Tag Archives: myth

Nine Toes’ Penny

1010396.jpgThe day Nine Toes disappeared in the Kalahari remains shrouded in mystery. Gertruida says there has to be a logical explanation, but Servaas – in an uncharacteristic pensive way – reckons one should never dabble with superstition or magic. Vetfaan dismisses the whole episode as a myth while Boggel only smiles and reminds them that the Kalahari is a great keeper of secrets.

Nine Toes, the Bushman, used to visit Rolbos occasionally. Way back then, he’d saunter in to Boggel’s Place with a casual smile and a cheerful greeting. He did this when he had something to sell: sometimes a few strings of beads, at others something more significant like an old coin or a rusted pocket knife. He’d explain these finds by telling them about the abandoned wagons of the old Dorslandtrekkers – the Afrikaners that that tried to escape British rule by trekking to Angola through the merciless desert which killed so many of them.

“There are wagons out there, Mister Boggel, just like the people left them. Eish! Many of them are almost worn away by the wind and the sun by now, but some things remain – if you knew where to dig in the sand. In the rusted tins and leather sacks, one may find strange things.” And with that, he’d hold out a handful of Kruger Pounds or maybe a ring or a necklace.

Nine Toes was rather aptly named. Many years ago a surprise meeting with a cobra – in the dead of the night – resulted in the snake being decapitated and a young Bushman contemplating his rapidly swelling big toe. He knew what would happen once the poison spread and did the only thing he could. When Vetfaan once said he didn’t believe a word of that story, Nine Toes produced the evidence the next time he visited Rolbos. The shrivelled up, dried-out toe silenced his critic completely.

Servaas had tried – many times – to find out where Nine Toes’ wagons were, but the man shook his head.

“Mister Servaas, leave those wagons to rest where they are. They supply me with a means to survive and they deserve to be undisturbed. There are graves there, too. Six of them. Long ago they had wooden crosses with names but now only the rocks on them tell you where they are. Four small ones, two big ones. And the spirits? They are there, too. They talk to me. They don’t want to be disturbed.”

Now that, of course, drew a sharp rebuke from Oudoom; but Nine Toes remained unfazed. He wasn’t talking about ghosts, he said, but spirits. There was a difference, he maintained.

“A ghost has a body, a face, a voice. When a ghost touches you, his fingers burn like ice. But a spirit…no body. No voice. A spirit can move right through you and you’ll never know. But take time, Mister Servaas, to sit down and talk with a spirit, and you’ll get an answer; not in words, but here.” He tapped the side of his head. “Spirits are soft, mostly kind and always ready to listen.”

Servaas scoffed, which only made Nine Toes shrug. An ignorant, sceptic old man could not be blamed for not believing him, after all. Oudoom remarked that that was the problem with the world those days: people believed in the most absurd things. No, Nine Toes countered, that was wrong.

“We must welcome the spirits, Mister Oudoom. They share this world with us. Sometimes they go away – I don’t know where – but then they return again. I’ve heard you people talking about angels – it’s the same thing, I think. Only, the spirits I know of don’t have wings and they don’t shine. They are. That’s all. Like the wind, they don’t move with feet. But just like you can feel the wind, I can feel the spirits. Eyes can’t see them, no, only your heart.”

Gertruida reckoned that one must not dismiss such arguments. Africa is a continent of superstition and myth – which may overlap remarkably with reality. “It’s a state of mind,” she said, “a way of thinking. We are, truth be told, the result of our upbringing. You grow up in a Christian home, so you never question the ideology. The same thing applies to all religions and certain philosophies: they get so ingrained in your mind that you never take time to dissect what – exactly – you believe in.” She smiled at that point and made a dismissive gesture. “Live and let live, I say. If Nine Toes believes in spirits, let him be. We’re not going to change it.”

But Nine Toes wasn’t finished. “Sometimes we house those spirits. They stay here.” He thumped his chest. “Other times, they live in animals. Snakes house bad spirits. Strong spirits prefer lions. My father is an elephant.”

That was one bridge too far. The group at the bar fell silent and stared at the ceiling. Arguing with Nine Toes would have been an exercise in futility – agreeing with him, equally unthinkable.

***

Then, yesterday morning, a strange thing happened. During the night, Vrede barked so much that Boggel had to get up. He checked his bedroom, the house, the street outside…nothing.

But that morning, a copper coin– obviously old – was found on Boggel’s veranda. Boggel picked it up and placed it on the counter. Gertruida came in a while later and gasped.

“Where on earth did you find this, Boggel?”

“Oh, on the doorstep. Somebody must have dropped it.”

“No way, Boggel! This is an 1853 penny with the bust of young Queen Victoria. Very rare. Nobody carries such coins about in their pockets! It’s a collector’s item.”

As Boggel turned the coin over, Vrede started barking again outside. Vetfaan came in and asked what was bothering the dog.

“Dunno. He’s been acting strangely since midnight. Bark, bark, bark all the time.”

“Well, he’s outside now, hair on his neck all erect, barking at the ground.”

Gertruida got up suddenly and walked out. Then she called them all over.

“Look, a print.” She pointed at the track in the sandy sidewalk. Vrede was standing a yard away, obviously annoyed at the spoor.Eyes fixed on the track, there was no mistaking what was irritating the town’s dog.

“Mmm…interesting.” Vetfaan bent down to have a better look. “It’s a brown hyena. Been a long time since last I saw one in the area.”

9 toes.jpgAnd so the group went back to the bar to have a cold one and chat about the strange coin Boggel had found.

Which is a pity.

Had they looked at the spoor a little more closely, they would have noticed a missing toe. And then, when the months went by and their favourite Bushman never showed up again, they would have understood.

The Big Herd Syndrome

image-large_trans++qVzuuqpFlyLIwiB6NTmJwfSVWeZ_vEN7c6bHu2jJnT8.png“I thought England would choose to remain in the European Union,” Servaas says as hy sips his beer. It’s been a quiet morning in Boggel’s Place; Vetfaan is tinkering with the tractor’s engine again and Gertruida must still return from Upington, where she went to get more wool. The blanket she’s crocheting is coming on nicely indeed;  it’s going to be another long, cold winter.

“Ag, I don’t know, Servaas. Whether they’re in or out doesn’t bother me. But you know the English – they’re a proud nation. Or at least…they were. There was a time they ruled the world and now they’re just a small island. Who cares?”

“Money cares, that’s what. The City of London is an economic hub, Boggel. They pull a lot of strings and expect a lot of people to jump when they do. This isn’t good news for the financial world – and we’re not going to escape the effects of this vote.”

They fall silent as the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer stops in front of Sammy’s Shop. When Gertruida gets out on the passenger side, Servaas brightens.

“She’s bummed a lift back! Vetfaan will be pleased; he was supposed to fetch her tomorrow. And…I’d love to hear what her opinion is.”

Within minutes, Gertruida has to listen to a barrage of questions.

“Okay, okay, you guys. Let me tell you a story. ”

***

Once upon a time – long ago – Zebra had a bright idea.

“Look, we are always scared of Lion and Leopard. Why, as soon as I lower my head to eat some grass, I have to look up again to check out the vicinity.  And when I want to drink water, I can only manage the tiniest mouthful before I have to do the same.

“Now you, Giraffe and Kudu, you have the same problem. So do you, Springbuck and Klipspringer. Even big, strong, Buffalo suffers the same fate.The threat, my friends, is universal – we all are in danger of being the main dish on the supper table of our enemies every day.

“Now, here’s what I suggest: let’s group together and become one big, happy herd. Some could be on the lookout while the others eat and drink in peace. We’ll share feeding, drinking and lookout duties amongst us rather than having to do it all by ourselves. Huh? What do you say?”

The other animals thought about Zebra’s suggestion and couldn’t decide.

“Well, then we’ll vote on this.That’s the only way we’d know whether it’s a good idea or not.” Little Duiker, the most agile of them all, didn’t like such long meetings. There were places to go, things to do.

The animals voted. Yes, the majority said, it’s better if they herd together.

Zebra’s plan worked well for a while. The animals shared lookout duties and they felt safe. Then, something strange happened. Due to a drought in the Baboon Territory, the baboons started looking for a better place to live. When they heard about the Big Herd, they headed that way in big numbers.

“We want what you have,” Baboon told Zebra. “It’s only fair. We are all animals, aren’t we? Go on, share your good fortune with us.”

“But you’re not an antelope, Mister Baboon. You guys don’t eat like us; you dig up the soil to get to scorpions and things that live underground. We only eat bits of grass here and there, allowing the veld to recover again. But…once you’re finished eating, the veld won’t be the same until after it rains once more.

“No, Mister Baboon, I’m sorry but we can’t allow you here.”

“Gee, how selfish!” Gentle Eland shook his head. “How can you be like that? Poor Baboon has nowhere to go; you can’t refuse to give him some shelter and food? No, I think Baboon deserves some compassion. He should stay.”

Now, by that time, the herd had become extremely large. Antelopes of all shapes and sizes grazed alongside each other and the news of Baboon’s plight soon became a topic of serious discussion. Most of the animals seemed to be in favour of allowing Baboon to stay, but Zebra put his hoof down.

“Then I’ll leave. I’ll take my chances. You guys want Baboon to stay? Why, go ahead and be my guest. I shall find my own piece of veld to graze. Goodbye and good riddance!”

The other animals thought Zebra was being stupid and welcomed Baboon with bright smiles.

“Shame, we feel sorry for you,” they told Baboon. “Come, we’ve gathered some berries for you.”

Now, it didn’t take too long for them to realise that Zebra was right. Baboon’s destructive way of feeding soon had the veld bare of grass. Worse, Baboon even started telling them that the veld was his, and they had no right to tell him where to feed. When the animals grumbled about this, Baboon threatened to fill up the watering hole with stones.

“He’ll never do that,” Kudu said. “Did we not help when he was starving? No, he’s just bluffing.”

But Baboon wasn’t bluffing. When the animals went for a drink the next day, they found a great heap of stones where the water once was.  The Big Herd was disappointed, angry and disillusioned all at once.

“It’s your fault,” Kudu told Eland.

“But…I thought Buffalo was supposed to guard the hole?”

“No, it was Klipspringer’s turn…or was it Duiker?”

The herd had become too big. While Zebra was there, he kept an orderly roster of guard duties; but when he left, nobody stepped up to do that. In the ensuing argument, Kudu butted Eland with his giant horns. Eland stomped on Klipspringer. And Duiker, the most agile of them all, simply ran off to search for Zebra.

***

“You see, the idea of a communal unity seemed like a great idea in the beginning. But the animals ignored one important aspect: they were all different. They ate different sorts of plants. Every specie had it’s own habits. And they all liked the company of their own type. Antelopes come in different sizes, shapes and colours. Zebra has stripes for camouflage, Kudu has horns to fight with and Buffalo is big and strong. Herding them together was a mistake – while they felt safer, they had to give up who and what they were.

“Then, when Baboon showed up, he not only ruined their peaceful co-existence, he also made them aware of their differences.

“A big herd, Servaas, can’t last forever. At some point they have to split up to retain their identities and ways of life. Today you’ll find small herds scattered here and there, because that is the way to deal with outside threats. A smaller herd needs less water and grass, escapes danger with greater ease and can travel farther with less problems.

“It is true for animals. It is true for the UK. It will be true for the European Union…and eventually, after the veld has been destroyed, for South Africa.”

 

 

 

The Scorpion that didn’t die.

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Sagittarius_and_Corona_Australis,_Microscopium,_and_TelescopiumThe latest rumours (or are they more than that?) have so upset Vetfaan that he took to the dunes again. He does this from time to time; to create distance between himself and the dark reality of South Africa, to clear his mind….and to seek encouragement from his old friend, !Kung. Truth be told, !Kung has the strangest way of putting things into a new perspective, despite the fact that he never reads a paper, still believes that there are small people trapped inside the TV (he just might be right on that score!) and has never heard our president speak. This last attribute also could be seen as a point in his favour.Or maybe he’s just fortunate..

Vetfaan finds the wizened old man waiting patiently in the shade of the camelthorn tree near the big red dune. Vetfaan is never sure whether !Kung always stays in the vicinity or only comes when he knows Vetfaan’s visit is imminent. When he asked him about it once, !Kung simply smiled and told Vetfaan that there are many things he’d never understand and therefore wouldn’t believe. “The problem with Outside People is they ask too many questions,” !Kung said quietly, and left it at that. Outside People, in !Kung’s language, is anybody that lives beyond the shifting dunes of the Kalahari.

After their customary greeting, lighting the fire and sharing the comfortable silence between them, Vetfaan gets up, fetches the Kudu liver he had brought along and roasts it on the glowing embers.

“You are much troubled,” Kung says eventually, running his small hand over the white stubbles of his remaining hair.

How do you explain the chaos in the country to somebody who has never even voted? Doesn’t read, cannot write and is unable to understand the term ‘corruption’? Who can simply not understand  that senior officials are involved in criminal activities; smuggling everything from cigarettes to rhino horn, raping the treasury and consider lying as part of their job descriptions? !Kung has never even heard of ambassadors, nor of the ‘doctor’ we have in Japan or the embarrassment of our emissary in the United States.

“There are hyenas in the country, !Kung. They are eating our people.” Vetfaan stares into the flames, knowing this is enough. !Kung will hear all the things he hasn’t said.

The old man nods. “The drought has come.”

Vetfaan waits. He knows there is more. !Kung gets up to fetch the calabash of honey beer, which he offers to Vetfaan before drinking himself.

“When the grass is this high,” he lifts his hand above his head, “there is enough for the oryx and the kudu and the hare. Some eat of the trees, some of the grass. When there is plenty, everybody is fat. But sometimes there are too many of the one, more than the other. And then the trees can’t make leaves fast enough and the bigger animals will start feeding on the grass the hare needs to eat. Hare will not be happy.

“‘Now look here, Kudu and Oryx, you are eating my grass,'” Hare will say. “‘You have to stop.'”

“‘But we can’t, can you not see? We have bigger bodies than you – we need the grass. Anyway, we are much stronger, so go away.'”

“But, Mister Vetfaan, Hare doesn’t want to. Where can he go? The drought is everywhere, remember? Also, this is his home, his place. And so Hare sits down to think about how the bigger animals are trying to cheat him out of his food.”

!Kung falls silent again, gathering his thoughts. Why can Vetfaan not work it out himself? It is so simple…

“Hare then does what he does best. He starts digging a hole. A big one. And he gets Baboon to cover it with branches and twigs. And he puts some nice, green grass on the other side of the hole and then he sits down to wait.”

!Kung gets up, stretches, and starts scooping out a hollow in the sand. At his age, his hips tend to be painful at night. To get a good night’s sleep, he must prepare his bed carefully.

“And…” Vetfaan arches an eyebrow. “What happened?”

!Kung looks up, surprised at Vetfaan’s question.

“What must happen, Mister Vetfaan. That’s what.”

They sit in silence for a while before turning in. Overhead the stars glitter against the cold black of the sky. Vetfaan identifies Sagittarius, the mythical archer, with his arrow aimed at Scorpius’s heart. The arrow, however, never gets to be released, will never hit its mark. The real victor, Vetfaan realises, is the scorpion.

Yes, he thinks before drifting off to sleep. !Kung is one hundred percent right.

Of course!

“…. see a bad moon rising.
I see trouble on the way…”

 

 

The Ant-heap Hater

IMG_2541 (2)Boggel’s Place has been eerily silent for the last week or two. After some welcome showers, the veld is green once more. Vetfaan and Kleinpiet have had to tend to their farms, leaving Gertruida  (with a stack of National Geographics) and Boggel (polishing and repolishing the glasses) alone in the small bar. Oudoom is in Upington for a church meeting.

“Anything interesting?” Boggel glances hopefully towards Gertruida, who puts down the magazine.

“Always. I learn so much from these books. Look at the beautiful photographs of ant-hills.” She holds up the glossy page.

“That’s huge!” Boggel squints. He’ll have to see that optician in Upington sometime. “But such a lot of ants must have done a lot of damage? Must have upset a framer by destroying a lot of veld.”

Gertruida rolls her eyes. “Don’t be so negative, Boggel. You sound like the politicians who try to talk away the wave of xenophobia. Ants, I’ll have you know, are vitally important to our survival. Yes, they make a living by working hard, but the are essential for the spread of seeds. They till the land, remove dead animals and plants, clean up debris. Ants are the most numerous species in the world and have survived everything Mother Nature has thrown at them. They are Nature’s best recyclers; a veritable example to us all.”

“How can you compare ant-hills with xenophobia, Gertruida? It doesn’t make sense?”

***

There once lived a man who hated ants.

“Look at them! Always scurrying this way and that, never resting. They eat my crops and destroy my stores. This ground is mine, I shall not have it colonised by foreigners. I shall have to kill them all.”

His wife put down the bucket she was carrying.

“Oh, my husband! Always complaining and complaining. All you do is to watch those ants – from dawn to dusk, all day long. How many times have I asked you to dig a furrow from the river so we can have water near the house? And why is the roof still leaking? And look at the house: it’s barely big enough for the two of us, but you refuse to build on a room for the children.” She sighed. If only her husband would do something!

The man got angry and stormed out of the house.  Taking a shovel, he started destroying the ant-hill next to the humble hut they lived in. The ants had no right to eat his meagre crop! He dug all day to try to demolish all the ant’s tunnels.

That night he sat down to his small bowl of porridge, hoping his wife would have calmed down. No such luck.

“There is a huge patch of ground next to the river. Why haven’t you tilled that? Why didn’t you plant enough corn there to see us through the winter? Why…”

He interrupted her rudely, telling her to shut up. He was the man, he’d make the decisions. And anyway, who was she to tell him how to farm? She didn’t know anything…

The man set out the next day to attack more and more ant-heaps. He forgot about his patch of corn, which withered away under the sun. Winter came. When at last springtime arrived, the man and his wife had starved to death.

Outside their small hut, the ants had resumed building their nest.

***

“That man was stupid, Gertruida. He should have cultivated his land properly and left the ants to do their job.”

“Ja, Boggel. Removing ant-heaps wasn’t the answer. Ants will survive, no matter what. The man didn’t.”

plants_antsGertruida stares out of the window as silence settles in Boggel’s Place once more. People could learn a lot from ants, she thinks. They get on with the job of living, while people are constantly blaming others for their hardship. It’s as if some people have a default setting that forces them to expect others to solve their problems – while they are content to simply complain and object to the success anybody else might have achieved.

“We’ve become a nation of ant-haters,” Boggel says as he stacks the glasses back onto their shelf. “We simply cannot cope with competition because we’re too lazy to work harder.”

Gertruida doesn’t even look up from her reading. They’ve discussed the issue many times before and there doesn’t seem to be a solution. Once a nation has slipped down the slope of unproductivity, it’ll take a miracle to reverse the trend.

“I see they’re going to teach Mandarin in our schools now.” Boggel looks at the front page of yesterday’s newspaper.. “Even teach it to the police…”

“Ja, I saw that. The real ants are coming, Boggel. If we don’t – or won’t – cultivate the land next to the river, we’ll pay the price…”

Who Painted the Moon Black?

MAAN 002 mod“There once was a very tall man.” Gertruida sits back, making up the story as she tells it. “Very tall. Taller than anybody else on earth. He was a soft-spoken man who cared for his family very much.”

Servaas nods to egg her on. He wants to hear another fable, a myth, a legend – anything – to make him forget the way things are in the country.

“He was a good hunter and  an even better farmer. His family ate well every day. But…like his family, he was afraid of the dark. In those days, the nights were black with only a few stars to light up the sky. His family, because of their fear, collected firewood every day so that the flames could drive the darkness away once the sun had set. This made the tall man very happy.”

By now, everybody in Rolbos is listening with rapt attention. Gertruida’s fables aren’t stories to ignore; they all have a moral hidden somewhere.

“But one day he tracked an Eland and he ventured too far away from his home to return to the family’s fire. The sun set. It became dark. And the man was afraid once more.

“Getting up carefully, he stretched a hand into the darkness and to his surprise he touched something. Up there, in the black of the sky, he felt an object nobody had ever seen before. It was the moon. The man sat down and thought about his discovery. If only he could make the moon bright, he’d never have to fear the night again.

“He went home the next day and told everybody what he had found, but nobody believed him. They laughed and told him he must have dreamt it, nothing can exist in such blackness. No, they said, only a few stars could live in the dark, and they weren’t things to touch, anyway. Did everybody not know that those pinpricks of light were holes in the blanket that covers the sky at night? They laughed at the tall man and he felt much ashamed.

“Still, he knew there was something up there, something only he could touch. But how was he going to make the people stop laughing at him? He had to make a plan, so he went down to the river to think. He asked the water to go up there and roar like a waterfall – so the people might hear the object. The water refused, mumbling that water runs down, never up.. Then he asked the crows to fly up at night to nest on the object so they can squawk there, but they didn’t want to. They had to stay on earth to scavenge from Man, they said.

“And so he asked jackall to howl on the moon, lion to roar on the moon, hyena to laugh on the moon. They all refused. Eventually the man realised he would not be able to make the people hear the moon – he had to show it to them…but how?

“That’s when the fireflies came to him to tell him they’d go. They could fly, they said, and make light. If many of them gathered on the tall man’s moon, people would be able to see not only the moon, but also through the darkness of the night.

“The man was delighted. The next evening he gathered everybody around him and watched as the fireflies all gathered on the moon to give them light. The people were amazed and now treated the tall man with respect. They even made him their leader.

“The sun welcomed the moon in the sky and befriended the new source of light. They were very happy.

“But the tall man became old and told the people to elect a new leader – he wanted to rest, he said. So a new leader was chosen and the tall man lived out his days in peace. Once his soul left his body to join those that went before, the people soon forgot about him. Such is the nature of man, after all. Good people are much easier to forget than bad ones.”

Oudoom holds up a hand, interrupting Gertruida’s story. “That’s true, you know? History books are filled with the stories of bad men – when last did you read about something nice and uplifting in the past? It’s there, of course, but there are more Mussolini’s than Mother Teresa’s.”

Gertruida flashes a wintry smile in Oudoom’s direction – she hates interjections. “Anyway, the new leader was jealous of the tall man’s accomplishment and wondered what he could do to impress people. After much thought, he decided to make the moon black again. If his predecessor gave the people light at night, he’d give them darkness. Surely they’d respect him for that? So he went down to the river to fetch long reeds, to which he fastened some grass. He piled mud on this long brush and waited for night-time. Then he painted the moon black again. The fireflies died  and night became dark once more.

“The sun saw what had happened and grieved for his friend the tall man had created. It therefore refused to draw back the night’s blanket from then on, leaving the earth in darkness.

“The people became afraid again and cried out, but the darkness remained.”

Gertruida falls silent and asks Boggel for a beer.

“That’s it? That’s the story?” Servaas shakes his head; surely that can’t be the end?

“Well, that’s as far as the story goes, Servaas. Until another tall man comes along, the land will remain dark. So far, it hasn’t happened.”

Oudoom nods slowly. He grasped the moral. “So, we’ll just have to wait, Gertruida?”

“Yes Oudoom. It’ll remain dark until another Mandela comes along.”

The Bird that would be King

Albatross_Atl_YN_1_clive_harris_01_november“Fire,” Gertruida said, “is a natural phenomenon. Ever since the first thunderclouds gathered in the sky or the first volcano erupted, flames have been at work on dry grass and old wood. Fire isn’t there just to make light and cook food – nature needs fires to clear land, to help seeds germinate and then allow new growth to take over.”

“That may be true, but the fire in Cape Town destroyed much more than a few old trees. Houses, resorts, forests and the mountainside  will need a lot of time and money to recover. People have been left without homes. Animals were burnt to death. I can’t see the bright side this time, Gertruida, I just can’t.” True to her nature, Precilla dabs a tear.

“Nature – like Life – works in endless circles, Precilla. The forest of today is so often the burnt landscape of tomorrow. Beauty yields to age just like summer must bow to winter. Once we understand that, we know that the devastation we now see, will return to be the fairest Cape of all in the near future.”

“Does it always work that way? Even with people?’

Gertruida sighed. This question, she knows, leads to the one exception of the rule. “Not always. You see, Nature will recover from fires and floods and droughts – simply because Nature accepts the cycles of fortune it is subject to. In contrast, we are prone to overstate our importance, which may very well lead to permanent damage. Let me tell you an old African myth, Precilla. . Maybe it’ll help you understand…”

***

Once upon a time – long, long ago – the earth belonged to the birds. Not only were they the only ones who knew the secret of navigation and seasons, they also could fly high to look for fountains and rivers, forests to live in and safe places to nest. Over the years they became more and more numerous as they occupied the most fertile pieces of the land.

One bird, in particular, outstripped the others in wisdom. It was a  huge animal with beautiful plumage – the envy of all the other flying species.

“I shall rule over the land,” he said as he surveyed the vast continent, “for I am bigger and more beautiful than the rest of my family. And,” he added smugly, “I am so much cleverer than they.”

So this bird – his name I shall tell you in a moment – set about proclaiming his kingship. “I am of royal blood,” he cried, “and all the animals will pay homage to me. It is my right!”

While it was true that this bird could fly higher and remain in the air much longer than everybody else, the other birds accepted his claim and then addressed him as their king. For a while this brought great satisfaction to the self-proclaimed monarch and he bore himself in a manner befitting his new rank. He was gracious and kind and took a keen interest in all those under his proverbial wing.

Then, one day, the big king-bird soared high on the winds and looked down at the small animals grazing on the plains below.

“Is it right,” he mused, “that all the feathered animals proclaim me as their king, and yet those with hooves and paws ignore me? They are surely too small to oppose my rightful claim.”

So the big bird soared down to land next to a tortoise.”I am now your king. You shall respect me as such.”

And the tortoise, slow and small like he was, drew back into his shell to contemplate this.

Next, the bird approached a jackal, repeating his claim.

And the jackal, as clever as he was, slipped into a burrow under a rock to think about it.

Then the bird found a porcupine and informed him that he had to bow down before the new royalty.

And the porcupine rustled his quills and withdrew to analyze the situation.

Finally, the bird landed next to a lion. Before the bird could finish his proclamation, the lion smote it heavily with his huge paw, cursing the bird for being so forward.

“As the king of all the animals, I will not allow such foolish talk. You, who have inflated your importance to the point where you are deceiving not only others, but also yourself….you will henceforth not return to land. You will soar over the oceans, vainly searching for peace and rarely put your feet on solid ground again. Sailors will stare at you in fear, as you will be the symbol of misfortune and bad luck.  A king you shall never be, only a servant of the winds.”

The lion turned to go, but the badly injured bird pleaded for mercy.

“Please, Lion, do not leave me like this. I am but a poor bird and your curse will make me poorer still. Have you no mercy?’

And the lion turned to look at the bedraggled imposter and felt sorry for him. “I am, indeed, merciful. I shall grant you one wish.”

The bird didn’t hesitate.

“Give me something – anything – to help me?”

Lion thought about this and finally agreed. “I shall give you the sharpest eyes of all – so that you may gaze upon the land while you are flying over the oceans. You shall see the land and the rocks and the rivers. You shall observe the animals grazing and playing and hunting. But you, banished over the ocean, shall only see and only observe, for you have laid claim to what isn’t yours and tried to rule over what you have no right to. Your eyes, Bird, will be your punishment and your reward, which will be as one.”

And so the Albatross gathered his feathers and limped away. After he regained his strength, be flew to the ocean, where he resigned himself to his fate.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Gertruida. But…why tell it now?”

Gertruida smiled as she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you see? It’s the story of South Africa. It is also the story of most countries. The rulers of today will one day – if they live long enough – wonder why they didn’t go about their tasks with more compassion and kindness. They’ll look back and see what they have lost.

“Sadly, it isn’t only the politicians and the rulers who suffer this lot. It happens to common people – like us – as well. And the source of this hardship, Precilla, is greed. It’s the ego. It’s the demand to be more important than we are.”

Precilla thought about it for a long time. Then: “The fire in the Cape has come. Now it is gone. And nature will recover?”

Gertruida nodded.

“But people who succumb to greed and ego will lose what they craved for? Rulers and subjects alike?”

“Yes, Precilla. The proud and unbowed necks of too many, will wear the albatross of their folly in the end. It’s in every newspaper, every day – radicals, extremists, fundamentalists – once you proclaim that you have not only all the answers, but the only one, the winds over the vast ocean awaits you.”

“The Cape is lucky, then. It’ll recover.”

“Yes, Precilla. That’s the message. Nature can complete it’s cycles. Humans don’t.”

The Crows Are Here.

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

One year, the Biggest Family sang their own song:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then, Old One?”

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

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

***

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

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

For those who can’t follow the Afrikaans words:

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

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

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

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

The Legend of the Woman Caught in Between

woman

“That’s a strange photo, Gertruida.” Vetfaan has been peeking over Gertruida’s shoulder while she paged through one of her old photo albums.

“I took this in a remote spot in Zambia, Vetfaan, after the locals told me about The Woman Caught in Between. The picture, like the legend, is most appropriate.”

***

There once was a woman who lived in a war torn land. Everybody – it seemed – was angry at everybody else, all the time. Towns fought against towns, districts took each other on in bloody battles and there was no peace in any of the provinces. Families were torn apart. Friendships ended in bloodshed.

One day, after the funeral of yet another of her sons, the woman sat crying alone under a big Acacia tree.

“Why,” she asked the thorny tree, “do we have to keep on fighting? Surely we should be happy – there’s enough room for everybody and the land could supply more than enough to eat and drink – provided there is peace. But no! Because we’re battling each other all the time, there are no men to cultivate the land or look after the cattle. Now we’re dying – if not from battle, then from hunger.”

The Acacia tree – used to being scorned because of its ugliness and thorns – listened quietly, understanding every word she said.

“You have to move,” it said.

“What, move to another country? Where? Are you crazy?” The woman was angry now. “This is the country of my fathers, and their fathers before them. I belong here. My children belong here.”

“No, not your country. Your mind.” The Acacia tree tried to look aggrieved, but only managed to grow a few more thorns.

“What?” The woman didn’t understand.

“You have to move your mind, woman. Think new thoughts. Stop contemplating the wars of the past and start considering a time of peace and cooperation. It’s when you stop fighting the wrongs of yesterday – and start building with the rights of tomorrow – that your tears will dry up and the lands will groan under the burden of the harvest.”

“Oh.” The woman didn’t know what to say about the strange idea. But…could the Acacia be right?

She spent a sleepless night before returning to the tree the next day.

“I’m going to do it,” she announced. “Think differently. Move my mind.”

The Acacia was happy and sprouted a few blooms. “Remember, woman, that you have to move everybody’s minds. This is no small task, I can tell you. Look at me: I’d like to get rid of my thorns, but my family refuses. So here I am, stuck with thorns for eternity.”

The woman hugged the tree, despite the thorns. “It must be hard to live with such a history.”

“It is. But you go ahead and try. Maybe you can get rid of your thorns.”

And the woman tried. She spoke to warriors and mothers, to kings and children. And to her surprise, they all agreed: this was a brilliant idea.

When the day came for everybody to move their minds, the woman offered to go first. “I’ll show you how. After all the hardships and sorrow of such a long time, I’ll take the first step to liberate us all.”

And the woman tried. She closed her eyes and made herself deaf to the sound of clashing swords. She shouldn’t have done that. If she had realised that there were still swords dripping with blood, she might have survived. Still, she imagined a peaceful country filled with happy faces.

While she was busy moving her mind, a the fighting soldiers paused for a while. What? This woman wanted peace? How outrageous! No more war would mean they would actually have to work for a living? Exchange their swords and spears for shovels and ploughs? Work from dawn to dusk to provide food? No! That’s not the way to go at all! Yes, some do die on the battlefield, but then you simply take what used to be theirs. That is so much better than working under the hot sun all day!

And so – for a minute or two, the woman got her wish. The fighting stopped. The soldiers turned on her and grabbed her before she could finish moving her mind. The shock of it all stopped the woman, hovering halfway between war and peace.

The fighting continued.

The swords remained red.

And the woman was kept in Between forever.

***

“That’s a horrible story, Gertruida! So sad. Fortunately it’s just a story…”

“No, Vetfaan. Not a story. Not a legend. It’s the story of Africa in general…and South Africa in particular. We’re sitting next to the Tree of History – actually, the Tree of Knowledge – and we don’t understand a word it is telling us.

“We are, my friend, stuck in Between, doomed to remain there as a reminder of an impossible dream…”

Adam’s Calendar…again?

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

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

Ale's Stones

Ale’s Stones

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

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

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

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

Tellinger-Giant-Footprint

Credit: extraterrestrialcontact.com/

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

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

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

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

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

P9200513

Adam’s Calendar

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

Credit: timeslive.co.za

Nkandla. Credit: timeslive.co.za

They all get it immediately, of course.

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

Mind the Gaps

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

“Why do we always have to talk about Greek and Roman history?”

Vetfaan’s question makes them all look up. Surely they haven’t just talked about Greece and Italy? But then they see the glint in the burly farmer’s eye and realise he’s up to something.

“Ye-e-es? What’s on your mind, Vetfaan?”

“I just think that we have some perfectly good myths in South Africa, that’s all. Instead of jabbering on about how wonderful the ancient Mediterranean peoples were, how about talking about our own stories? At least we can relate to them much better than these foreign tales.”

“You mean like the story of the hawk and the chickens?”

***

It is said that, a long time ago, Hawk and the Chicken family were great friends. Because Hawk could fly, it was he who visited the flightless family every so often. They’d sit down and talk all day long, swapping stories and news. As for Mrs Hen, she welcomed these visits because Hawk never failed to bring toys as presents for the little ones. This went on for a long, long time.

Then, one day, Hawk arrived for a visit, but he had forgotten to bring along any toys. Saddened by his oversight, he produced the key to his house for the little ones to play with. Clucking happily, the chickens scooted off to the ash heap. where they played catch with the shiny key. But, like little chickens are, they soon tired of the game and found something else to play with.

When the sun was about to set, Hawk thanked Hen and Cock, and prepared to leave.

“Where is my key?” Hawk called the little chicks and glared at them.

Oh! The little ones took fright and ran over to the rubbish dump, where they searched for the key. Hawk waited and waited. When it became clear that his key was lost, he became very angry.

“My food is locked in my house!” His eyes blazed with fury. “What am I supposed to eat tonight? Get my key.”

But look as they might, the chickens couldn’t find the key.

Then, Hawk flew high into the air, swooped down again, and caught one of  the little chickens. 

“I shall return tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, for my key. You had better find it, Chickens, or I shall be forced to feed on all your children.”

And so it came about that Hawk will forever patrol the skies to prey on his erstwhile friends.

And the Chicken family?

At dawn every day, Cock is up first, shouting: ‘Get the ke-e-ey! Get the ke-e-ey.’ And for the rest of the day the whole family will scratch, scratch in the ground and on the ash heap, hoping to find Hawk’s key at last.

***

“Is that a real myth, or did you make up that story, Gertruida?”

Tales_from_Southern_AfricaFor once, Gertruida seems uncertain. “I read a book, many years ago. It was a collection of Southern African stories, compiled and translated by A C Jordan. Fascinating stuff, I have to admit. But is was some time ago, so I may have changed the story a bit.”

“But what does it mean, Gertruida? Sure, it tells the story of why hawks hunt chickens, why the cock crows so early in the morning, and why chickens scratch around so much…but surely there is a deeper meaning? African tales are famous for what they don’t tell; even our oral historians specialise in that.”

“You’re so right. In Africa you have to be careful not just to listen to the words – you have to fill in the gaps yourself. Stories, speeches, statements – almost any communication, especially when delivered from a public platform – these all contain messages inside the message. Maybe it is true for politicians everywhere, but in Africa we have the masters of the art. Our politicians come from a tradition of storytelling, it isn’t something they have to learn. We don’t need spin-doctors like the Americans do – our politicians are DIY-spinners themselves – and experts at it.”

“But still, ” Servaas bunches the bushy brows together, “there must be a moral to the story?”

“It’s the key, Servaas. The key.” Gertruida takes a thoughtful sip of beer before continuing. “A hawk comes along and gives the chickens a shiny thing to play with. The chickens are overjoyed. Then the chickens mess things up and the hawk starts feeding on them.” She pauses, sees that Servaas still doesn’t get it, and sighs. It’s so obvious! 

“Look at what’s happening in Africa, my friend. Russia wants to ‘help’ us by building nuclear power stations. China ‘assists’ many African countries by building roads and bridges and dams and schools. American aid ensures the survival of several governments – and the European Union supports a number of environmental and social programs. Do you think they do this because they have an obligation to render help to impoverished countries? Or are these efforts merely the key to gaining access to the raw materials Africa is blessed with? There’s an old rule about investing: you want to get more out of it than you put into it. It’s so simple…

“And don’t think the story only applies to politics, either. Most relationships contain an element of this give-and-take attitude. That’s why so many friendships get shipwrecked and why the divorce lawyers drive around in flashy cars. Too many individuals turn out to be hawks with shiny keys…it’s so sad.

“I think the old Xhosa storytellers were wonderfully creative in telling their bits of folklore. They contained great wisdom and some serious warnings. If only we could learn from that and fill in the gaps, we’d be so much better off.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “So…Gertruida? Did the little chickens find the key?”

“Oh Vetfaan! Sometimes I wonder if you are capable of intelligent thought! It’s a story, for goodness sakes!” Then, eyeing him critically, she smiles wryly. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”

“Fill in the gap, Gertruida, fill in the gap….”