Tag Archives: Himba

That’s what friends are for…

2153916_130206164911_TD278-3When Vetfaan gets drunk, he sometimes becomes teary and exceptionally morose. The rest of the little crowd in Boggel’s Place know the signs: he’ll become silent, stare out of the window and then whisper: “Gunter Winkle…

This doesn’t happen often, mind you – maybe once a year or so – and for a long time they couldn’t get him to tell them who Gunter Winkle is or was. He’d only answer with a stony stare at the bottle of Schlichte on the shelf and then start humming to himself; a strange tune even Gertruida doesn’t recognise..

It all changed one evening. Vetfaan was staring at the Schlichte bottle again, humming the tune, when Gertruida said softly that she did some enquiries about Gunter Winkle. Vetfaan surprised them by stopping humming immediately as he directed his unsteady stare more or less in Gertruida’s direction.

“Wha…whadaya fin’ out?”

She shook her head. “Still listed as missing, if it’s the same person.”

Vetfaan nodded slowly. “Same person.”

“You have to tell us, Vetfaan, get it out of your system.”

And so, in bits and pieces, Vetfaan finally managed to open up. It eased the pain, even if only marginally.

***

Gunter was the only son of a farmer near Gobabis, in what we now call Namibia. At the time, South West Africa was governed by South Africa and many Suidwesters sent their sons and daughters to study in the Republic. Vetfaan met Gunter at Glen Agricultural College where they attended a course in wool classification. They developed a solid friendship during the month they spent there and kept contact (via letters back then) afterwards. Like it so often happens, the letters petered out and were replaced by a yearly Christmas card.

However, when they met again – it must have been a decade later – it seemed like no time had lapsed since their last goodbyes and they celebrated in raucous style. This was severely frowned upon, for then they were in uniform at the base in Ondangwa, fighting the insurgents from Angola. The brigadier called them in, threatened a court martial and gave them a stern warning. Any breach of discipline would be followed by the harshest possible steps. Their weekend passes were cancelled for two months. When the other troops were allowed to blow off steam in Ondangwa, the two of them would clean the officer’s offices.

Something happens to young men when they have to don a uniform and live under the constant threat of danger. When off duty, they tend to become, well, irresponsible, to say the least.  So while the other troops whooped it up in town, Vetfaan and Gunter were pushing mops and brooms in the offices of their superiors. That is, until they discovered the secret horde of Schlichte n the brigadier’s cupboard – on the first evening of their first weekend of office duty.

The result was a catastrophe. When the brigadier went to his desk on that Sunday, a routine neither of the two scolded men knew about, he found them happily singing the German ditty Gunter had taught Vetfaan during the night. They were dumped in the detention barracks without any further ado.

Monday arrived. The brigadier cooled down. A court martial involved not only other officers, but would come to the attention of headquarters in Pretoria. There might be questions about his ability to maintain discipline. He might be sent to an ‘easier’ post, away from the combat zone – which would mean – in effect – a demotion of sorts. No, he’d handle it on his own.

Kunene River. Angola on the other side.

Kunene River. Angola on the other side.

Vetfaan and Gunter (still severely hung-over) listened in subdued silence as the brigadier ranted and raved for a full half hour. Then he told them they’d be sent to a remote area on the border to keep watch on a section of the Kunene River suspected of being a point of infiltration. No weekend passes, no leave. Just the two of them and a radio. Supplies would be dropped by helicopter every two weeks.

Running an army is a huge job. The admin involves mountains of paperwork, orders and directives. And things go wrong…

The brigadier’s worst fears were realised when he was transferred a base near Kimberley – a lateral transfer which meant the end of his hopes of becoming a general. His successor arrived the day after his departure (to save himself the embarrassment of handing over the reins) and promptly started transforming the Ondangwa base into one of the most efficient in the defence force. Despite this, the two men next to the Kunene were forgotten. Maybe some documents were missing or mislaid, or maybe it was just one of those things that happened back then – it could even be that the original brigadier never set the issue down on paper – but the end result was two abandoned friends in the middle of nowhere.

“We had a wonderful time there,” Vetfaan told the group, slurring the words. “The radio was dead – no new batteries. The local Himbas were quite friendly and supplied us with goat’s milk and sometimes meat. We fished and cooked bird’s eggs. Gunter’s singing intrigued the Himbas and they often came to listen to his German songs – bringing more supplies when they did so.

“Of course we guessed what had happened – being forgotten and all that – but we had no means to get back to Ondangwa. Truth be told – we didn’t want to, either. Still, when the three-month period neared it’s end, we realised we’d have to walk back to civilisation. The Himbas provided us with enough information to do this. On the day before we were planning to start the journey, Gunter stepped on a landmine.”

Zuzu

Zuzu

Gunter was lucky. Although he sustained severe injures to his one leg and face, he survived – just. The Himbas carried him to their kraal, where they helped nurse him back to health. This is where Gunter met Zuzu, the beautiful Himba girl he fell in love with. His recovery was slow and painful, but after a month he was able to walk if aided.

That’s when he told Vetfaan to go back.

“I’m a disfigured man, Vetfaan. I can hardly walk and can see very little. Farming is out of the question. No, my future is here with Zuzu. I can help here. Start a school. Teach them things. Be useful… I owe them that, at least.”

***

“So you returned to your unit, told them Gunter was missing…and never breathed a word?” Gertruida’s incredulous tone interrupted Vetfaan’s story.

The interjection stopped Vetfaan’s recounting of what had happened so many years ago. He simply stared at her, sighed, and nodded. “I gave my word.”

“But what about his parents, his family?”

Vetfaan started humming softly to himself. Didn’t want  to tell them the rest. How he paid a clandestine visit to the Winkles on their farm and explained everything. How Gunter’s mother wept with joy and his father embraced him. And how, every six months or so, the Winkles liked to spend time up in the North of Namibia, holidaying next to the Kunene.

Or how he missed singing old German songs with one of the best friends he ever had.

No, he’d rather have another Schlichte. Anyway, he’d told them too much already.

Heute hier, morgen dort, bin kaum da, muß ich fort;
hab’ mich niemals deswegen beklagt.
Hab’ es selbst so gewählt, nie die Jahre gezählt,
nie nach gestern und morgen gefragt.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Dass man mich kaum vermißt, schon nach Tagen vergißt,
wenn ich längst wieder anderswo bin,
stört und kümmert mich nicht. Vielleicht bleibt mein Gesicht
doch dem einen oder and’ren im Sinn.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Fragt mich einer, warum ich so bin, bleib ich stumm,
denn die Antwort darauf fällt mir schwer.
denn was neu ist wird alt und was gestern noch galt,
stimmt schon heut’ oder morgen nicht mehr.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

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Photo Challenge: Containers

Storage: that’s the key to survival in any remote area. Africa has lots of them – remote areas as well as strange ways of storing, preserving and transporting essential items.

Come see our village, the man at the camp said. We are a prosperous family, living not far from here. So I went and  I asked the old Himba woman permission to see her house. It is not mine, she said, but you are welcome.

335The hut contained a young mother and her baby. No, this photo wasn’t photoshopped. The red colour is real. I looked around  after greeting her and receiving a shy smile in return. See, she said, this is my house, my life. Look at all the things I have. I am a blessed woman, she said, holding the baby out to me.

37Then she proudly showed me her container with the aromatic herbs. Picking up a glowing ember with her fingers, she dropped in into the herbs so I may smell the scent of the veld, the aroma of Africa…

36And look, she said, I have a pail, a calabash and a funnel.

I looked. And I saw the funnel was made of wood and s strange bit of copper or brass. What is that? I asked.

The old woman heard the question and laughed. It used to contain a bullet, back in the days of the war, she murmured.  Now it pours the goat’s milk from the pail to the calabash38

I marvelled at that. These women have so little…and yet so much. The spent cartridge a soldier had thrown away, now served as an important component to the primitive funnel.

Oh, let me rephrase that… The word ‘primitive’ doesn’t belong here. Not in this society where the scrap of wartime now helps them survive. Maybe we should learn from them. We, in our large houses and with our many possessions and running water and electricity – we keep on making guns and shooting down aeroplanes. We are hamsters on silly little wheels, constantly wanting more. How primitive is that?

I walked out in the sunshine, past the kraal filled with goats and the little ‘hut’ for the chicken swinging gently in the breeze. It contains the eggs, keeping them away from vermin.39

My visit left me wondering whether the minds of these people contained more wisdom than I originally gave them credit for. Are we really sure that our way of life contains everything to make us as happy as they are? 40

Or should we admit that they have more reason to smile than we do? Shouldn’t we discard the trappings of luxury and sit in the sun more often while we contemplate the joys contained in a simpler life?

 

 

The Bullet (# 6)

Sunrise over Bokkop

Sunrise over Bokkop

“I remember those days,” Vetfaan stares at the rising sun, recalling the time after the war, “because so many of my friends struggled to adapt to civilian life again. We got so used to the danger and the constant vigilance. Me? I found it hard to sleep. Nightmares. Struggled to relax. Missed the other guys…”

“True. I remember the traffic. Everybody drove so fast! And I had to learnt to speak properly again – all the jargon and swear words didn’t go down well when you tried to chat up a girl. They also didn’t want to be called ‘your goose’ and things like that.” Kleinpiet has to smile at the memory. “And why did we call each other ‘my china’?”

They’re sitting on the stoep in front of Boggel’s Place, waiting for the rest of the town to join them. The Himba man promised to tell the rest of his story and finally get to the point of the purpose of his visit.

Gertruida, who knows everything, joins them with a steaming mug of coffee. “Yes, many – many – soldiers came home as changed men. In those days the term ‘Post Traumatic Stress’ didn’t even exist. It wasn’t fair. The troops were simply sent home to cope with the demons in their heads. There weren’t debriefings, counselling by chaplains and psychologists or sessions with psychiatrists; leaving the soldiers with impressions and memories that haunted their quiet hours. It’s sad, really. They risked their lives for their country an many of them felt their country didn’t appreciate their efforts.”

“Some felt betrayed.” Vetfaan puts down his mug with more force than he intended. “Abandoned.”

***

An hour later the Himba man makes himself comfortable at the bar. He is pleased that everybody is here again – they are genuinely interested in his story. This town, he realises, is unique: they’ve fed him, housed him, and this morning Oudoom found a set of western clothes that fits him.

Precilla thinks he’s looking rather smart, and tells him so.

“Yes, my journey was that of a traditional Himba man who travelled to show his respect. But you know? To survive, we Himbas must move on with the times. That’s why I became a ranger at Etosha.”

“And that’s where you heard about Sergeant Ben?” Servaas wants the man to get on with his story.

IMG_2226

Girls at the Himba Trust School

“Yes. Remember, I was eight when the war stopped. My family embraced me, and slowly, over the years, the memory of Sergeant Ben faded. The money from the Himba Trust built a school and that changed many things. Children from the surrounding kraals attended this school, and suddenly the families didn’t live in such isolation any more. We became a community – and I made many new friends. So, Sergeant Ben slowly disappeared in the bustle of my new life.

“Oh, I’d think about him, sometimes. Wonder what became of him. In the beginning I tried to believe that he’d come and visit, but that never happened…”

Boggel returns from his little kitchen with a tray laden with steaming scrambled eggs and more coffee. “So you became a ranger, and…?”

“Well, it was quite a coincidence…”

***

“You’re a Himba?” The old lady in the back of the game-drive vehicle was one of those quiet tourists. You get them: they hire you to show them the Big Five, or to do bird-watching, and then they’d just sit there in silence, drinking in the beauty of the surroundings. The Himba man preferred the quiet ones: they respect nature more than the talkers.

“My son used to write home about the Himbas. He was a soldier, you know? And…he died there,” she pointed vaguely towards the north, “during the war.”

The Himba man turned slowly in his seat to face her. “Mrs Badenhorst? You had a son killed in the war? Was he with the Equestrian Unit?”

***

“And so it was. She was Lieutenant Badenhorst’s mother. I couldn’t believe it!” He shakes his head in wonder, still slightly overawed at the thought. “We forgot all about sightseeing that day, of course. When she learnt how Badenhorst saved me, she broke down completely. After all these years, she said, she finally found out exactly what happened. And to meet me as a grown man…well, she maintained that our meeting was of great comfort to her. She had accepted her son’s death, but seeing me and hearing about what happened afterwards, seemed to make her proud.”

***

Mrs Badenhorst insisted that he join her for supper that evening because she wanted to hear more about the man her son had helped save. Later, over coffee, the Himba man asked if she knew sergeant Ben?

“Ben who? Do you know the surname?”

Sergeant Ben had always been just that: Sergeant Ben. As a child he never asked about his surname and later he never wondered about it. Sergeant Ben was the complete name in his mind – no other names were necessary. Shame-faced, he told her so.

“There were others: John, the Herero cook, and I remember some of the other soldiers. It all happened a quarter of a century ago and I was very small still… Oh, and there was that Brigadier. I remember him. Knoetze. That’s right, Brigadier Knoetze.”

The old lady promised to make enquiries and let him know. “I’ll do that for you. You’re living the life my son would have loved.  You know, meeting you has been a blessing. I’m at peace now.”

***

“Two weeks later, I received a letter from her. She had traced the brigadier to an old-age home, and he remembered Sergeant Ben. The sergeant, he remebered, came from a family that farmed near Grootdrink.

“But, Mrs Badenhorst wrote, Sergeant Ben withdrew from society. The war… Anyway, that’s all she could find out. Oh, and his surname is Liebenberg.”

“What! Benjamin Liebenberg is your Sergeant Ben?” Gertruida jumps up in surprise. “Really?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. No. Well…I know about him. About the Liebenbergs, at least. They have a small farm next to the Orange River, near Grootdrink. I heard that their son, this Benjamin, stays in a rondawel on the farm. Never comes out. His father looks after him, they say. He’s apparently…not normal…”

“Mrs Badenhorst wrote something like that. Called him a recluse and a hermit. It saddened me because I remember how he told me his family had been killed in a landmine explosion. And I…well, during the war he saw me as his son. A son should never abandon his father. For many years Sergeant Ben was a vague memory, but after hearing from Mrs Badenhorst, I simply knew I had to see him. That’s what a true son should do.”

“But I heard…,” Gertruida begins, but the Himba man cut her short.

“Will you take me?”

Of course they agreed to do so. All of them.  It’s quite a convoy when they drive out of town.

The Bullet (# 5)

Miriam

Miriam today

“Sergeant Ben did one more thing before the Bedford loaded them all up to take them to Grootfontein.” The Himba man smacks his lips and gobbles down one more lamb chop before continuing. “He bribed a helicopter pilot to take me back to the place where Badenhorst was killed.”

***

All the troops gathered to say goodbye to the young Himba boy. In the two years he had spent in the camp, he had grown into a handsome young lad, much loved by everyone. In his now almost-excellent English, he thanked them all, giving a little speech that brought tears to many battle-hardened eyes. The captain was busy telling him how much they’ll miss him, when a camouflaged Land Rover drove up and the brigadier in command of the area stepped out.

Everybody knew Brigadier Knoetze: he was a fierce little man with an extremely short temper, A disciplinarian to the core, he was feared and respected by all. Knoetze held up a hand and the captain faltered, stepped back, and waited for the rebuke.

“The war is over, men.” Surprisingly, Knoetze’s voice carried a note of sad resignation. “It has been hard for all of us – the killing, fighting,..the uncertainty and death. You’ll go home with many memories you’d rather forget, but cannot. It is hard to find something good to say about our time up here in South West Africa…”

The brigadier scanned the young faces in front of him, his gaze finally coming to rest on the Himba boy’s worried frown.

“You chaps have kept this boy hidden in your camp every time I came here. You transgressed a number of military laws in doing so, and I should have had you all court marshalled – especially you, Sergeant Ben, and the captain.” His last words carried much of his well-know barking style.

“But you know,” he says in a softer tone, “all is fair in love and war. Especially in love. In this godforsaken, horrible time, you men have found kindness in your hearts. I knew about the boy from the start – that is a commanding officer’s duty, after all. And I saw the effect it had on you all. This boy,” he pointed at the child, “brought sanity to your lives. He reminded you of the importance of kindness and caring. That, in my opinion, will sustain you when you go home. You’ll remember him, and you’ll know that your future doesn’t belong to hatred and violence.

“Now I know, Sergeant, that you plan to steal a helicopter to try and find his village. This is, to say the least, highly irregular. And since you all,” and here he swept his hand to include the whole assembly, “aided, abetted and helped to break military laws – which now includes hijacking an aircraft of the state – some disciplinary steps will have to be taken.

“After serious consideration, I suggest that every one of you sign a debit order for a monthly deduction from your future salaries for the sum of R 50…every month for ten years. I shall see to it that you each get the information and account number of the Himba Trust, which I have established. The proceeds will go to this young man and his village, and its aim is to further their level of education.” The brigadier paused before adding softly: “I’m informed that he is a rather sharp lad. It is your duty now, Sergeant, to establish the whereabouts of his village, so that we know where to send the money. Is that clear?”

Sergeant Ben gaped at the man at first, not believing his ears. Then he nodded, smiling as he snapped to a smart salute.

“Now Captain, see to it that this rebellious group of men disperse orderly and quietly after the helicopter has taken off. I’d then like to see you in the bar. And if the men won’t mind, I’d like them to join us.”

***

“I cried a lot. Many men cried a little, too. We hugged and said nice things. Then Sergeant Ben picked me up and carried me to the helicopter. I remember reaching up to wipe a tear from his cheek. Funny, that. The two things I remember best about him are the thump of the bullet against his chest, and that single, large tear. Oh, I remember many other things as well, of course. But those two I’ll never forget.”

***

IMG_2165They found the place of the skirmish quite easily, after which the boy recognised some landmarks, leading them back to the village. They landed outside the thorn-branch perimeter. Neither the boy, nor Sergeant Ben, knew exactly what to expect – the boy had been missing for two years, and how much could have changed in all that time? Would the villagers welcome them? Would there be anger?

Miriam, the First Wife, appeared at the gateway, uncertain about the sudden arrival of an air force helicopter. By then, the villagers had become hostile to all the sides in the war, and were afraid that these soldiers only meant more trouble. Miriam did not realise that this was the last operation of the SADF in the war, and fighting and bloodshed had no part in it.

Then she saw her son.

***

“Mama forgot all about etiquette and custom in the moment she recognised me. She shouted out, she laughed, she went crazy. She ran towards me, calling the other villagers to come out. And then she knelt in front of me, touching my face to see if I’m real. And then she, too, cried.”

***

Sergeant Ben said a hasty goodbye, telling the boy he had to return to base as soon as possible. Miriam tried to persuade him to stay; they’re going to slaughter a cow, she said, and have a feast to celebrate. No, the sergeant said gently, it was time to go. He said he wasn’t good with farewells, and it was better to leave immediately.

Then, after a long, tender moment, he took the chain from his neck; the one with a spent bullet dangling from it.

“This is the bullet from the Bible, son. This is what brought us together. I want you to have it. Keep it. Maybe it’ll remind you that the world isn’t such a bad place; that even bad things can have good results. And one day, if ever we meet again, you can tell me it brought you good luck. Now go to your mother. I have to go.”

And with that, Sergeant Ben turned on his heel and marched back to the waiting helicopter.

***

“And that was the last I saw of Sergeant Ben. I was eight years old, a child still, but I was already a man at heart. I waved until the helicopter disappeared over the hills. And then I had to tell my story to my family.

“We had a tremendous feast for three days, during which I had to tell and retell everything. It was an amazing experience.”

***

IMG_2202The years flew by. The money from the Himba Trust started coming in; an astounding amount that saw the establishment of a small school near the village. The boy was a diligent student and eventually enrolled in a course to study conservation. He also married his sweetheart and is already the father of a strong little boy.

“…and now I’m a ranger in the Etosha Game Reserve. My life has turned out well.” He digs into his pouch to produce a gold chain with a bullet dangling from it. “Two months ago, I was talking to one of the tourists. That’s when I heard what happened to Sergeant Ben, and that’s why I knew I had to return this bullet. I had to do it the Himba way, see? The way he saved me, the way he looked after me.

“So I dressed like my custom dictates. I didn’t want to use transport – I walked. It is our way of showing respect. A man that wants to show his love and appreciation, doesn’t look for the easy way out. If you do it the hard way, you do it right, even if it means walking a thousand miles. I did it…for Sergeant Ben. I owe my life to him, after all.”

“So what did you hear?” It’s Servaas who can’t contain his curiosity any longer. “What happened to Sergeant Ben?”

The Himba man takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell you tomorrow, if you don’t mind. It’s been a long day, and I’ve come far. Please?”

The Bullet (# 4)

Ruins of Buffalo Camp, Caprivi

Ruins of Buffalo Camp, Caprivi

Sergeant Ben staggered back as the bullet struck, his eyes wide in surprised agony. Then, slowly, he sank to his knees. The small boy he had carried, wriggled free but his legs wouldn’t carry him any more. Soldier and child collapsed next to each other; the grown man silent, the infant whimpering almost silently.

For a long second, time was caught in a vacuum – then everything happened at once. Eager hands grabbed the child, lifted the fallen sergeant, bundled them into the helicopter. The main imperative was to get away from the killing zone as fast as possible.

***

“It was horrible.” The Himba man seems to have recovered somewhat, and now finds it easier to continue with his story. “Lieutenant Badenhorst was dead, covered by a tarpaulin. The two injured horsemen sat against the fuselage, bleeding from wounds in their arms and legs. And Sergeant Ben lay there, ashed-faced and still, the small bullet hole in the tunic  right here.” He slapped the left of his chest. “He wasn’t breathing.”

***

The medic released the lifeless wrist. “No pulse.”

There are rules for such conditions. Check for bleeding. Stop bleeding. Check pulse. If no pulse, CPR. Ensure airway. Supply oxygen. Ventilate. Get pulse going. Support, support, support. The medic acted automatically, and started bearing down on the slain soldiers chest with a regular rhythm. How many soldiers had he done this with. Five? Ten? A hundred? How many survived? One? Two?

Lifeless soldiers don’t have a chance – and if they do, it’s a very slim one indeed. In the veld the resources are limited, the monitoring of heart function and blood pressure almost impossible, and blood tests unavailable. Medics have to rely on what they can see, feel, smell, hear and…instinct.

Patch Vermeulen, a seasoned medic with three campaigns behind him, was twenty years old. He could stitch up wounds, extract teeth (with some difficulty), apply bandages and dish out Aspirins. He was also the most vital link between the battlefield and the hospital. If he could get the patient to the hospital with some life left in the injured body, there was always a chance – maybe a small one, but at least better than out there in the veld…or in a shuddering helicopter where the use of a stethoscope is impossible.

Patch worked automatically, without thinking. Push. Release. Push. Release.

“Where’s the f*cking AMBU BAG? Get it! Get it now!” The pannier with the resuscitation equipment was only a yard away, but he didn’t want to waste time by getting it. The gunner, who was busy bandaging the horsemen, scurried over to help.

“You’re…hurting…me…” Sergeant Ben’s eyes fluttered open.

“Huh?” Patch stopped the heart massage, completely caught unawares.  His patient had been shot in the chest, was pulseless a moment ago…and now he’s complaining?

“You…deaf?” Ben tried to sit up, but then lay down again. “Stop…feeling…my tits, Patch.”

“But…”

Now Patch looked down at the chest, the hole in the tunic – and realised there was no blood.

***

“He had a little red Bible in his tunic’s breast pocket,” the Himba man smiles as he remembers the moment, “and the bullet stopped halfway through Revelations. He was very lucky.”

“Oh,” Gertruida whispers. “O know what happened! A sudden, hard impact can do that to the heart muscle. It can either stop beating and go into full cardiac arrest, or fibrillate.” Noticing the question looks, she reverts to her lecture-voice. “Fibrillation: the condition where the electrics in the heart muscle shorts out, and the heart muscle simply trembles, instead of coordinating and doing the pumping it should. Anyway, arrest or fibrillation leaves the patient pulseless. Cardiac massage can sometimes get the rhythm going again. So, when Patch did the CPR, Sergeant Ben’s heart got it’s act together again.

“Lucky? I don’t think so. I think it was a miracle. Imagine stopping the bullet in the last book of the Bible? Wow…”

“Faith, people. Faith…” Oudoom’s eyes shine; he’s just got the most fantastic inspiration for Sunday’s sermon. Oh man! The answer to all wars, all conflict, all strife…stopping the bullet with the final chapter of the Book. Yes, he’ll have them spell-bound, that’s for sure.

***

Sergeant Ben was taken to the base hospital, where they kept him under observation for a day. Except for the huge bruise (the size and shape of the little bible imprinted in darker purple in the middle of the blue) and two cracked ribs, he was completely well. The doctor advised two week’s sick leave, but he refused, saying he’s got nowhere to go, anyway.

The boy posed a problem in the beginning. He couldn’t tell them where he came from as he only knew the huts and the hills around the kraal. He also refused to leave Ben’s side. Small as he was, he knew the big man not only saved his life, but also almost got killed for his trouble. In his mind the picture of Lieutenant Badenhorst dying next to him, the crack of automatic gunfire and the crash of explosions refused to fade, making him afraid to sleep alone. Sergeant Ben was the answer. With him he was safe.

As an added problem, the language barrier prevented any exchange of information. The three horsemen had been sent back to Voortrekkerhoogte near Pretoria, and several attempts to contact them fizzled out in the bureaucratic chaos that accompanies a war situation. Who cares about a lost Himba kid when you have tanks and aeroplanes to worry about?

In the base camp the senior officers had little choice but to accept the new addition. The boy was so well-behaved, so thankful for every smile and every little hug the troops gave him, that he became a sort-of mascot within the first week. Soldiers wrote home, and parcels started arriving with shoes, clothes, books and sweets.

The camp’s cook turned out to know a little Herero, which is akin to the Himba language. After a month, the two of them could have a basic conversation in a type of funnagalo – a typical South African hybrid of mixed languages. Sergeant Ben was part of this, teaching the boy the words for his basic needs. One of the troops thought fit to teach the child a few Afrikaans swear words – he got thrashed by Ben for his efforts.

In those days – towards the end of the Eighties – the war was staggering towards the final round in which the diplomats, politicians and various other suited carnivores fought about the scarps over sumptuous meals and expensive bottles of wine. The boy was eight years old now and spoke fluent English (with a typical Afrikaner accent!).

Then, out of the blue and much to everybody’s surprise, the troops were ordered back to Pretoria. The war was over.

***

“Sergeant Ben was my father. Not my real-real father – but close. When he had to leave, I was devastated. This man – who taught me about English and rugby and card games – was somebody who looked after me. He taught me about the Bible, about praying and about faith. He taught me everything a Himba doesn’t know. And I told him – as much as I understood – about our customs. We’d spend long evenings talking.

“He told me he had been married once. Had a wife and a son and a life. Then, one day on her way to drop to boy off at school, his wife drove over a landmine.” The Himba man  spoke in a soft, revering voice. “He said God had given him a second chance. He said we were both blessed.

“And then he had to leave…”

Fanny, mindful of how much she loves the twins, cannot imagine what the parting must have been like. “What happened then?”

Vetfaan interrupts.  “Let’s eat first, please. I’ve got stomach rumbles that make it hard to hear what he says. Then, afterwards, he can continue his story…”

The Bullet (# 2)

IMG_2565 copyThe Himba man fingers his necklace made of ostrich shell fragments, collecting his thoughts. Although he will never forget the events of those days, it is important that he tells the story right, In the Himba tradition, personal opinion and partial recounting of history is frowned upon. History, he knows, can so easily become an emotional affair when people choose to forget what really happened. If Gertruida could have read his mind right now, she’d tell him what a mess Western society has made of telling their children about the past.

***

The three men and their little hostage huddled inside the First House, their eyes slowly adjusting to the semi-darkness. The boy wanted to cry out, but a rough hand covered his mouth.

“No sound!” The hissed command made him whimper in fear.

The four soldiers on horseback knew they were hiding somewhere in the kraal – they’ve been following the spoor for six hours now, the horses rapidly gaining on their quarry. Although they were young (Lieutenant Badenhorst being the oldest at twenty-one), they were viewed as veterans in the border war after spending eighteen months in the area. The rough terrain, the villages, the hardship – they knew all about the region they had to patrol on a weekly basis.

Badenhorst also knew Miriam, the First Wife. He was the one who brought much needed medicine a month or so ago, when the children in the kraal suffered from gastroenteritis. He cantered up to the kraal’s gate, got down, and asked permission to enter.

“Good morning,” he greeted in Himba. “Did you sleep well?”

Miriam nodded, but didn’t respond by asking him the same. Her eyes slowly turned to the First House before she shook her head.

“All quiet here, Miriam? No strange men around?”

This time she answered, saying ‘No’ loud enough for the men inside the hut to hear.

“Be well, then, Miriam. We’ll be back next week or so.” Badenhorst bent down, shook her hand, and left the kraal to join the others waiting at the gate. Then they galloped off.

***

“He knew, of course,” the Himba man says with a sly smile, “and he knew that a gun battle inside the kraal would wreak havoc. Such a confrontation would kill women and children, something he certainly didn’t want to do.”

“I can understand that,” Gertruida chips in, “because the South African army relied heavily on the goodwill of the local people. The fight against the terrorists was a delicate one: while SWAPO insurgents often coerced villagers to supply food and shelter, the army tried to maintain good relations with the indigenous population.”

“It was like that,” the man seems relieved to have Gertruida’s confirmation. “So when the horses galloped off, Miriam waited until they were out of sight before telling the men to leave her house and release the boy.”

***

Badenhorst and his companions didn’t leave, of course. They knew the men they had followed were hiding in the kraal. They set up an ambush about an hour’s walk in the direction the men had been fleeing, and waited. From behind the rocks alongside the track, it should have been easy to eliminate the three men.

Should have been.

In war, there are many should-have-beens: carefully planned operations that turn out to be much more complicated than when originally plotted. Badenhorst found out this was one of those.

When the three men appeared around the rocks – on the track leading to the ambush – Badenhorst drew in his breath sharply. The men had kept their hostage! They, too, were veterans, knowing that the horsemen wouldn’t give up that easily. They also knew the soldiers wouldn’t kill an innocent boy and in doing so alienate the villagers forever. Their best protection, they reckoned, would be the child.

They were right.

Badenhorst signalled the others to keep out of sight and allow the little procession pass. They regrouped afterwards to discuss their options.

“We could have picked them off,” the youngest of them complained. “I had a clear shot at the leader.”

“I know.” Frustration etched Badenhorst’s words. “But there was a risk that the boy could have been injured or killed. We can’t afford that.” He sighed as he stared down at the footprints on the sandy track. “We’ll just have to follow them. They’re clearly heading for the Kunene and the safety of Angola – but they have quite a way to go still. Maybe they’ll let the boy go. Or maybe we can surprise them during the night. Whatever…we can’t let them get away with this.”

***

“You see, we were caught between the horns of a strong bull.” The Himba man nods his thanks as Boggel places a new bottle of water in front of him. “There were SWAPO men. There were White soldiers. And we…we never understood what they were fighting about. The SWAPO people had many Ovambos with them, but also many men from other countries. Why would somebody from the other side of the ocean come to Kaokoland to fight there? What was so important? And the South Africans? What were they doing in our country? Surely their country is big enough to have their own battles there?

“The Himba have always been peaceful. We settle our own disputes. We don’t steal. We don’t kill people. We have our own courts to sort out problems. We don’t need men in uniforms to tell us what to do…” He sighs heavily, shaking his head in long-forgotten anger. “But that got changed by the war. We didn’t want to be part of it – yet we had no choice.”

***

Miriam had to do something. The three men had taken one of the boys – surely there can be no bigger crime in the world than that? She called one of the bigger boys and told him to take a message to her husband. This was a man-problem; he had to take care of that.

***

IMG_2478Badenhorst walked his horse on the spoor of the fleeing men. They were only a mile or so ahead, but the rough terrain shielded Badenhorst and his men. Even so, they proceeded with caution.

“He’s getting tired.” Badenhorst stared down at the tracks. “His dragging his feet. Poor bugger, can’t be more than six years old…”

The sound of a low whistle interrupted him. When he looked up, he saw one of the men pointing.

Ahead, just visible above the low trees, a faint column of smoke rose in the air.

“They’re heading for a rendezvous… Damn it! We’re on our way to one of their camps!”

***

“Yes they took me to a camp. There were many other men there. They laughed and pointed at me, speaking a language I didn’t understand. Then a big man – they called him The Cuban – tied my hands and feet, like you tie up a goat before you slaughter it. I was terrified – I thought they wanted to eat me, but they made me sit under a tree  while they talked. They pointed in the direction they came.

“I didn’t understand. Not then…and I still don’t. Why didn’t they let me go? Were they afraid that Miriam would tell the soldiers something they already knew? It became clear to me: if I didn’t escape, I’d die. And…if I did escape, they’d raid the village. At least, that was my line of thought. I was six years old, abducted from my home, and very, very scared.”

Gertruida puts a hand on his shoulder, telling him that many young men – even boys – were taken from villages in those days to swell the ranks of the insurgents. “Who knows how many? And how many died in the fighting? There must be quite a number of families in Kaokoland with similar experiences.”

“Yes. Later – only later did I hear of such things. Many died, that’s true. But I didn’t.”

“Come on,” Vetfaan urges him on good-naturedly. “what happened next?”

The man smiles at Vetfaan’s impatience. “The whole camp – everybody – started disappearing into the bush, leaving me tied to the tree. This I understood. I’ve watched older boys in the village preparing traps for jackals and other vermin.

“They knew the horsemen would try to rescue me. And I…I was the bait…”

The Bullet (# 1)

10Of course the conversation ceased when the man walked down Voortrekker Weg. Not only is it unusual for Rolbos to be the final destination of any traveller, there was something else: it felt as if the man brought with him an atmosphere of ‘assured silence’ – as Gertruida tried to explain it later. Barefoot, dressed in his sheepskin coat and carrying his stick, he reminded Oudoom of an Old Testament prophet…or at least somebody with a story to tell.

For once, Oudoom was right…

Boggel got on his crate to stare at the man: tall, handsome in a rugged way; with finely chiselled African features. The liquid-chocolate eyes blinked once when he entered Boggel’s Place before he smiled uncertainly in greeting.

Gertruida noticed the gap between the upper teeth – and the missing four lower incisors – and whispered to Precilla sitting next to her. “A Himba?” Although she said it as a question, she was fairly sure she’s right.

She was, as usual.

Tjike…” The man lowered his eyes when he noticed the people in the bar. Realising that it was his way of saying hello, Gertruida twisted her tongue around the word in return.

“I speak English,” the man said kindly, “and I need to find Sergeant Ben. That’s why I am here.”

“Um…” Vetfaan faltered, unsure how too continue, ” we only have Sergeant Dreyer here. He’s the policeman.”

The man frowned, held up a hand; uncertainty – even fear – in his eyes. “Police?”

“Don’t worry. He’s not like that – he’s one of us.” Gertruida motioned for the man to come in. “Come sit here. You walked to Rolbos? You must be thirsty.”

“Ja, and we’ve been discussing the drought for days now.” Vetfaan smiled his encouragement. “We’d like to have something else to talk about. You’ve come far…so tell us about this Sergeant Ben?”

The man sat down with a relieved sigh. “I have to give Sergeant Ben something. It’s a matter of honour…”

***

It was a day like any other. The sun beat down on the little kraal where the women sat in front of the huts, watching the smaller children play in the dust. The men and older boys were out in the veld, keeping watch over the flock of goats and cattle. The drought caused them to roam wider into their ancestral territory, looking for patches of withered grass in the mountainous region. And water, of course. Always water. Late at night, around their fires, they told each other that something very bad must have happened; why else would the drought be so severe? The earth was unhappy: they knew the clouds would not release the rain when new growth would only serve to feed evil.

They knew about the war, of course. Only the previous week they heard the crump of distant explosions. They didn’t know the sound, didn’t recognise the crackle of automatic weapons – but they did understand that people were killing each other.

They had speculated about that. Why would men find it necessary to kill each other? Was Life not something to protect and preserve? All life – even that of the goats – had a purpose. Killing an animal to feed the hungry mouths in the kraal had a purpose. Killing a man…? And they had a long conversation around the fire, eventually agreeing that whatever reason the men had for such killing, must be wrong.

That’s why, the old men said, the rain stayed away.

23On that day the women sat in the sun, grinding ochre and hoping their husbands and sons would find a protected valley with grass and fresh water. Without their cattle and goats, they’d never survive. In the meantime, the best thing to do was to see to it that there were enough ochre and fat – when the men returned, they wanted to look their best.

It was one of the little boys who saw the three men running towards the kraal.

“Look! Look! Men are coming – and they’re not Himba.”

IMG_2163The First Wife, Miriam, glanced over to see what the boy was shouting about. When her husband was away, all authority and responsibility rested on her shoulders. At first she hoped the men would go past the kraal, leaving them in peace – but soon realised that was not to be. The men carried guns and that meant they have to be soldiers. They rushed through the kraal’s entrance without asking permission, brushing aside the two little boys who gaped at them.

“Hide! We must hide!” The biggest of the three grabbed one of the boys, holding him up like a puppy. “And you lot will shut up. When the others come, you say nothing! Nothing!”

***

By now the entire population of Rolbos has gathered in the bar, listening to the Himba telling his tale. He sips his bottled water as he watches their faces – allowing the pause to create images in the minds of his audience. Telling a story – especially one as important as this – is an art. Rushing to the end won’t do. On the other hand, if the tempo is too slow, the listener loses interest. As a veteran of many a camp fire, the Himba understands the fine balance needed between telling, pausing, and feeding his audience just enough to keep them hungry for more. He knows every listener needs to become an observer of the unfolding scenes, making them see the story rather than simply listening to it. In this way, the observer becomes a participant – for is it not so that every story has the power to change people?

That’s why he sits back, allowing the image of the kraal, the desperate soldiers, the horrified First Wife and the frightened boy to become a reality in the little bar in Rolbos. And, like he knew it would, he watches faces change from mild interest to reflect the emotion he felt when that soldier grabbed him and dragged him into the sacred interior of the First House…

“And then…?” Vetfaan asks, his beer forgotten on the counter in front of him.

“Ah, yes. That’s when the horses came. The horses with the men and their guns. Many of them…”

The Himba, the Chameleon and…he’s at it again!

11

“Shhht…he’s writing again.” Gertruida – who knows everything, smiles happily as Boggel serves another round. “He’s been to Epupa, on the border with Angola. It’s quite beautiful there…”

3

“Isn’t that where the Himba people stay?” Servaas is embarrassed to ask, because he heard the women never bath.

4

“Indeed.” Gertruida takes a sip. “They have strange traditions, especially when it comes to dress and hairstyle. Still, despite what people think, they are very conscious of beauty – and very attractive, too.”

18

“I wouldn’t like to go there,” Precilla wrinkles her nose. “There are lots of snakes in that desert.”

“Those sidewinder snakes are extremely poisonous, you’re right. But they have pink chameleons living in the desert, as well…”

19

20

“Those trips are hard,” Vetfaan says with a grin. “You can always count on a few mishaps. I hear he lost a jockey-wheel. And flat tyres are common…”

1716

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“And there are ghost towns..” Oudoom remembers the story of a diamond-rich area where once the diamonds waited to be picked up on the desert floor.

IMG_3027

“So, what’s he writing about? Come on, Gertruida, don’t keep us in suspense?”

“Tell you the truth? I’m not sure. But I think he’ll finish the first episode tomorrow. It’ll be different, that’s for sure…”