enough after the president jumbled up our history into an unrecognisable piece of fiction, forgetting the Xhosa-Zulu struggle completely and omitting the atrocities of Mzilikazi.

No, Vetfaan thinks as he watches a flat, black insect scurry across the floor, being called names isn’t the problem in the country. Maybe some of our public figures are comparable to the insect family regarding the degree of collective intelligence, but they differ considerably in the amount of legs possessed and the habit of self destruction. Some, however, are better at scavenging and – admittedly  –  live in the cracks only found in the convoluted world of politics.

He considers the trembling antennae of the insect before it disappears behind the counter. Cockroaches? He smiles. No, we won’t get rid of them…

The Crows Are Here.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com“Crows,” Gertruida said as they listened to the squawking outside, “are most intelligent. They can manufacture and use tools, but they prefer living in areas where they can feed on refuse and garbage and food they didn’t have to work for. Most of them gang together in groups and scavenge for a living.”

“I don’t like crows,” Precilla wrinkles her nose. “On Kleinpiet’s farm they have taken to catching tortoises. They spy a small one, and they’ll grab it with their claws and lift it high above the ground. Then they’ll look for a suitable rock and dash it to death – and then feed on the corpse. They always target the weak and defenceless. Quite disgusting. Maybe that’s why the collective term for these birds is a murder of crows…”

“Ah yes…and there’s a story the Bushmen tell,” Gertruida rejoins, “about the way crows are the messengers of disaster – especially to the unjust and the proud…”

 ***

Long ago, after !Kaggen caused mankind to step from the tree, there was peace on earth. There were no conflicts, no war, no bloodshed. As mankind multiplied, they spread out over the land so that every family had enough space to hunt freely. After the first rain of summer, the families would get together to tell the others what had happened during the last year.

Oh, these gatherings were joyous affairs, with lots of eating, dancing and talking. Such was the excitement, that they sang a new song every year – a song dedicated to their happiness and love for each other, for life and for nature. 

One year, the Biggest Family sang their own song:

                                                             We have multiplied, we are blessed                                                                                                         We are wonderful, we are the best.

The Other Families listened to the song, and an Old One stood up and said it wasn’t the way they did things. Nobody is better than anybody else, for did !Kaggen not create them all equal? Why would the Biggest Family want to be better than the rest? It’s not done, he said, sitting down sadly.

But lo! The Biggest Family then became exceedingly angry and beset themselves onto the others, The fight was short and bloody. When the sun set that day, only a few of the Smaller Families were left. They had fled from the wrath of the Biggest Family, hiding high up in the mountains. There they gathered once more, but not with either joy or excitement. Now their meeting was one of fear – even loathing – for they had seen what the Biggest Family had done to their kin.

Some of the younger men suggested an ambush while others wanted to attack them at night – but the Old One held up a hand and said they were too weak to attempt such a folly.

“No,” he said, “that won’t do. We must not do something we’d be ashamed of. Look, we know there are too many of them. And, my children, killing your enemies will only result in more killings. Does the tree not put out many shoots once lightning has struck it down? We, my children, must wait.”

The Young Ones respected the Old One’s words, but still couldn’t refrain from asking him what they must wait for.

“The crows, my children. We’ll wait for the crows.”

And the Young Ones became much frightened, for they thought the crows were the spirits of the dead – they weren’t like the other birds at all. A trembling young voice asked again, and was answered by the Old One.

“Mankind is as the sand of the desert. The wind blows it here, the wind blows it there. But…the wind can not blow the sand away, no matter how hard it tries. See the dunes out there? It’s sand. It’s the same sand I saw when I was young. It doesn’t go away.”

The Young Ones listened patiently. It would have been rude to interrupt.

“We are a people, as are the others. All people form a dune, that the wind blows this way and the wind blows that way. But no matter how hard the wind blows, the dune will still be here tomorrow and the days after that.

“And, my children, our actions are as the sand of the desert as well. Like us, our actions gather, become more, and create dunes around us. The wind may blow it here, the wind may blow it there, but the dunes will be here tomorrow and the days after that.”

The Young Ones finally understood the wise words. A done deed cannot be undone. It is added to the dunes forming around us and can never be blown away, no matter how hard the wind tries to do so,

“And the crows, Old One?” A small boy at the back wanted to know more.

“Ah, the crows. Some believe them to be the spirits of those departed. But no, my children. Those black birds are more than that – they are shamed beings, but also messengers, prophets, scavengers of the future. Let me tell you about crows…”

When the world gathered her horizons around her and the wind was born, the wild animals were given tasks. Lion was to be king, dove was  a peacemaker and oryx the judge. There were animals which dug the earth, which cleaned the veld and which kept the rivers clean. But crow? He was lazy and not fond of work. He flew away when the tasks were given and hid in the night.This, the other animals said,was wrong. Crow was then given a black coat and sent away in shame.

Now, the crow couldn’t return to the other animals. It became angry and began hunting the weak and the vulnerable. It had become a scavenger of left-overs.

“But why would the crows want to go to the Biggest Family?”

IMG_2828“The dunes of the actions of that family contains much shame,” the Old One said. “The crows would feed on that. The Bigger Family will think the crows have come to eat away their shame and wrongs, and then – relieved of that burden – they will do even bigger wrongs. The crows will eat and eat and the wrongs will become more and more. The wind will blow the dunes this way, the wind will blow the dunes that way – but they’ll just keep on growing and becoming bigger.”

“And then, Old One?”

“The dunes will become too big to remain where they are. The sand will start trickling down their slopes. The bad the Bigger Family had done, will run down the slope and cover them, suffocating them in their own wrongdoing.”

And the leftover families listened to the Old One and waited for the crows.

***

“That’s a crazy story, Gertruida. Crows and sand dunes and wind…? These old stories are fun to listen to, but sadly – their meanings have been lost in time,”

“Not so, Vetfaan.” Gertruida wags a knowing finger in the air. “The government is of the opinion that their actions are condoned by the masses on the dunes around them. They are feeding the crows, my friend…”

For those who can’t follow the Afrikaans words:

I know an age-old song
about life’s joys and woes;
about shipwrecks long forgotten
to the cellars of the sea.

The words are lost forever
but still, the tune remains —
like a vaguely recalled image
from a very old folk tale.

Visions, dreams, and names,
have been scattered by the wind
and where all the words went
only a child could see.

Nomads, with no direction;
Seekers that won’t find…
In the end, we are all just
children of the wind.

The Half-eyed Girl and the President.

Twitch-Inside-Image-1Klaas Vermaak and his wife, Sophia, had only one child, born in the year Armstrong stepped out on the lunar surface: the strange and almost sightless waif called (quite inappropriately) Hope. Gertruida said her problems were due to the Uranium people later found underneath their farm, but more popular opinion had it that she carried the heavy burden of her grandfather’s sins, who had been a minister in D F Malan’s cabinet. In the end it didn’t really matter who or what got blamed, it was poor Hope that suffered.

Except that she was exceedingly thin and remarkably pale, her most obvious abnormality was the curious way her pupils had formed. Like upside-down half-moons, only the lower parts of the pupils were black, indicating that only those bits of the lenses allowed light to be focussed on the retinas. This, as one can understand, allowed Hope only to see the few metres on the ground in front of her. If she really wanted to see ahead, she had to tilt her head completely back to squint past her pert nose and over her pale upper lip. Despite this, her partial sight allowed her to get by without a white cane or a friendly Labrador as guide.

Sometime in her infancy, her desperate  parents took her to a clergyman to pray for her – after visits to the country’s top specialists advised against surgery. The religious healer prayed long and with passion…but when they went home, her eyes remained just the same.

Resigned to her fate, little Hope lived with her parents in sad isolation. She had no friends, didn’t go to school, and never had a birthday party or a sleepover. Hope took to reading after her mother taught her the basics of the alphabet. This, she found, was something she could do relatively normally, with her head up high and the book held tight against her chest. Not really being able to help her father on the farm or her mother in the kitchen, both parents were overjoyed that their daughter started devouring books to pass the time. In the beginning that involved the two books in the house: the Bible and a collection of hymns. Realising the need for more, Klaas Vermaak started buying books at bazaars, auctions, the second-hand book store in Upington and whenever the library sold off its old, dilapidated stock. The result: Hope knew almost everything about everything there was to read about by the time she was twelve. She could quote Tolstoy, the Bible and Fitzgerald with consummate ease although she found the work of Stephen Hawking rather challenging.

Around the time she turned sixteen, her fame as a very knowledgeable person  had spread through the district. She was, as Gertruida puts it, the first human Google. Whenever a child wanted to score extremely well in a school project, all they  had to do was to get in the car and drive over to Klaas Vermaak’s farm. There, within an hour or two, the project was completed with so much information that an extra exercise book was usually necessary.

Hope, however, found these visits boring and frustrating. People didn’t come to visit her – they were only interested in what she could do for them. Still, it was better than spending the days alone – especially after she had found a new interest in the process: shoes!

Shoes fascinated her . As she could not see the faces of her visitors, it was quite natural for her to study the footwear of those in her company, Soon, she associated specific shoes with specific people, and created a type of catalogue of shoe-people in her mind. She read a lot in the scuff marks (walking in the veld, playing games at school, roughing it up with other boys), shiny shoes (diligent student, strict parents, poor family) and raised shoes (spinal abnormalities and low self-esteem). Gym shoes, church shoes, high heels, platforms, sandals, boots, pumps – all these spoke to her, telling her about the personality and habits of the wearer outside the confines of her tiny room.

It became a game, a pleasurable intellectual exercise, to guess these things, making her look forward to the next hopeful who awaited her encyclopaedic  explanation of lesser-known facts. This was her personal, private form of amusement; something she didn’t share with her parents.

Klaas Vermaak was a staunch Nationalist, whose family helped bring about the Apartheid regime in 1948. As a elder in the church and a member of the Day of the Vow committee, he upheld the policies of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha – whose photographs were displayed prominently in the lounge of their home. When the finger wagging, lip-licking Botha and his entourage paid a visit to the electoral constituency of Upington, the Vermaaks were chosen to show the president the way the farmers eked out a living from the dry Kalahari soil.

Sophia – as can be expected – panicked. A president in her humble home? Here? Yes, Klaas assured her, PW  was on his way and they’d better make sure he left with a favourable impression. It’d only be a short visit, her husband declared, just for tea. The president, she ought to know, was a busy man.

The house was cleaned. A cake baked. Cups and saucers were borrowed, the silver spoons (a heirloom, reputedly brought over by an ancestor from Europe, never used in living memory) polished, and Ouma Vermaak’s doilies arranged just right in front of the best chair in anticipation of the visit. Klaas’s church suit was pressed. Sophia carefully stitched the loose bit of lace back to the bust of her wedding dress. The president was coming and they’d look their best.

Botha surprised them by arriving in khaki. To identify with the farmers, see? Short-sleeved and immaculately ironed slacks, the important man smiled his tight political smile when the Vermaaks greeted him at the door in their best attire. Sophia introduced their daughter, who stared straight ahead and thus was able to grasp the outstretched hand of the president with the first try.

The cake was superb. Botha complimented the tea set, admiring the spoons. The president chatted amicably about the conditions in the Kalahari. He told the family that he, too, was a simple man working under difficult conditions. Like them, he was a humble Afrikaner who feared God and followed biblical directives. They shouldn’t think that he, as president, occupied the highest seat in the country because of fame or money, Botha said, not at all. He simply did what was best for everybody, keeping the communists out and ensuring stability in the country.

“Not true,” Hope whispered in the silence that followed Botha’s monologue. Her parents were horrified, the president kept on smiling, and she repeated the two words.

berluti

Berluti: Verona Leather Oxford Shoes £1,400

Klaas then quickly ushered the president outside to show him the sheep and the tractor he had cleaned up for the occasion, telling the big man that his daughter had…certain…health problems. The president understood, yes? Botha nodded, smiling still.

But, banned to her room, Hope wiped a tear from her half moon eye. She was right, she knew it! The shoes, that’s what gave the president away. Berluti shoes. The most expensive shoes in the world. No true Afrikaner would wear those on a farm, even if he could afford them.

The president was a fake. His smile was fake. And his compliments were fake.

***

Jacob-Zuma-dancingGertruida says Hope was sent away after that – to Worcester, where they had a school for partially sighted children. There she eventually consulted a new eye surgeon, who corrected the defect in her eyes with the most modern equipment. At the age of 25, she finally was able to see properly; but she still looked at shoes whenever she met somebody, playing her shoe-game in her mind.

She says her vote will go to any candidate with scuffed, well-worn shoes; a hard-working, honest man whose shoes tell of commitment and trust. Of course, this isn’t going to happen in the near future, but she lives up to her name in quiet desperation. Until then, she prefers to look at the world like she did before: only a few metres in front of her feet. The view, she says, is much less disturbing.

Hennie Kirstein’s Well

Credit: radionz.co.nz

Credit: radionz.co.nz

They still talk about Hennie Kirstein. About him and the girl and the way he disappeared.

Not often, though – simply because the story has so many endings and nobody is quite sure what had happened after the honeymoon. Some (like old Servaas) are convinced that leaving Hennie’s farm caused a fast exit in the Vertical Elevator; but others (like Precilla) believe differently. The ensuing argument usually ends in an icy silence in Boggel’s Place, something that the patrons prefer to avoid. Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t think about the handsome young man they used to envy.

Hennie, you see, had the midas touch, although it came to him by accident. He started with his small flock of sheep on the farm nobody wanted, It was haunted, they said, after Oom Ferreira fell down the well he was digging. He drowned in the middle of the driest, most desolate and isolated part of the Kalahari. Hard to believe? Maybe. But that’s what happened.

At the auction afterwards, only Hennie rocked up and bought the farm for a pittance. He had just enough money left to buy a few sheep and settled down to wait for the next lambing season. The farmers in the area predicted failure, but there must have been something in that water of the well that affected his sheep. No ewe had a single lamb. After the first season Hennie went to Upington to change the farm’s name from Alles Verloren to Tweeling. 

At the end of his second year on the farm, Hennie imported a  ram and a couple of ewes – prime stock everybody said would break him financially. Not so. Within the next two years he was able to host auctions that made his neighbours swallow their words. Hennie was on his way to becoming the richest farmer in the Northern Cape.

Everybody agrees that Hennie should have stuck to farming: then the outcome might have been a happy one. However, Hennie noticed a strange phenomenon, long before it became the subject of so much speculation. He naturally considered the fact that his prize ram – now valued at many times the original cost – would eventually cease to be the magnificent fertile animal it used to be. (This is true for humans, as well). At the age of four, the ram had it’s full set of teeth (four pairs of incisors, neatly stacked close to each other) and Hennie expected the decline to become evident as soon as the teeth started chipping and falling out – which should have happened in the next four years or so. That, he decided, would be the time to sell the ram.

But it didn’t happen. His ram – affectionately called Pumper – not only kept his teeth, but he also continued with unabated enthusiasm to do what he did best. The ewes of the flock seemed to adore the ram, bleating sadly around the sturdy pen Hennie had built to protect Pumper from being overwhelmed by the anxious mothers-to-be. At the age of 11, when even the strongest rams pack up to depart to the pasture-in-the-sky, Pumper was still fathering twins in most of his amorous relationships. (Which Hennie applauded as a work of art. He often boasted that his ram was a master seducer, even to the point of baa-ing softly to his conquests after the act – like a real gentleman should.)

Hennie wondered about his ram a lot. His virility, his fertility, his refusal to grow weary and old…and then he thought about old Oom Ferreira’s well. And then it dawned on him…

It happened when he attended the yearly auction in the eighth year of his farm. Not given to frequent visits to Rolbos or Upington, Hennie lived quietly on Tweeling and rarely saw the other farmers of the district. That year, as he stood listening to the auctioneer’s rattle driving the prices sky high, he looked at the other farmers. Stared intently. And went inside to look at the mirror above the washbasin. And gasped.

The other farmers were getting older, with wrinkles and bald heads and liver spots. He, on the other hand, looked like he had just come out of school. His beard was still fuzzy, his skin as smooth as the day he fantasized about the pigtailed girl in Standard 8, and his stomach as flat as it was when he played wing for the first team. In short – he wasn’t showing the signs of aging the other farmers endured so stoically.

It had to be the water from the well. What else? By the twelfth year his observations were more acute than ever. Pumper was in his prime. And yes, he, Hennie, was still as handsome and as young as ever. His neighbours, sadly, were getting about with replaced hips, used canes to lean on and had servants bring chairs to the auctions. His well – where Oom Ferreira drowned – was the source of….everlasting youth? Could it be?

But, since the well only provided enough water for him and the sheep, Hennie kept quiet and watched his bank balance grow,

This, as every handsome and wealthy bachelor knows, is a very bad thing. There is no stronger aphrodisiac to a would-be spinster than the number of zeroes on the little piece of paper the bank sends out every month to such rare gentlemen. Hennie later considered Pumper to be lucky to be kept safe in his sturdy pen – he, Hennie, didn’t have  that privilege. The buxom ladies came a-calling in droves and he had to be rude at times to get rid of them.

Until Bessie Cronje rocked up. She was different. Shy, demure, pretty, only slightly curvy and the greenest eyes you ever saw. What tipped the scales in her favour? Who knows? Gertruida reckons it was because Bessie wasn’t interested in money – she had inherited the Cronje millions; money made by printing T-shirts for the various political parties in South Africa. (No self-respecting political gathering is complete without T-shirt handouts and free food) Anyway, Bessie arrived in her Bentley, dressed in jeans and a high-necked blouse, and told him she wanted to settle down, make her husband happy and generally be a pleasure to have around.

So, her approach was unpretentious, honest and very, very effective. Hennie fell for her faster than Oom Ferreira descended down his well. The two of them were married by Oudoom in a very private ceremony on the farm, attended by Gertruida and Precilla as bridesmaids and witnesses. Gertruida, who never lies, says that Hennie looked more handsome than ever on that day.

It was the postcard that set the tongues wagging. Taken on the beach in Mauritius, it shows the honeymoon couple tanning happily, each with a tall glass festooned by a little umbrella. If you looked closely, you’d see a little worried smile on Bessies lips. And Hennie? Why is his brow furrowed so deeply, his hair suddenly tinged with grey?

“I tell you, that man needed his farm’s water. Stopping drinking it caused his body to age at a rapid rate. Mother Nature had been tricked for a while, but as soon as he stopped drinking from that well, the years took their revenge. I’m sure he never made it back – probably ended up in a geriatric institution somewhere.” Servaas runs a tired hand over his withered face. “You can’t fool Time, my friends.”

“Ag no, Servaas. I’m sure Bessie had twins and they settled somewhere peacefully. Why stay in the Kalahari if you can lounge around in luxury somewhere? Yep, settled down and lived happily ever after, that’s what happened.” Ever the romantic optimist, Precilla’s emphatic statement sounds a bit desperate even to herself.

Hennie’s farm is still out there, lost in the arid landscape of the vast Kalahari. The flock had been sold, except for the ram which disappeared mysteriously on the day before the sale. Kleinpiet says that, on some full moon nights, you can hear the bleating of a young ram near that well – and that usually makes his listeners laugh.

Not happy laughter, mind you – more like the impolite grunts people make upon hearing a bad joke. Just like we do when the president tells us that the ANC will rule until Jesus returns. One thing is sure, however: Uncle Zumzum would like to know about that well – he’s certainly aging too fast to still be around when that happens.

The Extinct Instinct of Trust

1280px-Oryx_gazella_male_8054The Kalahari is big.

Huge.

Massive.

And – mostly – empty.

Here you can listen to the wind rustling the dry grass in the wee small hours after midnight, or hear the forlorn, far-off cry of a jackal before dawn. You can drive around for days without seeing a single other human being. And you can hold your cellphone up as high as you like – there simply isn’t any way you’d pick up a signal.

One may be excused for thinking this is a place forgotten by man and God alike, a place shunned by civilisation and society where life – as most people practice it – is impossible.

But that’s not true. Stunted plants have worked out ways to suck water from deep underground and even from the air. Animals can go days without water. And frogs hibernate for impossible lengths of time, waiting for some rain to form a puddle nearby. Somehow. Mother Nature has found ways to celebrate life in one of the most inhospitable places on the globe.

Although isolated and – to the inexperienced eye – lifeless, the Kalahari remains one of the very rare places where one can escape the madness we call civilisation. Here you head for the shade of a camelthorn tree, pick up the broken twigs and branches (carefully avoiding the vicious thorns) and build a small fire. Be careful where you pitch the tent – the ecosystem under the tree supports snakes, scorpions and rodents. Respect them, and they’ll leave you alone.

images (9)And it is here, under the spreading branches of a lonely Acacia erioloba that Vetfaan sits down to contemplate Life, Love and The Future. He had to escape the hubbub in Boggel’s Place for a while – the talk about the recent insanity in parliament, the attacks by ISIS and the shootings in Paris and Copenhagen was just too depressing to endure any longer. The pictures in The Upington Post of the hardships in Eastern Europe and the dismal performance of Escom didn’t help to lighten his mood, either.

It is not unusual for Vetfaan to escape like this. Ever since the time he served as a soldier during the Border War in the Caprivi, he has experienced – from time to time – the need to be alone. It’s as if a fog slowly builds up around him, fed by the ever-prevailing diet of bad news and political mayhem, until it becomes imperative to isolate himself from it all. And then, it is only the silence of the great Kalahari that can peel away the layers of accumulated psychological harm – layer by layer – until his mind frees itself from the shackles of despair.

On the second morning next to his fire, a movement on the horizon draws his attention. He has to squint in the harsh glare of sunlight to make out a lone Gemsbok slowly making his way towards him. It is a magnificent animal with long horns. white-socked legs and a flowing, black tail whisked this way and that by the soft breeze.

Credit: wikipedia

Credit: wikipedia

Vetfaan knows this animal should be called an Oryx, and not a Gemsbok at all. The old German term of Gemse referred to the chamois, a much smaller antelope of Europe occurring in mountainous areas. Labeling the regal Gemsbok with the name of a mere mountain goat – probably due to the facial pattern and the straightish horns – was as appropriate as the naming of the tree Vetfaan is sitting under. Camel thorn doesn’t refer to camels at all. The discarded Latin name – Acacia giraffe – was much more accurate; but to the original Dutch explorers a giraffe was a ‘camel horse’ (kameelperd) – hence the common name.

When the antelope draws nearer, Vetfaan notices the deep wounds on his flanks. Lion! This Gemsbok must have beaten off a predator with his sabre-like horns; however, he didn’t escape unscathed. Now he can see it is limping as well – a signal to the carnivores of the desert that are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

Vetfaan gets up slowly to fill a basin with water from the container on the back of his pickup and places it in an area of dense shade, as far away as possible from his chair. The Gemsbok will smell the water, but also the fire – will it be brave enough to drink? Not wanting to scare away the injured animal, Vetfaan settles down to stare at his boots. Eye contact could imply a challenge, and that might spell out death if the antelope chooses to shy away from help.

IMG_9085 camel thorn acaciaHow long did he sit there? Time has no meaning out here except for the contrast between day and night. It could have been hours – or maybe just minutes – before soft crunching makes him look up. The Gemsbok is there, barely three metres away, eating some of the camel thorn pods. This is a good sign – those pods represent one of the most nutritious sources of food in the desert.

“There’s water,” Vetfaan whispers.

The Gemsbok’s head comes up sharply to stare at him. The wounds on his flank are still fresh and obviously cause a lot of pain. The eyes are tired, exhausted, sad.

“It’s okay.” Keeping his voice low and reassuring, Vetfaan doesn’t move. “Go on.”

And so a strange bond is formed. The wild Gemsbok and the disturbed man share the shady area beneath the canopy of the tree in silence that is only broken by the crunching of pods and the slurping of water. Perhaps the Gemsbok is just too tired to care any more, or maybe it understands – instinctively – that Vetfaan has seen enough suffering and death to abhor the very thought of it. Or, possibly, the animal knows that this fire, this man, represent the lesser of the evils that threaten him right now.

During the day, Vetfaan moves around quietly, deliberately avoiding scaring the Gemsbok off. Later, when the sun starts approaching the horizon, the Gemsbok lies down behind the trunk of the tree, resting its magnificent head on the ground. Vetfaan has never seen a Gemsbok sleep before and wishes he had a camera in his kit.

The next morning, the big antelope is up before Vetfaan peeks out of his tent. The wounds seem better and are no longer oozing blood.

“You better today?”

The Gemsbok snorts, pawing the ground softly with his hoof.

Then, after locking eyes with Vetfaan for a long moment, it turns and trots off across the sand.

***

When Vetfaan returns to Rolbos, he doesn’t tell the patrons in the bar about his experience. He does, however, tell them that life is precious, love is rare, and that the madness we call civilisation is a fallacy.

“There are predators all around us, guys. Carnivores waiting to pounce. And you know what? If we don’t take a chance here and there by trusting others, we might as well lay down and die. What do we learn from the media? Hell, man, they keep on telling us what a terrible state this world is in. Look at the papers: murder, rape, war, corruption. Even our parliament is a fine example of bloody conflict.

“The media, my friends, make a living by broadcasting distrust. The news tells us that we are threatened from all sides and implies that nobody can be trusted – everybody is out to disrupt peace. Drive with your doors locked. Don’t talk to strangers. Put up burglar bars. Get a safety door. Don’t walk alone after dark. Check your bank statement. Get a new president.

“What’s the message? And what are we telling our subconscious mind on a 24/7 basis? And then we insist on being surprised that the world is in such a disarray?”

He leaves the bar deep in thought. Space. That may be the secret of the Kalahari. Out there, there are no newspapers, no television channels, no overcrowding and no crime. In the Kalahari you have to depend on your instincts and trust your judgement. That, he decides, is only possible when you cut out the noise and the clutter and allow silence to show you the way.

That’s why, he realises, that Gemsbok had more insight than most humans do. He was brave enough to trust.

The Fable of the Curse of the Riverine Rabbit

Riverine Rabbit. Note the innocent-looking face the permanent smile and the beguiling eyes.

Riverine Rabbit. Note the innocent-looking face the permanent smile and the beguiling eyes.

Gertruida has a way of telling stories that seem completely irrelevant. But then again, if you know Gertruida, you realise that her stories are rather convoluted tales that – although old and originating in a different time – are timeless. They speak about issues that are as relevant today as it might have been when the first Bushman told them to his audience around a fire on a dark and stormy night.

Take, for instance, her fable of the riverine rabbit…

***

Long ago, when the Karoo was an inland lake and the San hunters still respected all forms of life – that is, many centuries before ‘civilisation’ exploded all over Africa and destroyed the paradise  forever – the Riverine Rabbit had dreams. Big dreams. Being clever and more nimble than all the other animals, the rabbit decided to proclaim itself as king over the land it roamed. 

Of course, a king had to have a castle. Not any old castle, mind you – a castle that would proclaim its importance. It had to be the most impressive dwelling of all, there for the rest to see and to be envious about. Of course, no rabbit can build such a magnificent mansion on its own, so the rabbit spent many days thinking about how to manage this impossible task.

One sunny day, when all the animals gathered at the watering hole, the rabbit climbed onto a big rock. 

“If you make me your king,” he shouted, “I shall see to it that you all have houses. You simply can’t go on living in the wild – it just won’t do. So I promise to build homes for all of you, where you can shelter from the cold wind in winter and the hot sun in summer.” He hesitated a moment, allowing the words to sink in. “Now, what do you say?”

The animals found this exceedingly strange and sat down to whisper amongst themselves. 

Klipspringer

Klipspringer

“A house?” The hyena scratched the itchy spot behind his left ear. “I’ve never had one. It would be nice, I think.”

“Ah, yes, a home.” The  impala eyed the lion suspiciously. “I can do with some protection.”

“I’d love a shelter,” the shy klipspringer murmured. “I hate being so exposed in the veld all the time. It makes me feel so…vulnerable.”

“Well, then,” the rabbit said, “we must all work together. As your king, I command you to collect all the things we’d need. Grass for the thatch, logs and rocks for the walls. Warthog can begin scooping away some earth, so we may have a dam. And elephant can start uprooting some trees to clear away an area in which we can build. The Hawks will provide security and lion can guard our materials.

“As your king, I shall not be working with you. I have much more important things to do.” He laughed softly. “Kings, as you will find out, are master organisers, not workers.”

The animals slaved themselves to a standstill for their king. They carried rocks, dragged logs, gathered bundles of grass. These they brought to the open space the elephants created, next to the new big hole warthog had made for the dam.

“Now the fence,” rabbit ordered, explaining that the new housing project needed to be secure at all times. Rhino and elephant then constructed a high fence, using branches torn from thorn trees. When the last branch was placed, all the animals were inside the enclosure. Following the orders given by rabbit – who was lounging stately in the shade – the construction of the mansion was started.

The animals were all excited by the project. The huge mansion had many rooms, and places to play and eat and have fun. They all agreed that they would be very happy in such a wonderful dwelling.

After many months, the building was complete. The animals were very tired at this time, and were relieved when rabbit informed them that they would have a rest for a few days. “We’ll move in after that,” he informed them, “and live here happily ever after. But now I suggest you all go back to your old places, collect all your belongings and return with the full moon.”

The animals obeyed quietly. They had hoped to move in immediately, but if the king issued an order, you obeyed. That is the way of kings, not so?

A very tired elephant lifted a few of the thorny branches to open a gate in the fence, and the animals trudged off to rest in the shade of the trees at the places they had lived before. They waited. And waited. Until the moon was full…

In the bright moonlight on the evening of their return, they stopped at the fence. It was immediately apparent that the fence had been strengthened by tying the branches together with poisonous creepers. Elephant shook his head – no, if he touched that fence, he would die. If any other animal would like to try…? They all shook their heads.

Inside his new house, rabbit laughed and laughed as he watched form a high window. Those animals can be as angry as they like; he, rabbit, had tricked them into building the most wonderful home, ever…!

But then, one day, a storm brewed on the horizon. Not just any old storm – a real bad one, with thunder and lightning like no animal had ever seen before. Knowing that a veldfire was sure to follow the lightning, they all huddled next to a rocky hill, hoping they would escape the wrath of the storm.

They did.

But the veldfire raced across the plains, burning the grass that would have fed them in the season to come and destroying the trees under which they used to shelter from the sun. On and on the wall of flames marched…until it got to the fence around rabbit’s mansion.

And they watched as the fence went up in flames and the rabbit sought shelter in the dam that warthog had dug.

And the animals sighed and went back to their old ways of living, vowing never to trust a king again.

***

“That’s a great story, Gertruida!” Vetfaan pats her on the back. “But what’s the moral?”

“The riverine rabbit, Vetfaan, is one of the most endagered species in the world. Only a few are left. The fable is correct in that these rabbits never stray far from water. The have the most intricate burrows and are the only rabbits that have their young underground, They also…” Gertruida pulls a face, “…have to eat their droppings to get enough Vitamin B – it’s produced in their bowels by bacteria, see?”

“Ugh! Eating your own dung? That’s horrible…”

“Yes, Precilla, it is. The rabbit daren’t roam too far from it’s home to find enough nutrients in the veld. The other animals have not forgiven him at all.”

“Soooo….” Boggel brightens and raises an enquiring eyebrow. “You’re telling us the president is in for a tough time when he delivers his State Of the Nation Address? Is that why you told us about the fable?”

Gertruida flashes a warm smile at her friend.

“O course, Boggel. The veldfire is racing towards Nkandla. We’ll watch that fence burn down soon….”

 

‘Sometimes alone in the evening,I look outside my window
At the shadow in the night
I hear the sound of distant crying, the darkness multiplying
The weary hearts denied

All I feel is my heartbeat
Beating like a drum
Beating with confusion.
All I hear are the voices
Telling me to go,
But I could never run.

Cos’ in my African Dream
There’s a new tommorow
Cos’ in my African Dream
There’s a dream that we can follow’

Songwriters: Alan Lazar, Marilyn Nokwe

A Season of Lies

Credit: BBC

Credit: BBC

“Don’t they have a pension fund in Zimbabwe? That poor guy is nearly 91 and still working for a salary. One would think that, after three decades in the office, they would allow him to enjoy what’s left of his old age.”

“Gee, Vetfaan! You can’t say things like that. Pffft! Old Age? If you were over there, you’d be inside a jail right now. He doesn’t believe in dying, anyway. He once declared he’s stronger than Jesus…”

The picture of the man stumbling down some stairs caused a bit of debate in Boggel’s Place and Servaas was most upset to learn that Zimbabwe still has the same leadership.

“Well, things can be worse. Look at Syria.”

“What? How easily we forget, Vetfaan. The situation with ISIS boils down to a corrupted religious doctrine and a fight between the Sunnis and the Shiites. This fight has roots stretching back to the time after The Prophet’s death, when a dispute developed about who the successor should be. After the Americans and their allies ‘defeated’ Al Qaeda in 2006 in Iraq, Al Qaeda eventually emerged again with religious fervour to reclaim their position as true believers with divine goals.” Gertruida is in her lecture mode again. Nothing will stop her now.

“Anyway, ISIS used to be a part of Al Qaeda, but the relationship got more and more strained as they argued about leadership and control. Eventually, in 2014, they split up. Al Qaeda may have given birth to ISIS, but the infant-organisation soon defied its authority and now exists as a separate entity. Now it’s a bloody game of arm-wrestling: who has the most followers? Who controls the Middle East? And…sadly…who is the most effective terrorist organisation.”

“Like boys having a peeing competition?”

“Yes, Servaas, only at stake are the poor individuals caught in the crossfire. You see, ISIS dreams of an Islamic State that encompasses the Middle East, stretching as far as North Africa – not just Syria and Iraq like the West was led to believe initially when Saddam Hussein – himself a Sunni like the followers of ISIS – caused so much trouble back then. To accomplish this, ISIS needs soldiers, guns and money. So…you either support them, or you die.”

2598715631Vetfaan sighs heavily while he signals for another beer. “Unfortunately, my friends, that recipe is a most successful one. I’m sure there are many precedents for this in history, but remember the way Mugabe killed off the minority Ndebeles in the 80’s? 20,000 died. Then he moved on to the White minority. And you know what? The African Union now has him as president! Talk about the spoils of war! I hear he’s building a mansion in Natal – guess where somebody got the idea for Nkandla?”

“But isn’t this the story of all wars? Minorities and majorities; religious differences and power; greed and brutality…racism and ethnicity?” Kleinpiet doesn’t understand the complex situation in Syria, but he does understand the effects of propaganda. After all, was he not once a fuzzy-faced youth in the army? Were today’s heroes not called terrorists back then? “And once a new leader sits down on a bloodstained throne, he commands the historians to describe him as a saviour. It’s the little people – you and I in the crossfire – who get sacrificed on the steps of the palace.”

Now, everybody who knows Kleinpiet, will be surprised at his eloquent use of metaphors. Usually down to earth and direct, his little speech generates a subdued round of applause.

“There are,” Precilla  says thoughtfully, “striking similarities between the situation in Syria and our northern neighbours. It’s a pity that CNN and BBC insist on publicising the Middle Eastern situation more than the African conflicts. It’s as if the atrocities in Nigeria, Somalia, Zimbabwe and even here aren’t important enough to broadcast to the world.”

“Pride before the fall, my dear. The inseparable Siamese twins. Nobody stays in power forever. No empire has withstood the test of time. Mark my words: ISIS, Mugabe, our own prez…they all will eventually tumble down the palace’s stairs – if not carried out, feet first. You can justify just about anything these days using convoluted logic – but you can’t escape the consequences of your actions. The Middle East may be heading for one of the bloodiest conflicts of all time, and in the end the area will be a wasteland of destruction. The high ideals of the leaders will result in untold misery for the population.”

‘As if they care, Gertruida.”

“Yes, Servaas, that’s true. It’s the story of our country as much as it is elsewhere. In those countries the leaders murder opponents to show the world how great they are. Here, they’ve decapitated our rainbow dream.”

Outside the little bar in Rolbos, the sun beats down mercilessly on the barren ground. It’s a desert out there, where only the most hardy of stunted plants survive. Gertruida once said that’s how truth grows: painfully slowly – but it endures. Lies, on the other hand, grow lush and green – but it only lasts a season.

The Way to Rolbos

I’ll simply have to crook. 300 Words to describe Rolbos? That’s impossible. With a picture worth a thousand words, we’ll just have to go the scenic route…

The road there is a narrow gravel track, immediately telling you that you've left the city with all its pretence and false values behind.

The road there starts as a narrow gravel track, immediately telling you that you’ve left the city with all its pretence and false values behind. Please slow down. Drive with care…

The scenery around Rolbos is - according to some - dull and uninviting. Yet it is here that you'll discover the solitude to find yourself.

The scenery around Rolbos is – according to some – dull and uninviting. Yet it is here that you’ll discover the solitude to find yourself. The truth you seek isn’t found in lectures and books, TV shows and sermons – it is patiently waiting inside you to find it where it’s always been.

The big weaver nests suggest something of the values you'll find here. It's about cooperation, family life and accepting that each inhabitant has a role to play.

Along the way, the big weaver nests suggest something of the values you’ll find here. It’s about cooperation, family life and accepting that each inhabitant has a role to play. These birds work hard to take care of the nests – without having to resort to violence. Look at them carefully: they’re living in harmony, which is more than we can say.

Getting there isn't always easy. Often, people turn back because they are afraid of the challenge.

Getting there isn’t always easy. Often, people turn back because they are afraid of the challenge. Perseverance is the key. Instant gratification – the promise all politicians make – has no place here. Guts, determination and hard work are the key elements required to succeed.

The people around here are used to hardship and make do with what is available. Forget the mall and the large shopping centres, life here doesn't need bling to impress others.

The people around here are used to hardship and make do with what is available. Forget the mall and the large shopping centres.,Life here doesn’t need bling to impress others.

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At last! The small town of Rolbos on the horizon. To get here, you have had to shed pretence in favour of perseverance, exchanged the mad politics of the world for hope, and swapped the cynical smile for a peal of genuine laughter. The way ahead, you realise, is through faith, love and kindness. And somehow you know – with a new certainty – that this is what Rolbos is all about. Welcome! Don’t worry – you won’t find the place crowded. Not many people are brave enough to face the simplicity that is the essence of Rolbos culture.