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Siena’s Legacy

Signal Hill Canon

Signal Hill Canon

“Boom,” Servaas whispers as Boggel places a new beer before him. For once, the bent little barman doesn’t understand. How could he, if he didn’t know about that gun on Signal Hill?

***

1958 is a year most South Africans have forgotten about. Why, after all, remember it? Who cares that the United States agreed to supply  a nuclear reactor and fuel just before the start of that year, or that South Africa severed ties with Russia? Or that the then Prime Minister, J G Strijdom died in August, leaving his widow (and aunt to F W de Klerk) to witness the rise and fall of Apartheid over the next four decades?

But to Servaas, the year stands out as one of the most important of his life. In fact, he can be more specific: he remembers noon of the 14th of December as the pivotal moment. That’s when the canon on Signal Hill boomed, right on time, to announce noon on that Sunday; causing knowing nods from Capetonians and nervous smiles on the faces of visitors.

Servaas Visagie had been watching the ankles of Siena Malan, feeling deliciously sinful and guilty, when the officer lowered his hand and poked his fingers into his ears up on that hill. Siena, it must be said, had the most beautiful legs; something Servaas could only speculate about at that stage. She was dressed in the fashion of the time – long dress revealing the last few inches of leg, buttoned up demurely at the neck, waist taken in to accentuate the thin middle.

images (11)He ran his fingers across the soft fuzz of his attempted moustache, imagining how nice it would be to have a woman like that in his life, and allowed his eyes to travel onwards, downwards to the smooth skin below the hem of the dress. Naturally, due to the many sermons he had to sit through (most of them expressing God’s approval of the policies of the National Party, while the others described the tortures of Hell for the sinners who had ‘unpure‘ thoughts) he was deeply under the impression of the wrong he was doing.

So unpure were the thoughts cruising through his mind in that second, that when the gun went off, he thought – only for a second – that it was the Wrath from Above that was descending to snatch him up (or down?) to the raging fires, where he would join the likes of drunkards, thieves and those who opposed Apartheid. 

It was thus completely involuntary that he let out an extremely un-manlike yelp.

Those days (and maybe even today) men didn’t yelp. They gave orders, talked in clipped sentences and tried to imagine that they were important. Of course, that was before formidable women like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton appeared on the scene to prove, once and for all, that men really don’t understand politics; finally relegating men to concentrate on more important things like corruption and crime. Without such women, South Africa would still have had factories churning out ‘Whites Only‘ signs.

But Servaas, knowing how wrong it was to think what he was thinking, yelped.

One can’t blame the poor young man. He was sitting on the bench, waiting for the bus to take him back to the station, while Siena Malan bent over to inspect the Proteas in the bucket of the flower seller nearby. As the hem of her skirt rode up to reveal the upper part of two shapely calves, Servaas allowed his imagination to run wild. But then the crash of the shot and the yelp of guilt put an end to all that.

She straightened, looked around to see if a puppy or cat had been run over, and finally rested her beautiful eyes on the only other living being nearby. Servaas tried to shrink his athletic frame into mouse-size, didn’t succeed and blushed.

“Are you all right?” He watched in awe as the fire-engine red lips formed the words, found himself unable to speak, and nodded.

“You sure?”

Siena wasn’t fooled. She’d just completed her first year as assistant nurse and knew how embarrassed young men can be about admitting to problems. If this young man – looking rather dashing in his Sunday best – yelped, he must be in pain. And did she not, especially as a result of her intense desire to make a difference in other people’s lives, enrol to become a nurse, so that she may alleviate such suffering?

“I’ve been to church,” he managed. This was not what he wanted to say, but his tongue and his brain seemed to have disconnected. Maybe, even, it was a plea to soften the inevitable stay in Hell. Church-going sinners should get better treatment up (or down?) there, as opposed to those that chose not to listen to those long sermons, shouldn’t they? Seen in that light, his plea in mitigation may have been, after all, the right thing to say.

“Oh? So have I.” To his surprise, she smiled. 

“Waiting for the bus.” He pointed at the Bus Stop sign. “Going to the station.”

“Oh? So am I.”

And so it happened that the two of them became companions on the journey through life. It’s the oldest story ever told: a young man, a girl, a bit of embarrassment, lots of doubts and fears…and a few best intentions laced with enough curiosity and a sprinkling of hormones. Often, such circumstances may combine to have disastrous results – resulting in lawyers driving around in expensive cars – but in Servaas and Siena’s case it was the start of the ultimate dream: a life filled with laughter, tears and hope and disappointment.

They had the best of times – and the worst, too. Yet, whenever times were harsh and problems had to be faced, Siena would remember the yelp. That, and the fact they were saved from being strangers by the boom of a gun. She’d only have to mention these things during such times to remind themselves how fortunate they were.  

***

“Boom. Yelp.” Servaas drains his beer, gets up unsteadily, and aims for the door. He doesn’t protest when Vetfaan gets up to take his arm.

“What’s with him today?” Boggel’s question isn’t aimed at anybody in particular.

“You don’t know?” Gertruida’s smile says something about her satisfaction at knowing everything. “Today is his anniversary. He would have been married for fifty-three years today.”

“Shame, no wonder he’s sad.” Boggel gets the used glass and is about to put it on the tray with some others, when a thought strikes him. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could erase some memories? You know, the really sad ones – like those we loved and lost? Marriages and funerals and things like that. Even the really good ones – the days of laughter and joy: they make us sad because they’re in the past and we can’t get them back.”

“Come on, Boggel! Then we’d be mindless robots!” Gertruida snorts her disgust.

download (1)She’s right, of course, but not everybody knows that. Our country’s history was written by men and women who chose to have selective amnesia. They tend to forget the good times when we all cheered Joel Stransky’s drop goal. They’re in a hurry to forget Marikana and the Arms Deal and the corruption that is killing our government. And sadly, because this is the example that is set, the nation accepts it as normal. Maybe Boggel touches a nerve with his statement: we’re in danger of becoming a forgetful nation, run by mindless robots – just like we were in 1958.

But not Servaas. He needs only two words to remember every minute he had spent with Siena.

Boom. Yelp.

He won’t forget. 

A World without Love

Malala Yousafzai

“You mean to tell me they shot her for going to school?” Precilla’s disbelief is tangible. “Why?”

“It’s not so easy to explain. They’ve got the Taliban, see? And they don’t believe in equality over there.  They like to think of women as uneducated, subservient beings; conveniences to be used at leisure.  A woman may be sold, murdered, raped, burnt, disfigured by acid – and they do it in the name of honour and religion.” Gertruida shakes her head. “It’s a male dominated society, so women have become merchandise.

“One must try to understand the basics of Islam  in order to make sense of how it commands society to act. There are five basic pillars to Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and the Hajj. The Quran is very specific about this: it states that man and woman were created from a single soul, and therefore equal before God. Then it states, and I quote:  And of His signs is this: He created for you helpmeets from yourselves that ye might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. So, initially, both Christianity and Islam maintained that man was created to protect woman and love her. In contrast to Arabic custom of the time, Mohammed wrote down that women have rights – he was one of the first to plead for their upliftment. So popular were his teachings about female education, that Fatima al-Fihri founded the first the world’s very first academic degree-granting university. “

“So what went wrong, Gertruida? If the Quran granted women certain rights, and an Islamic woman started the first university, why are women so oppressed under Islam law?” Vetfaan has to concentrate to keep his jaw from dropping. Gertruida’s general knowledge never ceases to astound him.

“The same thing that went wrong with the rest of history. The male ego. Testosterone. The desire to conquer and rule. Most of all wars were fought because of religion or sex or property– cleverly disguised as the quest for justice. In Christianity we have thousands of churches, each proclaiming that they have figured out the correct version of God’s will. They all use the same Bible, but choose to interpret certain sections in certain ways. The Muslims do the same. Islam, like Christianity, isn’t a single belief.”

Precilla still doesn’t understand. “It is difficult to imagine how the order for ‘love and mercy’ between man and wife can be twisted to such an extent that it justifies the shooting of a teenaged girl because she wants to go to school. Something is wrong with that picture.”

“Well, I must say we can’t afford to point fingers at Pakistan, guys.” Sersant Dreyer finishes his beer before going on. “Officially, we had 15,600 murders in 2011/12.  Our murders are amongst the most brutal imaginable. One estimate is that there more than one million women are raped annually in our country. The case of the Indian girl that was gang-raped made the world sit up – and rightly so. But what about the situation here? Can we justify remaining quiet in a society that turns a blind eye to these things? “

“Yes, I think the President should get on a podium and clearly say: enough is enough!” There’s a slight tremor is Servaas’ voice. “Rapists and murderers should be put away for life and stripped of all rights. The punishment must be so severe that people will talk about it in hushed tones. The food must be terrible. The work must be back-breaking. No rights to education, medical care, recreational facilities. The President must be so clear about this, so emphatically determined, that criminals would shudder at the thought of a guilty verdict.”

“That’s the sad thing, Servaas. The President won’t do it, and the churches tell people all sins will be forgiven. All religions have at their foundations the existence of a merciful God that rules over the affairs of mankind. They tell us of a loving God, urging us to follow His commands. No matter if you pray in a mosque or a church or a temple– one should leave with a humble feeling, wanting to do what is right, listening to God’s will.

“It takes a girl raped to death in India, or a teenager being shot at point-blank range in Pakistan to make the world take notice. I wonder when somebody is going to say something about Africa?”

“It’s not the countries, my friends.” Oudoom holds up an admonishing finger. “It’s not even the pure ideals of religion. It’s the culture of crime and destruction. It isn’t God’s fault. We embrace evil, that’s what’s wrong. We love horror movies. Children are fascinated by vampires and blood. We love the fact that 007 is licensed to kill. For some ungodly reason, we love destructive entertainment and our children are exposed to violence from the earliest ages. We are experts in perpetuating abuse and conflict. It is a fact that all cultures developed in a cradle of violence. That’s who we are. Not a single society in the world can claim a non-violent history.

“That’s why religion – pure religion – is so important. It holds up a mirror for us all to see who we really are. And only if we are honest with ourselves, will we acknowledge our terrible shortcomings. That’s why we need effective churches and efficient governments. The churches and religions must turn back to God and stop playing power-games amongst themselves. And governments must realise they have a social contract with the population under their care.”

“Well said, Dominee. When do we start?” Servaas seems almost relieved.

Oudoom sighs and rests his chin on his folded arms on the counter top. “The problem, Brother, is not when. It’s where. It starts in the heart of simple people living in shacks, waiting for the ruling party to supply food packets and monthly grants. It starts in the well-to-do houses of successful businessmen and women, realising their empires rest on the labour of others. It starts with ministers and politicians realising they have a contract with society to be just and fair and respected. It starts with a President who has the courage to tell his parliament that he is sick and tired of abuse and crime and corruption.” He fishes out a handkerchief to dab his eyes. “We must stop thinking God will fix everything. We, all of us, have an obligation to refuse to live in a world without love.”

“So, you’re saying…” Kleinpiet raises an questioning eyebrow.

“Yes, Kleinpiet. It won’t happen.”

Gun Control won’t Help

“You know who should be allowed to bear and carry arms?” Gertruida asked – and then answered her own question, “It’s the people who don’t want to use them.”

“But that’s the point, Gertruida, the problem is the people who are too keen to use them.”  Vetfaan toys with his drink. “And they are the minority who gives the majority a bad name.”

“But that’s democracy in reverse?”  Sandy Hook is still a mystery to Precilla; an event which saddens her greatly. “And that’s why John Lennon and Kennedy died?”

“No, that was much more sinister than what it seemed to be.” Gertruida raises an eyebrow. “Or do you think madmen did those killings just because they had nothing better to shoot at?”

“Are you implying those were organised assassinations?” If there’s anything that’ll spark a lively debate, it’s a conspiracy theory. Kleinpiet sits back in anticipation, loving every minute.

“Well,” once she gets her audience going, Gertruida is unstoppable. “Governments are notorious for shooting, poisoning, blowing up, causing crashes and much more. Some say there are methods of inducing heart attacks and cancer. It’s an age-old tradition of mankind to solve problems by getting rid of them violently. Sometimes the world applauds, like with Osama or Hussain or Ghaddafi. Mostly, it is done under cover. The latest case under scrutiny is Arafat, of course.

“Now – we live in a world of monkey-see, monkey-do.  If Kate gets pregnant, a thousand women all over the world start being nauseous in the mornings. Everybody wants to wear the jersey or shirt of some famous soccer player or rugby star. If fashion dictates short dresses, even Grandma Fatso lets her swollen knees wobble around below the hem. We are, by nature, herd animals. We follow the trend. We hate being different to the rest.”

“Gertruida, you’re losing me. What has the style of dress to do with shooting people?”

“Everything, Servaas. If we are programmed to be followers, we stop asking questions. We do what the leaders do. A year ago, Lance Armstrong could auction his yellow shirt for a million bucks. Now nobody wants it. Why? Because somebody asked questions – and that is rare.

“So: if governments kill people in secret and gets involved in open, armed conflict all over the world, this is what the monkeys see, and that’s what they’ll do. Why? Because we don’t ask questions. Shooting people and short skirts represent exactly the same thing.”

“Now, wait a minute, Gertruida.” Boggel holds up a hand to interject. “It’s easy to blame governments for everything, but I don’t for a minute think it’s their entire fault. What puzzles me is the psyche of somebody going on a rampage. Surely no government sets such an example?”

“That’s debatable. Some governments have done that in the past. Remember the famous Third Force in South Africa in the early nineties? People were shot, thrown from trains, burnt … and it was organised at a higher level. Nowadays we have strikes and fights and destruction of property at mines and on farms – do you think it developed spontaneously? Or did somebody instigate it? You can make up your own mind, but these things are too organised. They follow a pattern.

“But I’ll grant you a point – it’s not just governments. If Little Johnny Doe grew up in a happy home, he won’t shoot people. He’ll most probably not want to own a gun. But that isn’t the norm, is it? Little Johnny gets parked in front of the TV when he’s old enough to sit. You should see the violence on Cartoon Network: the cat gets whacked by the broom. Little heads get cut off, things get exploded. Then, when they’re older, they watch Chuck Norris destroy the bad guys. James Bond can walk into any situation with his licence to kill, and walk out again with the voluptuous blond as his reward.

“To help their kids prepare for the electronic age, doting parents provide computer games. More blood and mayhem. But the games are misleading: they have a reset button, in case you want to start over

“So that’s the background for the average youth in the world today. He has his government as an example. He has been educated in a certain way. And then he walks down the street to find his friends are even worse than he is. So he gets a tattoo and joins a gang. Or he gets into Chuck Norris mode, determined to stop at nothing in order to get what he wants.”

“So parents and governments are equally to blame?” Servaas shakes his head. This is just too much. What happened to the example of good parents? Where is the church today? “I think the church has to take some blame. Religion has lost its shine because congregations have become businesses. Today’s church is more about making the finances tally and not about preaching love and caring. The popular sermon is the sermon on Forgiveness. You can do just about anything, and God will forgive your sins. People love that. They attend such churches in droves on Sundays, and on Mondays they’re back at work, fixing the numbers so they can pay less tax.”

“I agree.” Boggel serves another round. Lively discussions are good for business. “The biggest problem, taking all this into consideration, is the cycle of violence children grow up with. True: games and governments are as much to blame as churches and parents … but once the pattern is set, generation after generation just goes on doing what they’ve grown up to accept as being the norm.

“They can change the laws on guns. Maybe it’ll help. In fact, I hope it does; but they’ll need more than that to stop Adam Lanzo from going beserk. You’ll still have a Lee Harvey Oswald and a Jack Ruby sneaking around in the background, looking for a target.

“What the world needs now, is firm and decisive leadership. It won’t help to look at the government or the church to do it. It’ll start at home. That’s where the example of good leadership will have to be established.”

“That may be true, Boggel. But now the law says you can’t whack your child a good one if he was naughty. If small misdemeanours get rewarded with a kind and rational speech about love and forgiveness, how can we expect the child to respect law and order? No, I say: bring back the rod. Fix the tree while it’s young. To bend a twenty-year old oak is stupid; you’ll only break your back.”

Outside Boggel’s Place, a family of pheasants cruise down Voortrekker Weg, pecking here and there in the dirt in their search for anything to eat. At Boggel’s back door, they strike it rich: when Boggel swept his bar this morning, he threw out the nuts and crumbs for them. One of the chicks storm the pile to start pecking enthusiastically – until Papa Pheasant stops him with a stern peck at the back of his neck. Vetfaan smiles as he sees how the birds have their priorities straight. They don’t need governments and churches to tell them how to live – a rather fortunate fact. Those chicks are taught how the social order is organised – right from the start of their lives.

“It’s the pecking order” he says, “we’ve got it all wrong.”

Crime and Forgiveness (Part 4)

“I don’t want a traditional wedding.” Precilla drops the bombshell after the third Cactus. “I know Oudoom will be upset, but the ceremony puts me off. I mean – why have a ceremony at all? And it’s not as if signing a register puts a seal on anything.”

Kleinpiet gapes at her. She can be quite strange if she wants to.

“Look, if one wants to be analytical: more than two-thirds of people who solemnly promise to be partners till death, eventually end up with a lawyer writing a letter to the spouse. That’s incredibly sad. So, my point is – getting married in church doesn’t guarantee a happy marriage. That’s why people all over the world draw up fancy contracts before they get married – in case it doesn’t work out. Now who, in their right minds, stands in front of a pulpit to swear about undying love – while there is a prenup in the drawer at home, in case somebody is lying? It doesn’t make sense.”

Kleinpiet takes a huge gulp of Cactus before saying anything. He’s already phoned Skelmsarel Swanepoel about a prenuptial agreement, and was waiting for the opportunity to arise to discuss it with Precilla. After all, his farm is worth a considerable amount of money – and she doesn’t have much to her name.

“Soo…what did you have in mind, Sweetie?”

“I thought we’d exchange vows in the desert – out there on your farm. Just the two of us. We can say what we feel in our hearts, promise whatever we feel is right, and declare ourselves to be married.”

“That’s not quite legal,” Gertruida says. “There’s got to be an officiating minister or magistrate – and witnesses. And it’s got to be recorded in Pretoria. Simply telling everybody you’re married doesn’t count. Even the President has to go though an elaborate ceremony every time he takes fancy to a new maiden. It’s the law.”

“That’s the point, Gertruida. People have made marriages cheap – worthless. And why? Because we’ve bogged weddings down in red tape. The more legislation you need to enforce something, the bigger the chance of failure. Every law leaves loopholes; and every loophole will find somebody and supply them with an excuse. No – I suppose its okay to legislate what marriage means, but you can’t legislate happiness. That’s something only you can decide: to be happy – or not. And if you really, really love somebody, you’ll aim for happiness.”

“This is so romantic, isn’t it, Boggle?” Lucinda pats Boggel’s hump. “To think you love somebody so much that you don’t need a ceremony to put on a show. In fact – you don’t need a show. You only need two people who love each other dearly.”

“Somebody will have to tell Oudoom. He’s been brushing up on the wedding ceremony – it’s been years since he married anybody. He can recite the funeral-thing without even glancing at the book; but he says he forgotten the marriage-story.” Vetfaan smiles wryly. “I often wonder how much value one can attach to a recited set of words. I mean – even at funerals – Oudoom just says the words. Bla-bla-fishpaste and let’s remember the dearly loved departed.  It’s just a silly set of words to tell everybody the Church recognises somebody isn’t going to tithe any more. For what? You’re right, Lucinda. It’s all a show.”

“Well, God knows if you love somebody. Or if you’re dead. I’m sure He doesn’t need a recitation to convince Him you’re married or stopped breathing. But … we need those ceremonies to make things official. You’re married. You’re dead. That sort of thing.” Judge signals for another beer. “Society needs these ceremonies to mark important events. In fact, without them, we’d be an extremely disorganised bunch of people. So, as far as I’m concerned, such ceremonies are more for the benefit of what we call civilised living, than anything else. We need State and Church to partner in these events, otherwise we’d have chaos.”

Precilla isn’t convinced. “Then what about people who have no state or church? There are millions living in deserts, forests, ice-bound countries and far-off places who live isolated lives. Life goes on without all the stuff we insist on. Babies get born and old people get buried and couples come together – without a priest or a magistrate in sight. You’re saying somebody can’t be dead if you don’t have papers to prove it. I’m saying it doesn’t matter what the documents say.”

 

***

On that Saturday, at dawn, Kleinpiet and Precilla walk to the crest of the low hill behind his cottage. He’s dressed in his everyday-clothes – the way she’ll see him every day as he works on the farm, or visits Boggel’s Place. She’s wearing her customary jeans and blouse, but she did compromise with some flowers in her hair.

They keep it simple. Kneeling in the soft sand – still cool from the night’s chill – each asks the same question. Do you promise? Three words, in an open-ended question. And, when both answered Yes, they kiss and watch the sun rise over the veld.

Kleinpiet is amazed at the emotion that wells up inside him. Sure, a church service with all the friends would have been great; and yes, it would have been wonderful to hear a blessing from Oudoom … but this – this – is so much more, so very sacred, so special. Closing his eyes, he feels a unity he’s never experienced before – Precilla, the veld, peace – it all seems to seep into his being to become one within his mind.

She doesn’t want the moment to end. She wants Kleinpiet at her side; just like this; forever. This is exactly what she wanted: a silent vow to spend the rest of her life in harmony with the man she loves.

The sound of a straining motor disturbs their reverie. Then, like a creature rising from the deep, the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer appears from below the hill, grinding and gnashing over the uneven surface towards them.

“What the….” But before Kleinpiet can figure it out, the lorry stops and Lucinda hops out. She rushes to the back, where she opens the huge doors.

They’re all there. Oudoom and Servaas and Gertruida and old Marco and Vetfaan and Sammie and Judge and even Vrede. Beaming broadly, Desmond Kruiper and his family follows – bringing little Nelson with them.

And there, in the early morning sun and surrounded by happy faces, Precilla and Kleinpiet fill in the register Oudoom has brought along. The townsfolk carry wood and coolboxes from the lorry to start the fire for the braai, while Boggel makes sure everybody has a glass of ice-cold Cactus in hand.

“We thought we’d have a quiet little ceremony…” Kleinpiet smiles his protest, but he knows it’s hopeless. Their wedding isn’t just an occasion for the two of them –  it’s something for the entire town.

Precilla holds a finger in front of her lips. “No, Kleinpiet, it’s exactly right. We get married and they celebrate – it’s a massive compliment.”

And so they discover that marriage isn’t just an exchange of words between two people – it’s a statement to society; a declaration of joy and beauty – one that should be celebrated in style.

And that, they did.

Later, much later, Precilla whispers: “I don’t have to go home.”

And Kleinpiet says the three words that mean everything: “You are home.”

To see…

Lucinda puts down her paint brush with a tired smile.

“There, Gertruida, it’s all finished. I hope you’ll like it.”

For the last two weeks, Gertruida sat patiently while Lucinda worked of the painting. Using the finest of brushes, the pretty Italian has just added the last details to make the painting look not only life-like, but it also emphasises the beauty of her finely-sculpted face. Of course, reversing some of the ravages of age allows the artist to depict the subject in the most agreeable fashion – and that is what Lucinda did. Omitting a few wrinkles and minimising the double chin has taken years off the image.

“It’s … pretty. Do I look like this?” Gertruida asks in a slightly embarrassed fashion. The painting was Judge’s idea: he said he would love to have a picture of Gertruida on his wall. And, no thank you, not a photograph. Something more permanent. Something of value. And yes, indeed, an oil painting would do very well, thank you.

“Oh yes, Gertruida. Look, I finally got the look in your eyes right. You stare out of the picture with a slight smile – enigmatic – almost like the Mona Lisa. Only, I think you are more beautiful.”

“Pull the other one, Lucinda! I’m way beyond my pretty years. I have wrinkles. Everything is submitting to the pull of gravity. My neck looks like a crumpled newspaper. And there are liver spots all the way from Pretoria to Diepsloot. No, I think you captured an image of me when I was much younger. It is most flattering, to be sure, but I don’t look like this any more. And, I may tell you, I don’t feel like this any more.”

“Well, Judge said he wanted me to paint you the way he sees you. He was very specific about that. He said: Gertruida is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. You must paint her like that. So, I did. Now, because he pays for this, he must tell us what he thinks. I think he’ll like it.”

Gertruida opens her mouth to protest. Surely he can’t see her like that? He is a judge, for goodness’ sakes! Judges are trained to review facts and deliver sound advice and opinions. They live in the sober world of facts where the truth is the only criterium when coming to a decision. Before she can say anything, Lucinda puts a paint-smeared finger on her lips.

“Don’t protest, Gertruida. Let’s hear what Judge says before you decide.”

***

If there is one thing Oudoom worries about, it is that Mevrou will discover his cache of peach brandy up in the belfry. Now – one must understand that Oudoom isn’t a secret drinker. Not like that, anyway. Sometimes, when the circumstances surrounding his flock weigh heavily on his mind, he’ll escape here to think about life for a while.

The peach brandy was delivered to the vestry by Ben Bitterbrak a year or two ago. Ben, the master stoker in the district, wanted to apologise for his behaviour when Oudoom drove out there for a visit. Look, he said, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just the war, man. It changed people. It changed me. I don’t want to hear fairytale stories about love and stuff. Most of those stories want us to live in peaceful harmony – and do you see that happening? No, on my farm I have some people staying with me. We live in peace. They help me, I help them. Anybody coming in there with the idea of ‘fixing’ things up, doesn’t understand the bond of friendship and trust we developed over the years. Maybe we don’t attend church much, but on that farm we live with love. So, Dominee, here is some peach brandy. It is to say I’m sorry, but please stay away from us in the future.

Oudoom had difficulty in following the logic of Ben’s argument; but the plea was delivered with such earnest conviction, that he felt it would be wrong to reject the symbol of atonement. He knew he dare not take the brandy home; Mevrou would never allow it in her house. The only option was to rely of Mevrou’s acrophobia to keep her from climbing the narrow ladder up the bell tower.

Today, however, Oudoom unscrews the one bottle to tip a small quantity into the top. Holding his breath, he swigs it down with a grimace. The fiery liquid scorches down his throat to settle uncomfortably below his midriff. To his surprise, the pleasant peachy aftertaste lingers on his tongue. This is great, he thinks, maybe I should have another.

The reason why Oudoom escaped to his lofty hide-away today, is the brewing feeling that not all is well with his flock. Oh, they tithe when they can and the attendance is relatively good, but he gets the impression that his church and Boggel’s Place have too much in common: it is a meeting place, another social gathering where people get together to talk and gossip. He wonders how much difference his sermons make and whether they actually listen to his message every Sunday. He watched them carefully during the last sermon – and although he tried his best to package his message craftily, most of the people in church had that uninterested, far-away look when he reached the climax of the sermon.

Two swigs later, he’s made up his mind – this Sunday he’ll give them something to think about!

***

Inside Boggel’s Place, Pete is telling them about the strikes in the country. “Those guys want everything, man! Imagine a workforce of that magnitude, demanding pay hikes of up to in excess of 300%! At this stake many workers are poor, that’s true. Only here, in South Africa, they look at the salary for our President, the houses for his many wives, and the school fees of his almost two dozen of his children. It’s logical that some of the workers feel they are paying taxes to a government who doesn’t supply basic services, bungled up Education and is riddled with corruption. They also want a piece of the action, that’s for sure. If the rich go around eating sushi off naked women, they feel it is their right to tag along, too.

“What they don’t realise, is that excessive wage demands will kill the goose that is feeding them. Jobs will be lost. The jobless will become more. Crime will escalate. It’s a mess.”

“Ja, maybe you’re right. But Zuma did speak in the UN the other day and we are known as the most vibrant economy in Africa. We have Ouma rusks, Mrs Ball’s chutney and produce petrol out of coal. Our constitution is one of the most modern and we have The Beast to scrum the other guys into the ground. All isn’t doom and gloom. And … we have boerewors.” Judge has become a regular in these debates in Boggel’s Place, adding his logic to the emotional chats about the country. “Everything has two sides, guys. A good side and a bad side. A right and a wrong. But no individual side is as clear-cut as we’d like to believe. Look at any country, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about: nothing is ever perfect.”

“That may be true, Judge,” Kleinpiet says as he draws a stick-man with a crutch on the counter top. “But is human nature to be critical. That’s why the wheel was invented and why we were able to abolish apartheid. Remember – it wasn’t the government that threw out the old laws; it was the people –white and black – who voted. That brought about change.”

“It’s all white-wash, Kleinpiet,” Vetfaan gets up to leave. “Nothing has changed. The poor got poorer, the rich got richer and the Kalahari is still a desert.  Apartheid is alive and well in this country, only this time the whiteys are at the short end of the stick.  We have to accept that we live in an imperfect world where nothing is the way it seems. Smoke and mirrors won’t change that.”

***

On Sunday, Oudoom climbs the steps to the small pulpit without the usual Bible in his hand. He waits until the rustling of dresses and the creaking of the benches fall silent after the hymn, before addressing the congregation.

“I’ve come to an important decision, Brothers and Sisters. I’m going to stop preaching.  From now on, we’re going to have to talk to each other during the service. In civilized countries they call this process a conversation.  The only prerequisite is that everything we say must be kind, it must be true, and it must contribute to the lives of our fellow men and women. As the judge would say,” he nods his acknowledgement to the man of law, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As long as you remain kind, such a conversation will help develop a healthy community, dedicated to each other.

“So, from now on, you will stop hearing what Christ said – and start doing what he told us. Action, Brothers and Sisters, not sermons. Talking; not listening to an old preacher still trying – after all these years – to convince you to love your fellow man. You all say that action speaks louder than words, and it’s true.

“Now, who wants to tell us anything?”

The silence is only interrupted by the cooing of a lone dove on the roof.

***

Judge admires the painting on his wall as Gertruida walks in with the tea tray. She is still a bit embarrassed by the hauntingly beautiful canvas Lucinda produced.

“It is so beautiful,” he breathes as he stirs a spoonful of sugar into the brew.

“I’m not so sure, you know. I may have looked like that a decade or two ago, but now I’ve added a few lines to my face, a few inches to my waist and a pound or two to my weight.”

“It’s not that,” the judge parries, “it’s the smile. The light in your eyes. The way you hold your head. I’m not worried about the way Lucinda saw you as you sat there, I’m impressed with the way she captured your spirit. It’s quite astounding.”

For the first time in many years, Gertruida doesn’t have a ready answer.

***

Up in the belfry, Oudoom eyes the bottle critically before unscrewing the top. The silence in the service was deafening. In all the years he tried to amuse, entertain and fascinate his flock, he got used to the neutral way people listened to his sermons. Today, when he reversed the roles, he said nothing. He could feel their eyes boring into him, urging him to please, please say something. The atmosphere inside the church was tense as the silence enveloped the uncomfortable congregation. People glanced nervously at their neighbours, hoping somebody would say something. Even Servaas, who excels in delivering serious reprimands, had nothing to say.

It was Judge who finally stood up.

“This is an excellent idea, Dominee. People live in conflict with one another,  mostly because they don’t listen when they speak. Sometimes a government won’t hear what the people say. Sometimes employers don’t listen to their workers. And sometimes, when the government or employer says something, common people like us can’t hear them because we don’t understand them.

“The trick I suppose is to not only listen, but to see. Now, the original Latin word for ‘to see’ was vid or vis. Today we have, for instance, video, vision, vista and revise as words with that root. When people don’t see each other, they can never see eye to eye, can they? And seeing, in this argument, is not about whether you need glasses to create an impression on your retina, it’s about looking at somebody and comprehending exactly what is happening inside that person. You can call it the perception of that person’s spirit, if you like. That’s what Christ wanted us to do, and that’s what you’ve been preaching about for so many ways.

“Now, Dominee, you know these Rolbossers. If you put them on a spot, expecting them to tell each other something, you’ll get the silence you’ve just heard. My suggestion is that people don’t say anything. With your permission, I’d like them to turn to one another and look. Just look. No talking. Let us all try to see the other people we share this life with. I think that’s what religion should be all about: spiritual vision.”

***

Oudoom allows the peachy taste to linger a while before swallowing. He’s not in the belfry to worry about some difficult situation today.

He’s celebrating.

The Organ-failure Strike

“Okay. So now Rolbos is  filled with Ninjas and Saints and even Cupid.” Vetfaan’s bad mood has disappeared and he smiles as he remarks on the recent events. “If that is progress, we must accept it. But I miss the old days. We used to have fun, built spa’s, laughed[i] at Oom Oorlog and had picnics at Bokkop. The old Rolbos is disappearing, you guys. Unless we do something about it, we’ll become like one of the bigger towns – like Pofadder or Prieska. My vote is that we do something to prevent that. We must bring the fun back to Rolbos – and we don’t have to fall behind the rest of the country either, while we’re doing that. We’re not backward – we can move with the times, my friend.”

Kleinpiet has that faraway look in his eyes as he sips his beer. Precilla has been so sweet lately – as if the recent spate of romances in town was contagious somehow. He likes the way she looks at him in that Princess Diana way.

“Y-e-e-s?”

“Look we’ve had Olympics and Paralympics. We’ve had bazaars and picnics. We have Boggel’s Place to meet and chat. We must find something new.”

“Okay.” Kleinpiet isn’t concentrating at all.

“I think we must have a strike.”

“A what?” Kleinpiet sits up straight.

Vetfaan explains. The rest of the country goes on strike every now and then. Then the people dance and sing, start a few fires, and get a raise. “But we’re not like that. We’re not going on strike for money. We’ll do it for free. If you get paid to strike, you take the fun out of it. It becomes something people do to gain something. Now, we? We don’t want money. We have got houses. Most of us don’t need electricity – we’ve made do with candles and paraffin lamps since forever. We’ve got Boggel and when we’re hungry, I slaughter one of my sheep….”

He’s about to go on, but Kleinpiet frowns him into silence.

“Hey, wait a minute! What about the sheep you gave for the church bazaar last year? You stole that one from me!”

“Now, don’t let’s derail the argument on a technicality. That sheep was standing in no-man’s land. You know we agreed on that.”

Long ago, to prevent this type of argument, the men agreed to clear a stretch of land on both sides of the fence separating the two farms. That was supposed to keep the sheep from approaching the fence, and being enticed to break through to the other side. By mutual consent, it was agreed that a sheep found wandering in the cleared area, can be claimed by anybody. While the logic in the argument is sadly lacking, it is an example of the wisdom originating in Boggel’s Place late at night.

Kleinpiet lets the argument go. After all, he sneaked over to Vetfaan’s during the next full moon, and helped himself to some “compensation”. This, in turn, resulted in lengthy peace negotiations and he returned most of Vetfaan’s sheep. He doesn’t want to revisit that argument – last time he and Vetfaan had to replace the broken furniture afterwards.

“So you slaughter sheep when we’re hungry. What’s the point of your argument, Vetfaan?”

“My point is this: if you strike for money, you’re being unprofessional. We’re not like that. I mean, most days we don’t do any work, so what’s the point in striking? But we sure can do with a nice dance and some singing. And, may I remind you – we don’t need to throw stones in Voortrekker Weg – that pothole is large enough to stop any traffic. We’ve got this bar, an unlimited amount of Cactus, some very crazy people and a judge. He can mediate the end of the strike when we’re tired. And somebody can hand over a memorandum to Gertruida.” Vetfaan’s eyes sparkle as the ideas begin to flow. “Oudoom can even open the strike with a reading and a prayer. It’s perfect!” To celebrate, he orders a beer.

“So what’s the memorandum about, then?”

“We must find a reason to complain. Somebody must have a grievance. A complaint-free strike is an impossibility. Once we’ve identified a problem, it’s written down on a piece of paper and then it’s a legal strike. Even the judge will agree with that.”

***

And so, for the first time in the world’s history, a sing-strike got organised. Vetfaan explained it to the townsfolk in Boggel’s Place that night.

“Look, we all know how Oudoom complains about our singing in church. I think it’s unfair. It’s an infringement of our rights. The reason we sing so slowly, is because Mevrou plays the organ as if it’s a funeral every Sunday. Next time we’re in church, we refuse to sing. In respect for all concerned – it is a church service after all – we cannot remain silent either. So when she plays this Sunday, we la-la-la along. We’ll sing the words in our hearts, but not like Mevrou expects us to. Then Oudoom will complain. He’ll draw up a memorandum, and then we’ll have a dispute.

“The beauty of the plan is this: we’ll be singing and dancing when Gertruida receives the memorandum, Boggel will see to the drinks, and we can have a strike-party, just like they’re doing everywhere else these days “

***

Mevrou looks up in alarm when she starts with The Lo-o-o-o-rd is my-y Sh-e-e-eph-e-e-erd, and the congregation L-a-a-a la la la-a-a-a’s along. Oudoom and Servaas try valiantly to get them to sing the words, but are met by the smiling faces that continue to sing in monosyllables.

“What is this?” Oudoom fights to keep his voice steady.

“It’s a sing-strike, Dominee. We demand proper accompaniment in church. We’re here to praise the Lord, not to bury our joy. We want you to draw up a memorandum, be at Boggel’s tomorrow night and hand it to Gertruida. Then Judge Gericke can mediate the dispute, we can come to a negotiated settlement and we’ll call off the strike. It’s the modern way, Dominee. Everybody does it.” Vetfaan has prepared well, and feels he delivered his ultimatum with considerable respect.

“This is preposterous. Unheard of. Not possible!” Oudoom struggles to keep his temper at bay. Servaas sits down to let his head sink into his hands. Every time he thinks the townsfolk have done the stupidest thing, they manage to surprise him with something even worse. Imagine: revolt against singing in church?

Oudoom breathes deeply. While in his toga, it would be unseemly to lose his temper. Mevrou has turned a whiter shade of grey.

***

At seven, Monday evening, Oudoom walks into Boggel’s Place with as much dignity he can muster. At his side, Mevrou cuts a striking figure in her best funeral dress and 50’s hat. Servaas brings up the rear, dressed in his black suit.

Vetfaan, smiling proudly at the strike he’s organised, waits at the counter. Kleinpiet serves the Cactus while Judge watches. He, of course, thinks this is a farcical travesty of justice; but being new in town and not wanting to hurt feelings, he agreed to go along with the proceedings. Gertruida – who hasn’t been herself lately – holds his hand while her smile threatens to reach her ears.

The atmosphere is tense as the two delegations approach each other.

“I. Have. Written. Here. That. I. Think. You’re. Crazy.” Oudoom’s words are measured and precise while he waves the document around. He is obviously very angry.

“Yes, and I will see to it that you get expelled from church.” Servaas’ words tumble into the ensuing silence. “This is blasphemous. You will be placed under censure. The Ring will hear about this.”

Gertruida holds out her hand to receive the paper. “Thank you,” she says sweetly.

“I declare this dispute resolved, and both parties must now shake hands. Bless you all.” Judge Gericke has never seen anything like this and can’t help smiling.

“And I want to thank Oudoom for being such a sport. We have had our first real strike in Rolbos. Two things remain to be done. Kleinpiet?”

Kleinpiet walks over to Oudoom to hand over a document. “We’ve been collecting sheep for the next bazaar, Oudoom. Between the guys,” he points at Frans, Vetfaan, Ben Bitterbrak, we’ve got twelve so far. Sammy promised groceries. The Verdana’s are going to have a pasta stall. And the ladies have put down their names for cakes and handcraft stuff. In all, I think we should make enough money to buy a new organ for the church. A nice electronic one that can do flutes and harps and piano, as well. The old one takes ages to build enough pressure to play the notes – that’s why poor Mevrou has to play like she does. With a new organ, we’ll really be able to praise the Lord in a joyous way.”

While Oudoom now finds himself fighting to keep the smile from his face, Mevrou asks timidly: “And the second thing, Vetfaan?”

“Well, it involves two things, actually. First of all we’d like to apologise. We didn’t want to hurt your feelings. And we’d like to show our respect by asking you to join the party.”

At the word ‘party’, Boggel breaks out a case of Cactus Jack and Precilla starts serving. Oudoom has no choice but to join in the toast on the new organ. It’s going to be a long night…

***

“That was a glorious strike, Kleinpiet,” Precilla says later, while they’re helping Boggel to wash the glasses. “And all those sheep! That was so generous of you!”

Kleinpiet smiles coyly. Yes, those sheep. Maybe he’ll tell her about the no-man’s land one day. But not now – if Vetfaan hears about it, they’ll have to buy new furniture again.

“Oudoom always says you must give until it hurts, Precilla. But sometimes it’s better to stop before it does.”

***

General consensus is that the world’s first sing-strike may be viewed as a success. Oudoom and Mevrou received the organ with undiluted joy. The singing during services is so filled with delighted ecstasy that the church council from Grootdrink established a commission of enquiry to investigate the possibility of acquiring a new organ themselves. Just yesterday the delegation came to see Vetfaan about the possibility of a strike. It seems that Julius Malema is unavailable for the time being. Servaas still considers the events to be sacrilegious, but Mevrou told him to calm down, the townsfolk meant well – and the Lord knew from the start they weren’t  trying to disrupt the services – they only wanted to enhance them.

There is a problem, though: Vetfaan did his monthly count of sheep today. He stormed into Boggel’s, demanding to know where Kleinpiet is.

“He called out a fight-strike, Vetfaan. When you’re ready, he’ll receive the memorandum. But right now he’s on his way to Lekkersing,[ii] on the West Coast. He suddenly remembered he had business there…”


[ii] A real place, in the Richtersveld. Like Grootdrink, it got it’s name a few generations ago. Apparently the sound of the water bubbling from a fountain in the arid desert was the reason for the village, as well as its name.

Two-people Music

Kleinpiet and Precilla – with their on and off relationship that never seems to find peaceful waters – have been the subject of discussion lately. They can often be seen, heads together, in whispered conversations in the far corner of Boggel’s Place. While the others give them a wide berth (love is such a rare thing!), Boggel serves them by placing their drinks on the table next to theirs, so as not to disturb them. They’ll interrupt their conversation while he’s near, and continue whispering as soon as he’s out of earshot.

“What do you think they’re up to?” Gertruida can’t stand intrigue – she has to know everything. “Either he’s popped the question, or they’re up to no good. I don’t like it.”

“Let them be, Gertruida. If they have a secret, that’s all right. By tomorrow we’ll know, anyway. You know how things work here: we all know everything about everybody.” Vetfaan likes to think of himself as a bit of a philosopher. “I think somebody said: three can keep a secret if two are dead. And that’s true. Especially here.”

“That was Benjamin Franklin, Vetfaan. George Orwell said you can only keep a secret if you hide it from yourself.  So, we’ll just have to wait, I suppose.” She still has the puzzled frown, though. “I sure hope it isn’t something that’ll upset Oudoom. He’s been cantankerous lately.”

*

Oudoom certainly has troubles of his own. Not the usual stuff with Mevrou criticising his sermons or her remarks about his surreptitious visits to Boggel’s Place (only to keep them in line, Liefie. You really don’t think I go there to enjoy myself, do you?). No, he’s concerned about the way Boggel looks at that Italian lady. She dresses inappropriately (just look at that short skirt!), she’s not local (he had to check the Atlas to find out where Italy is – and it’s not even in Africa), and she probably belongs to one of those funny faiths they have in Rome. Mevrou said they have no Afrikaans Churches in Europe – it’s all German and French and Chinese these days. Then there’s the way she laughs –  a full-throated laugh with tears streaking down the rosy cheeks. Mevrou would never laugh like that; she has had a good upbringing and she knows how a woman should behave (at least, that’s what he tells Mevrou, just to keep her off his back).

Every week, when that lorry from Kalahari Vervoer stops at Sammie’s Shop, the same thing happens. She hands over the manifesto and invoices to Sammie, then she skips across the road to Boggel’s Place, where the bent little man waits for her with a huge smile and a cold beer. How can he, Oudoom, ignore the signs of an imminent disaster? If Boggel pursues the relationship, he can expect one of two results: either she’s going to make a fool out of him (where on earth would a woman with curves in all the right places fall for a barman with curves in all the wrong places?); or else they’re going to get serious and she’ll bring in a new religion, a new church and, (goodness me) a new pastor. Two churches in Rolbos? Not a good idea. A shrinking flock is the last thing he can afford right now. Mevrou said he has to do something about it, and he will.

*

When the lorry trundles into town, Oudoom is strategically placed to intercept the beautiful Italian before she gets to Boggel’s. Mevrou worked it all out: if he waited in the lapa behind Boggel’s, he can make as if he was simply looking for Vrede – and once he hears the lorry, it is a brisk walk to the stoep in front of Boggel’s, where he’ll accidentally bump into lovely Lucinda. Then, just like Mevrou said he should, he’ll ask her what her intentions are with the bartender. Mevrou assured him she’d take fright, give some lame answer, and get the message. And, Mevrou said, that’s how you solve problems. Don’t wait for them to explode in your face – she said – it doesn’t help worrying once those Romans start building a Cathedral on your doorstep. Don’t cry over spilt milk – keep the bucket upright in the first instance.

Then the fickle finger of fate…

Last night Oudoom waited for Mevrou to sleep, before he sneaked out for a quickie in Boggel’s Place. Knowing he would be in deep trouble if she were to wake up in the night (she’s got a weak bladder), he ate a piece of Roquefort cheese after brushing his teeth and before slipping in between the starched sheets. He didn’t notice the piece of cheese that slipped into the turn-up of his pants.

But now, as the lorry sighs to a stop, Vrede notices the pungent smell. In his training as police dog, he was taught to accost, apprehend or stop anybody with a suspicious scent. It must be said that Rolbos is a place of bland scents during the long periods of drought. A strong smell like that in the sensitive nasal apparatus of one of South Africa’s finest canines, demands attention. Immediate, and decisive attention, like he was trained to do.

When Oudoom reaches the stoep, two things happen simultaneously. One: he opens his mouth to greet her before launching into the speech Mevrou prepared so carefully; and Two: Vrede grabs him by the left arm (police dog training), to hurl him to the ground.

When Boggel storms out, he is struck dumb by the scene. Not only is Vrede sitting there with a satisfied grin and a piece of Oudoom’s suit hanging from his jaws; but also: Lucinda is bending over the hapless clergyman, who thinks he’s been struck down by something from the sky. Of course, it takes some time for Boggel to pay attention to the man and the dog – the pretty figure of Lucinda offers just too much to see.

*

Oudoom sips his beer (medicinal reasons, he assured Boggel, for shock) while he contemplates his next move. To go home and face Mevrou without delivering his speech, is unthinkable. He’ll just have to do it here and now, and get it over with.

And then Precilla appears. She’s dressed in leathers (where did she get that?), has blackened her fingernails and wears heavy mascara. A silver chain dangles from her right pocket, while her hair is combed upwards and held there by some invisible force. Oudoom blinks twice, and wonders if a horse of the Apocalypse dropped its rider in the desert. The shock is even bigger when Precilla sits down next to Lucinda and whispers in her ear.

Lucinda seems a bit dazed, but nods. Precilla gives her a sisterly punch on the shoulder, hitches up her pants, and saunters over to Oudoom like John Wayne does,  on his way to a duel.

“I’ve got feelings for that woman, Oudoom. And I’m worried. What’ll I do?”

Oudoom swallows his beer slowly. He has to think this one out – Mevrou isn’t here to help.

“Do you think I must try to go out with men, instead, Oudoom” Precilla switched to her little-girl voice. “Must I force these feelings aside, and consider a date … with Kleinpiet, for instance? Will that help to save me? Will it save Lucinda?”

*

Mevrou is extremely proud of her husband these days. Yes, Oudoom had that chat with Lucinda, and encouraged her to visit Boggel as often as she can. And just look how sweet and feminine Precilla dresses these days when she sits next to Kleinpiet in the corner. Nobody, she reckons, can fault the way her husband handled the situation. And, oh, just like Oudoom explained, he simply has to keep an eye on developments, that’s why he spends so much time in Boggel’s place.

*

“Are you guys going to get serious?” Kleinpiet asks Boggel over a beer a few evenings later.

“Nah. We’re just like you two. Lonely and happy to find a friend you can share thoughts with,” Boggel smiles. “Friends. Good friends. Who knows what it’ll lead to?”

“Ja, love is a funny thing,” Kleinpiet says, “it’s like music. Two-people music. If you know what I mean? That’s the secret we are all tinkering with. Even Oudoom.”

Boggel simply nods.  “It’s an illusive melody, Kleinpiet. Most people go off-key at some point.”

In the cab of the lorry grinding its way along the roads of the Northern Cape, a young woman hums a tune. It’s quite beautiful the way she harmonises the notes, but it’s actually music for two.

Any Port in a Storm

ImageIt was during the Great Drought that the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer backed into the only fire hydrant in the entire district. It really was a relic of the time when Pella Refractory Ores (Pty) Ltd, dug out part of Bokkop for the minerals hidden in the soil; when people hoped that Bokkop would become a world player in the silica and cement industries. When the dream imploded, the town remained as a sad reminder of the risks involved in investing in remote areas.

The hydrant served no known specific purpose; except of course as a beacon for Vrede, who saw it as his sole and unique property and marked it frequently in case somebody thought otherwise. When the lorry backed over the hydrant, it was Vrede’s barking that drew the collective attention of the Rolbossers. Seconds later, the town had the only fountain in the area.

First on the scene was Servaas, who remembered when the pipes were laid those many years ago. It was a direct line from the reservoir at the foot of Bokkop, and if it wasn’t shut off immediately, the town would run dry.

The stream of water rushed down Voortrekker Weg, pooled around the church and flooded the vestry. Oudoom at first didn’t believe it, then thought it was the start of another Great Flood, and eventually decided that he’d be better off on the pulpit: he was nearer to the roof – and heaven – that way.

Nobody had any idea where the line could be turned off – no tap in sight anywhere – and the townsfolk stood by helplessly while their only water supply soaked away in the dry Kalahari sands.

Vetfaan twisted the bent hydrant back in place, which stopped Vrede from causing such a noise.

“That was our only water,” Gertruida noted, “better get buckets and scoop up as much water from around the church as possible. Heaven knows what we’re going to do when that is finished.” As usual, she was right. The fountain at the foot of Bokkop had dried up a month earlier, leaving only the water in the reservoir as the solitary supply the town had left.

Two days later, the town was dry. Empty buckets and tins stood around, Sammy had sold all his cool drinks and even Vrede couldn’t mark his precious beacon anymore. The only source of fluids in town was at Boggel’s – owned by the very same man that Oudoom vetoed off the church council because he sold liquor.

A town has to do what a town has to do, so everybody survived on the sustenance Boggel provided; everybody, except Oudoom, who didn’t want to defile his soul by even entering Boggel’s Place. Had he not, on numerous occasions, pleaded his flock to abstain from visiting this establishment? How could he, as a man with just moral values, even consider supporting this unholy place? No, he’d rather die of thirst before giving in to the whims of Satan.

Of course he didn’t. Die, I mean. When, after four days of suffering, he appeared in the doorway of Boggel’s, everybody understood the agony that drove him there.

“Have you got any water?” The question was asked from the doorway.

Boggel only smiled and shook his head.

The silence was only broken by the creaking of the roof as the sun bore down with all its fury. Vrede growled from beneath Vetfaan’s chair at the counter. Oudoom tried to ignore his dry mouth, didn’t succeed and asked what else Boggel could offer.

“Beer, brandy with no mixers, or Port wine,” boggel answered with a twinkle in his eye, “A very good wine, Dominee, like you serve at Communion.”

 Two hours later the devil was forgotten and everybody had to shout to be heard. Oudoom was talking (preaching, would be a better word) about the superior quality of the Port, reminding everybody that wine was invented by a very biblical person called Noah and that it wasn’t a sin to drink it, as long as one remembered the important role wine had played in the life and times of Israel. Of course, this sermon may be acknowledged as his best and most popular ever, something that made a huge impression on his attentive listeners.

As the sun set, he leant over to Boggel.

“You know, the ways of the Lord…” He never finished the sentence. The loud crack of thunder made Vrede dash to hide below the counter on Boggel’s cushion, Gertruida rushed to close the windows and doors and Kleinpiet ended his shout of surprise by ordering a round on the house.

 People still talk about that rain. For seven days and seven nights a gentle drizzle soaked everything. The empty buckets and tins filled up. The fountain started running again. Vetfaan had to force an old blanket into the outlet in the dam that fed the hydrant.

And Boggel finally got Oudoom’s nod to wear a white tie on Sundays.

It didn’t last, of course. When Precilla left The Place,  late one evening four months later, she sang a bit too loudly. Oudoom was preparing his sermon at the time and he distinctly heard the words of O brandewyn laat my staan. He might have ignored the incident if she hadn’t changed the words to Oudoom suip lekker saam – something he took rather personally for some reason.

Boggel was requested to resign from the church council; which he, in turn took rather personally as well. He said it’s a pity that some people forget that everybody gets thirsty sometimes. He also said that abstinence doesn’t make you a better Christian – in fact, Oudoom should read up on what Paul said about wine. The two of them agreed to disagree.

Now, every time the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer reverses from Sammy’s little parking lot, you are sure to find a few people standing around idly, hoping the driver would do the town another favour. Although their hand signals always guide the driver directly to the old fire hydrant, it is the furious barking of Vrede that tells the man when to stop.

The ways of the Lord? Mysterious indeed. When, two years later, the next drought hit the district, Boggel again had to be reinstated before the rain came. That’s when Oudoom stopped talking about the evil lurking in Boggel’s Place. He now preaches about more important stuff, he says, like how we are all guided to love one another. If any establishment in town can claim to promote this high ideal, then surely it cannot imply sin.

Boggel isn’t stupid. He didn’t belabour the point that Oudoom was wrong in the past. He simply saw to it that the supply of Port was sufficient to satisfy the needs of his new customer.

The Problem with the President

ImageOne must understand that a letter of this magnitude – in a place like Rolbos – will create a mild bit of consternation. They haven’t had a mayor since that time in the Sixties when they had the fight about whether women should be allowed to wear pants to church. The mayor then, Hendrik (the Holy) Hiemstra, was of the opinion that it would be totally wrong for ladies to dress as men – and made it part of his campaign to be re-elected as mayor. The ladies took a dim view of this conservative old man and attended the next church service en masse. Their giggling eventually disrupted the sermon to such aan extent that Oudoom (who was at the time simply known as ‘Doom”) demanded an explanation. It is said that all the ladies walked to the front of the church and that they briefly raised the hems of their long frocks, just enough to see they didn’t wear pants of any sort.  They then declared themselves biblically pure and sat down amidst the stunned silence.

It may have taken a few years for the church council to finally allow ladies with ‘tastefully cut clothing of feminine nature’ and without hats to attend services, but Hendrik the Holy lost the election immediately after Broekie-Sondag, as it became known. He was the only candidate, and nobody voted for him. Servaas still thinks the counting (done, as usual, by the only trustworthy person in the community, the dominee) may have been influenced by the outspoken criticism Hendrik the Holy used to dish out if a sermon wasn’t condemning enough. Be that as it may, Hendrik the Holy packed his bags and Rolbos had no mayor.

Surprisingly, they found that a mayorless town was much easier to run. Without the need for an official vehicle, an office, a secretary, a dedicated telephone and the catering for the endless meetings, it became much cheaper to live in Rolbos. Problems in town were simply solved in Boggel’s Place over a few beers. Life in Rolbos is a simple thing: in contrast to growing towns, they are in a process of decline. No new work needs to be done, there are no health services to oversee and everybody removes his own rubbish to the dump outside town. Water comes from the fountain at Bokkop. Gas and paraffin sort out the cooling and lighting they need. Supporting a municipality, they all agree, is simply just a waste of time and money.

But then the letter arrived.

It was addressed the Mayor, Rolbos, and had a very official-looking emblem at the top. It was only when Gertruida read the letter, that she reminded the meeting that South Africa had a new emblem after the ’94 elections. When asked to read the inscription at the bottom of the emblem, her audience was completely taken aback by her admission that she can’t. Nor, to her very vast knowledge, has anybody ever read that sentence with any degree of conviction.

Still, it was a letter from the President, there was no denying that.

Dear Mister/Madam Mayor

The Presidency is pleased to announce that the President will visit your town as part of an extended tour of rural areas in South Africa.

The President will arrive at 9 am on the 23rd of this month, and he will then hold informal discussions with community leaders. Departure is scheduled for 3 pm, as he plans to address the people of Upington that evening.

As usual, the prescribed protocol must be observed as a sign of respect for the high office of the presidency.

Regards

Moses Molefe

(Private Secretary to the President)”

There is silence as the Municipal Assembly digests this.  Vetfaan lets out a low whistle. “Good grief, chaps, the president, nogal…”

“We’ll have to appoint a mayor, you guys. The 23rd is the day after tomorrow, I’ll have you know. We can’t look like a lot of nincompoops if that man arrives here. We’ll have to fix that pothole, clean up the town, arrange meetings with community leaders…” Gertruida, who knows everything, takes immediate charge of the presidential visit.

“But what’s that bit about protocol – what does it mean, really?”  Boggel pushes some more beers over the counter as he asks the question. He knows enough about politics to understand that protocol is a very complicated thing.

 The 23rd dawned like any other day in Rolbos. Although Platnees had filled up the pothole with some stones, the town looked no different than it did before the letter arrived. Still, they all gathered in Boggel’s Place for an early snort while they waited for His Excellency, the Illustrious President of the Republic of South Africa. Gertruida said you couldn’t just talk to the president; you have to use his full title while you look at a spot above his left shoulder. She explained that that is what protocol means. Precilla looked stunning in her new jeans and floral hat while Vetfaan tried to fit into his old suit, gave up and now is dressed in his usual khaki shorts under the jacket that he still managed to squeeze into. Boggel donned a new apron for the occasion. The rest of the townspeople exhibited their respect for the high office of the presidency by wearing shoes and dressing as one would for a funeral (to show how happy they are).

By 9 am there was no sign of the President. Vetfaan ordered a round of beers. Half-an-hour later, Kleinpiet reciprocated and asked Boggel to supply another round. Boggel complained, saying they cannot very well drink all the cold beers before the president arrives. What’ll His Excellency, the Illustrious President of the Republic of South Africa think if he wanted a beer and he, Boggel, could only offer a warm one? No, he said, if they wanted to drink something, then it’ll have to be something else.

Kleinpiet wasn’t pleased. He loved his beer. Just to show how peeved he was, he ordered a round of Cactus Jack.

By 11am people started doubting whether His Excellency, the Illustrious President of the Republic of South Africa would ever arrive and by 1pm they didn’t care anymore. Boggel had discovered another case of Cactus Jack and now served the drink with the remaining ice in tall glasses. Vetfaan had discarded his jacket, taken off his shoes, and was giving a demonstration of what he called Karoo Yodelling. This form of singing is rarely heard outside the area and involves a jackal-like howling combined with alternate phases of bleating. Kleinpiet told them that, in it’s original form, you had a howler and a bleater singing a duette. Platnees’s contribution was that the singing is never complete if it is not accompanied by a supporting drummer. Boggel watched as Gertruida organised the choir – deep voices to the left, higher voices to the right. Platnees sat in front with an upturned plastic pail and a broomstick. Before she took up the feather duster as a baton, another round of Cactus Jack was ordered to loosen up the vocal chords.

By 2 pm they had Karoo Yodelling down to a fine art. The high-pitched howling blended perfectly with the lower, melodious bleating. Platnees took up the rhythm with consummate ease, increasing the tempo slowly so that they worked the singing to a frenzied climax. Precilla started the dancing and pretty soon the bar was filled with people dancing wildly around Platnees, who was drumming away madly. Behind the bar, Boggel watched as the supply of Cactus Jack dwindled away at an alarming speed.

 To this day, the people of Rolbos talk about the visit of His Excellency, the Illustrious President of the Republic of South Africa. Boggel says that there was a large, black vehicle that cruised down Voortrekker Weg at about 4pm, and that he distinctly remembers Vrede, the town’s dog, barking fiercely at it. Servaas maintains that it couldn’t have been His Excellency, the Illustrious President of the Republic of South Africa: he would have stopped to introduce himself. With next year’s elections around the corner, he needs every single vote he can gather, after all.

What they don’t know – and didn’t see – was the look of horror on the face of the important occupant of that armoured BMW as he encouraged the driver to pick up speed.

 Maybe it’s wrong to say that Rolbos is a backward community. The women can dress up pretty well as much as they please for church. They have progressive ideas about local governance where the people rule as equals. They also have the only active Karoo Yodelling choir in the country – if not the world.

And on some Friday nights they have Presidential parties. Here they address each other as His  (or Her) Excellency, toast the health of the President, and talk about unimportant things; like potholed roads and how nice it would be to have electricity or rubbish removal. In fact, if you’d walk into Boggel’s on such a Friday, you’ll hear exactly the same conversations you’d hear in the Union Buildings or in the bars around the House of Parliament. Gertruida says that is what protocol means: it’s when you say things you don’t mean.

Maybe the Illustrious President of the Republic of South Africa should have stopped that day when he drove through Rolbos. He might have found the people quite entertaining. What he would have found refreshing was the way they solve their problems.

Gertruida says His Excellency won’t ever visit Rolbos again. A man like that can’t dance to Karoo Yodelling. The tempo is too fast, she says.