Tag Archives: survival

Will the Honourable Cockroach please step forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 18)

bushman_guide-682x1024…And of course, that’s where Gertruida stops telling the story. Just there, with the red tomatoes in !Ka’s hand. Just when he asked her help to find somebody. Leaving Vetfaan exasperated, confused, irritated and angry.

“Then what? You can’t stop it there, dammit! What happened then?”

Gertruida says a good story ends with a question. At least, in real life, it does. Whatever has happened before simply brings the story to a point in time when telling more is unnecessary. But, she asks, since when does Life work up to an ending? Nothing ever stops completely. The bottom line of: and the lived happily ever after, only happens in fairy tales. We all know that, don’t we?

We live a never-ending story, and for those of us who believe, even death isn’t the final full stop. Our stories continue in the lives we have effected in so many ways – some small, indeed – but others in a more remarkable way.

So she simply smiles and tells Vetfaan to make up his own ending for the time being, just like we all do, every day.

Anyway, she says, they’ll all have to wait to see how it ends. “This story isn’t finished yet, Vetfaan. Not yet.”

***

Gertruida doesn’t say anything about her further discussion with !KA. Not a word about how he discovered the tomatoes and later – cautiously, carefully – the two people living nearby. This happened, – oh, how many seasons ago – when he stumbled across the little fountain while he was tracking a klipspringer.

And she tells nothing about the strange friendship that developed after that.

***

Gert and Lettie lived in their tree-cave, quite content with their circumstances. They were safe, had enough to eat and drink, and never considered returning to civilisation. Captive, in a strange way…

At first it had been the fear that the war wasn’t over and that Gert would have to go to jail; but as the seasons rolled by, they simply settled into a comfortable existence where all their needs were catered for. They had each other, and that seemed quite enough. Yes, they said over many a campfire at night: why return to the madness people call civilisation,  when they have love and tranquility right there?

And then, one morning, they found !Ka sitting – cross-legged – outside their dwelling as if he’d always been there. At that stage !Ka command of English was rather poor, but still the two parties soon established that the one meant no harm to the other.

Some people may have considered !Ka to be primitive, but that wasn’t true, of course. In exchange for tomatoes, he taught Gert more about tracking, digging for roots and tubers and showed Lettie how to use the skins of animals to make soft, comfortable clothes and shoes. Gert learnt a little about the difficult San language. !Ka readily memorised many English words.

!K a didn’t stay with them. That would have been rude, He visited them often, though – not only for tomatoes, but also because Gert was a very proficient hunter and meat was always plentiful. Their friendship grew.

As soon as they could communicate relatively freely, Gert impressed on the little yellow man the importance of secrecy.

“Look, I was in the army,” he said. !Ka knew about the army. Some of his family were recruited to be trackers up north. “The war…wasn’t good.” !Ka understood that as well. Many Bushmen who helped the army, were left destitute after the war. “I didn’t want to kill somebody. So I came here. Nobody must know.”

“Nobody?” !Ka couldn’t figure it out. San people always supported each other, no matter what the circumstances were.

“Nobody. Especially not people with my skin.” Gert lifted his shirt to expose the untanned skin. “Like this. They’d want to hunt me.”

!Ka, like his family, understood the plight of the hunted. For generations they have been chased, killed, imprisoned – just because they were Bushmen. All ‘other’ peoples did that; black and white. That’s why the Bushmen chose to live where ‘others’ can’t. The desert became their keeper of secrets and sanctuary – and now he would honour his two new friends in the same way.

Besides, he liked the two strange pale people who made the Baobab their home. Did they not, when !Tung became ill, give him powerful medicine that took the fever away? And did they not share their meat when Gert hunted? How else could he repay Lettie for the needle and thread she gave him – without expecting anything back? No, their secret would be safe. He wouldn’t even whisper a word to Vetfaan and Kleinpiet on the rare occasions they met.

And so it stayed.

Until Gert got ill.

It was a strange sickness, which he first noticed when he stepped on a thorn and the wound wouldn’t stop bleeding. Lettie applied a poultice and a pressure bandage, but to no avail. !Ka suggested putting raw liver on the little wound, and that stemmed the drops of blood. Not thinking about it much, Gert went out hunting again the next morning. This time, his nose started bleeding for no reason at all.

Lettie then looked at her husband critically for the first time in many months. We all know the situation: you live with somebody and eventually don’t notice the small changes we all experience as time passes. Only then did she notice the pallor, the weight loss. Why hadn’t she picked it up before? Yes, he lost two teeth last month, but so had she – albeit only one. And his hair? What happened to his hair? And yes, he had been tired lately…unnaturally so.

That’s when Lettie took !Ka for a walk to the garden, where the little patch of tomatoes thrived under their canopy of thorn branches.

“You have to get a message out, !Ka. We need help. My father. He has to come. Please…”

***

Gertruida sat, open-mouthed, as !Ka told the story of the two white people he had befriended out in the desert. The Kalahari is a vast place, yes, she knew that, but for two people to live there…for almost forty years? They must be in their sixties at least! And if Letties father still lived, he must be well over eighty?

“How is this man, Gert? Is he…okay?”

“He still hunts, Miss Gertruida, but the bullets have long since been finished. He hunts with a bow and arrows, like me. Only, he comes home with a rabbit or a very small buck these days. Once, he brought a tortoise. I do most of the hunting now. Miss Gertruida, I think he’s dying…”

***

Gertruida phoned an old contact from her time in National Intelligence. Within an hour she had an address for Brigadier Gericke, Huis Vergenoeg, on Beauford West. Another telephone call confirmed that yes, this had been the Major in Fort Doppies, and that he was one of the more ‘difficult’ old men in the old age home.

“Are you family?” The young voice at the other end seemed excited. “We need a break, madam. Really. The Brigadier is too much. Just last night he chased old captain Starke right around the home, because Starke said General Viljoen was a coward and a sell-out. We had to lock them both in their rooms for the whole night. Please Madam, come and take him, even if it’s just for a few days…”

Gericke was much more forthcoming when he got on the phone. Without waiting to hear what the call is about, he launched straight into a tirade.

“If this is about that damn fool Starke, I can tell you he can count himself lucky my arthritis has been acting up lately. If I caught that man, I would have moered his false teeth right back to his hemorrhoids. And I’m not sorry. Don’t expect me to apologise.”

It took more than an hour to get the old man to grasp fully what the call is all about. He asked a million questions, of which Gertruida could answer only a few. In the end, he understood: his daughter is alive! Alive!

Sobbing, he told Gertruida to expect him the next morning.

Fanny’s Surprise (# 37)

crashCaptain Mokoena sees the ground rushing up to meet the aircraft. Although he has bled off all speed he could without forcing the plane to stall and literally fall out of the sky, his instinct is that they’re still travelling way to fast. He still fights the controls, but there’s no sense in it now; barely feet above the ground, nothing he does now will have any effect.

When the belly of the plane crashes into the ground, the grinding and tearing at the fuselage is deafening. Mokoena had almost landed the plane on the road he had spotted.

Almost.

Not quite.

The plane skids along on the uneven surface next to the track, leaving a trail of destruction and scattering the broken bushes, pieces of iron and aluminium and the contents of the baggage compartment over the veld. A huge cloud of dust follows the speeding craft across the surface of the Kalahari like a frantic angry dog, while the tearing and screeching of the destruction seems to pitch higher and higher with every passing second.

weaverMokoena can see the tree coming. It’s the only tree next to the road between Grootdrink and Rolbos, a large thorn tree which serves as home for several families of communal weavers. The aircraft seems to be drawn to it as if by some giant magical force, and there’s nothing he can do to avoid smashing into that as well. As the tree looms larger and larger in the windscreen, he starts praying softly.

***

Gertruida, in the meantime, has been driving like a woman possessed, and maybe she is. When she reaches the turn-off towards Rolbos, she has to slow down on the gravel road; but even so her skill behind the wheel would have impressed Alonso. Even Hamilton, maybe. And, while fighting the wheel, she has managed to phone Boggel with the news. I think an aircraft is going to crash near Rolbos, Boggel. Please get the people to be on the lookout, will you?

Now Boggel isn’t your every-day barman. He knows his customers too well. When Gertruida has that tone of voice (almost verging on hysteria) you don’t ask questions. Rushing out, he gets the whole town to scan the sky for anything that looks like an aeroplane in trouble. They all gather in Voortrekker Weg, where Vetfaan divides the sky into sections to watch.

“What’s this all about, Boggel?” Precilla watches an eagle soaring high in the sky, her hand held above her eyes to shield the sun.

“She didn’t elaborate. Sounded extremely stressed, if you ask me. Look, we know she went to Upington to fetch Doc Woodcock. By the tone of her voice – and the fact that she’s on her way here – I’d guess it’s Doc’s plane we’re looking for. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.”

Vetfaan has his powerful binoculars aimed towards the South, more-or-less in the direction of Grootdrink, and tells everybody this is a senseless waste of valuable drinking time. “What are the chances of us spotting an aeroplane here? We’re not on any flight path at all.”

“That’s the point, Vetfaan. If that plane is in trouble, it means something is wrong. And wrong planes may stray far from the right path.” Servaas never lets an opportunity pass. “Like us, they tend to crash because of that.”

“Oh, put a sock in it, will you?” Kleinpiet isn’t in a mood for a sermon. “Rather watch your bit of sky and shout if you see anything.”

For the next thirty minutes or so, the townsfolk argue, banter and grumble while they spot eagles, hawks, several crows and a solitary heron (where did it come from?). Then Vetfaan lets out a shout.

“I see it! I see it!!” He points. “There, towards Grootdrink! And it’s coming down fast.”

***

Mokoena instinctively leans over to his right, as if willing the stricken craft to veer off it’s crash course with the tree. It doesn’t help, of course. The almighty bang as the plane hits the old tree is louder than the screeching and grinding of the fuselage over the rocks that is tearing belly of the plane apart. The windscreen shatters as a branch snaps off the trunk. The obstacle  causes the nose to slow down, slewing the tail of the craft in a wide arc across the veld, flattening several giant ant heaps. Somewhere in the middle of the plane, the structure starts folding, bending, as the plane threatens to snap in two.

And suddenly…

Silence.

It is as if nature honours the brave Captain Mokoena with a moment of complete quiet, ashamed that such a beautiful craft had to be twisted and broken in such a vicious way.

The first one to react, is the woman sitting next to Doc Woodcock.

“I didn’t die! I didn’t die!” With blood streaming from a cut in her forehead, she manages to unclasp her safety belt to stand on trembling legs. Slowly, others follow her example – the clicking of the safety belt buckles unnaturally loud in the eerie stillness. Ons stewardess lies slumped in her seat, still help upright by her harness, but apparently lifeless. The other one gets up, walks in a daze to the emergency door and struggles with the mechanism. A burly man joins her and they force the door open.

The bottom of the plane is almost gone, leaving the red Kalahari sand only a foot or two away from the exit. Like sheep on their way to a dip, the passengers queue up to take that small step to freedom. It is not neccessary to hurry them up – they know they have to get out as soon as possible. Men and women, some of them bleeding and limping, help the fellow travellers who are too dazed or shocked to get off the plane on their own accord.

Kallie Franz is last of the able-bodied passengers to leave. The stewardess asks him to take the group as far away from the wreck as possible and to keep them together. She says she’s going too check whether anybody is left behind, and if the pilot is okay.

And then they hear the roar of approaching vehicles. The dust on the road from Grootdrink – as well as from Rolbos – seems to indicate that help is on its way.

In seat 26 E Doc Woodcock refuses to get up. He’s hugging himself while reciting Baa-baa black sheep in a small-boy voice; his brilliant mind regressing to a time when the world was a happy place and love wasn’t just another four-letter word…

Weekly Photo Challenge: From Above (Lessons to be learnt in the Kalahari)

These two explorers live on an elevated shelf  in Boggel’s Place. They have learnt a valuable lesson – by viewing things from a greater height, you get a better perspective of life. In fact, you learn that even under the most arduous conditions, living life to the fullest allows you to survive  the worst of times.

e

From their perspective, the trials and tribulations we all face, are lessons in survival.

eTake, for instance, the miracle of a plover’s nest. Exposed and completely out in the open, these birds simply  line a hollow with a layer of grass and survive under the harshest conditions. Two birds. One egg. No protection. They should have been extinct centuries ago – but they aren’t. Don’t let the odds tell you something is impossible. Be brave enough to follow your heart.

e1A few yards away, the stunted and withered skeletal remains of a once-green shrub tells the world: “I’m dead. I’m dry. You won’t find nourishment here, animals. Go somewhere else.” Why? Because after a few drops of rain, it’ll produce green leaves once more. Lesson: never give up hope.

e2But look carefully around you. There is beauty hidden in the apparently dead landscape. Despite the conditions, Nature never loses her sense of joy. Whatever your circumstances, something good is hiding in there, somewhere. Not easy to spot with tear-filled eyes, at all – but still…never stop looking for beauty.

e3

Sometimes it is necessary to protect what you have. Bigger thorns and smaller leaves tell the hungry ones to stay away. We can learn a lot from this. Put away the ego but don’t allow others the right to devour what you’ve built up.

e4From a higher position – above the ground level of daily toil – one may see danger lurking with greater ease. Don’t crawl ahead with downcast eyes; walk tall and proud…and cautiously.

skillie modAnd yes – our explorer’s last message: never give up on your dreams. Don’t rush. One step at a time is enough.

Fanny’s Surprise (# 4)

!Ka crawls to a nearby bush, dragging the useless and painful leg behind him. It’s his left leg, now deformed by the angled swelling just above the ankle.  He tried getting up, of course, but that was completely impossible. Now, as he positions himself in the shade, his hands explore the swelling.

He’s seen skeletons before. Old ones, cleaned and dried by the wind and the sun; after the bugs, beetles, birds and beasts recycled all the flesh. White bones that used to be the framework that kept everything in it’s right place. He knows there are two bones above the ankle – and that both these bones have been snapped in his leg. Walking is out of the question. Crawling will never get him back to his people; dehydration will get him long before that.

A crutch! If he can find a suitable stick, he will fashion a crutch to use instead of his leg. It’ll have to be sturdy, twigs won’t help.  Breathing deeply to calm down, he imagines what the surrounding area looks like. This is an essential tool for survival in the desert: the ability to draw on the maps in the mind. People in civilised societies used to use real maps – with roads and important places clearly marked. Nowadays cellphones and GPS  make it even easier.

Bushmen, however, have a much more advanced system for navigation. They know the desert because every landmark gets stored in memory; and once there, the map-in-the-mind is updated continuously.

!Ka knows there are no trees nearby. Nowhere to find something to use as a cane or a crutch. Nowhere to find anything sturdy…

And then he remembers the old wagon. The buried one. The one made of timber and iron… The one he showed Vetfaan and that lady.

It’s some distance off, but he can make it there, he’s sure…

***

!Tung – despite her age – walks steadily in the direction the vision of !Ka directs her. She told the family she’s off on one of her wanderings; something she often does when she wants to be alone with her dreams and visions. They accepted her explanation immediately.

Now, with the sun burning down mercilessly, she follows her instinct, not sure what she’d find. !Ka is in some sort of difficulty; that much she is sure of. The face she saw was contorted in pain, but very much alive. She also realises, without knowing why, that the rest of the family must have no part in this journey.

Like !Ka, she knows the desert extremely well. In the direction she’s going, there can be only one destination.

***

“Where are we going, Fanie?”

Fanny sits back in the cab as Vetfaan follows Vrede. The dog is running steadily across the veld, seemingly oblivious of the pickup behind him.

“I’m not sure, Fanny. Vrede has never done anything like this before; but he’s definitely responding to something. Look at the way he’s running – he’s not sniffing or barking at anything around; he’s going somewhere, that’s for sure.”

Fanny glances at the rugged man next to her. The boyish uncertainty of a few minutes ago is gone – he’s in charge again. Here; in his old vehicle, surrounded by his beloved Kalahari; he is the man he was meant to be: rugged, tough, determined. She smiles at this: Men are strange beings. Give these Kalahari men impossible things to do, and they’re happy – but when confronted by romance, they become stuttering idiots. Must be something to do with the way they think about Life. Maybe harsh circumstances and continued hardship is so much part of their way of life, that they have less space for sensitive issues?

Maybe all men are the same, anyway. Take Henry, for instance: he’s such a genius with numbers, but he, too is a complete ignoramus when it comes to courting a lady. He knows all the right things to do, but he does them automatically, without thinking – emotionless, is the word.

Vetfaan glances over at her to notice the small smile hovering on her lips.

“You look happy.”

Surprised, she finds herself blushing.

“Yes, Fanie, I think I am. This is so different to London. I like it here.”

Vetfaan enjoys the comfortable silence as he watches Vrede. Where is the dog running to? He’s heading straight for the low line of dunes ahead. And there’s nothing out here, not so? Then it hits him…

“I think I know where he’s going. Remember our trip last time? The wagon? If we want to get there before night time, we’ll have to pick up speed.”

He stops next to Vrede, picks him up and places him on the seat between him and Fanny.  Then he puts his foot down, revs up the old engine, and starts racing across the veld.

Men! Fanny gives Vrede a hug as she watches Vetfaan steer the pickup with remarkable ease over the terrain. If only they had the same dexterity with romance!

Vrede doesn’t even seem to notice her. He’s staring straight ahead, panting softly… They’re getting nearer – that’s all that matters now. The fact that Fanny will have to make a final decision about the men in her life, doesn’t concern him. Not at all. That’ll have to wait until later.

Dragged to Death

download (23) The news about the events in Daveyton has shocked Rolbos to the core. They’re unanymous in expressing their absolute disgust at the officers involved – and offer their deepest sympathy and condolences to the family of the poor man. Gertruida – for the first time since she arrived in Rolbos – wept openly.

“It’s almost prophetic,” Oudoom says, “a warning. The problem is much bigger than the policemen they’ve arrested.”

“What are you talking about, Dominee?” Servaas is in a dark mood and has no desire for small ltalk.

“Society. I’m talking about our society. Where we’ve come from and where we’re going. We’ve become unstable a long time ago, if you remember the history we lived through. Consider it for a second:

“First the English came. They started a chain of events by wanting to grab our diamonds and gold, way back in the middle 1800’s. This dragged us through the Anglo-Boer wars, killing thousand of men, women and children. And, I’ll remind you, the casualties included all races in the country. They knew we were bound to the country by love and by roots – yet they drove on, regardless of the lives lost.

“Then we became a colonial state. We got dragged into world wars. We mounted a rebellion against joining the wars, resulting in people being executed. Again, our men were forced into battles, again we paid with blood for being bound to a cause we didn’t believe in, especially WW l.

“And then we had the Nationalist government. Oh, they were clever! They fed the nation certain choice bits of propaganda. They selected the information they  allowed citizens to digest. Young white men were conscripted to the army or forced to spend time in jail. Other parts of society had no choice but to adhere to the laws of the day. White and Black were affected and got dragged into a devilish concoction of laws, lies and deceit. We might as well have been tied to that police van they showed on the news. Even the Church played a part. You could say those clergymen were behind the wheel…

“Finally, here we are. Society is unbalanced. We’ve come from a blood-spattered past and we haven’t recovered from it. Now take our policemen: they are exposed to the most horrible crimes, murders and rapes on a daily basis. Last year, it was revealed that more than 100,000 policemen and women suffered from depression, more than 2700 had post-traumatic stress disorder and 84 attempted suicide. They get dragged to death by what they have to see and do on a daily basis. We expect them to act normally, even though they live through worse things than we see on TV? How can they be normal? And don’t forget: the top brass in the police haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory over the past few years, either.

“We, of course, aren’t just spectators. We are the society they serve. We’re part of this. Blame the politics, the economy, the churches, the past, whatever – it doesn’t really change what has happened in the country. Point is: we’re tied to what is happening around us.”

“So, Dominee,” Servaas cups his face in his hands, “we are facing the same fate that poor taxi driver had to live through?”

“Two things could have saved him: the van could have stopped, or he had to be untied. Now, we are being dragged along by socio-political events, and that van isn’t going to stop on it’s own accord. Our only chance of survival depends on getting off the chains that bind us to the van.”

“And how do we do that, Oudoom?” Gertruida raises an eyebrow as she orders a next round.

“The chains that bind? Now let’s see…” Oudoom counts off the points on his fingers. “First, we must let go of the past. Lot’s of wrong things there, sure, but it doesn’t help – it binds. Second, we need responsible government. Third, we must start listening to each other. Fourth, we must bring back kindness and respect. Fifth, discipline must be brought back: in schools, in our homes, at work. Punctuality would be a good place to start. Sixth, we must create an atmosphere of caring and kindness. And seventh, we must stop shying away from religion. Bring it back into our schools. Establish it in government and businesses. Let people respect their faith once more.”

“Is there such a place on earth, Dominee? You’re crazy.”

“There’s only one South Africa, Servaas. We have a unique blend and mix of people here. The van isn’t going to stop just because we sit around and mope about it. We can help each other loosen the knots, or we’ll perish. It’s as simple as that.”

“So it’s up to each individual? The government won’t do it?”

“The government, Servaas, is the van…”

Silent Night – the fight for survival (#4 in the series)

Joseph Mohr

Joseph Mohr

Time now to meet three other families – all of them crucial in the survival of Silent Night.

First of all, there is the Maurachers. They were the foremost, important organ builders from the town of Fugen in the Zillertal. You need an organ? Call the Maurachers. Your organ is ill? The Maurachers will fix it. During the winter months the Maurachers received many letters about faulty organs – and in springtime the family usually sent off one of the sons to attend to these problems.

In 1819 it was Karl Maraucher’s turn, and he was dispatched to attend to the diseased organs of Tyrol. It was only in May that he finally reached the small village of Oberndorf to see to the mouse-bitten organ of the Church of St Nikola.

Karl was a huge man with a flowing mane, a booming voice and fingers that caressed the notes with surprising gentleness. To be an organ mender, you had to understand the music the instrument made – and Karl was a master of his art.

When he arrived in Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr had been transferred to another congregation. Father Nostler’s letter to the Bishop must have contributed to the obscurity Mohr was destined for. It is sad to think that men with no vision or imagination can ruin the genius of an individual, but that has always been the sad state of affairs over the aeons of time. However, Franzl Gruber was glad to see the mender and showed him the damage the church mouse did.

In those days people still talked to each other. If you came to fix something, the job would only be done after all the circumstances surrounding the calamity had been discussed – and so Karl Mauracher heard all about the dilemma of the Christmas Eve Mass. Gruber told him about the little choir, the guitar and the song. Mauracher was thrilled to hear such a poignant story and wanted to know more. Gruber dug about, got the original (only) score and handed it to the organ expert. After the organ was patched, the huge man sat down in front of the instrument and tested his work by playing Silent Night. He was impressed.

Upon leaving, the page with the music and words went with him. Gruber had no further use for the song that caused Josephh Mohr’s transfer – it had done enough damage and it certainly wouldn’t be sung again in Oberndorf.

History doesn’t record exactly how the song landed up with the second family, the Rainer ensemble. However, in 1822 Kaizer Franz Joseph I of Austria was host to Czar Alexander I of Russia. Count Ludwig von Donhoff (one may assume he was an ambitious nobleman who wanted to score some political points) invited the two heads of state to his castle to enjoy an evening of local entertainment. Amongst the performers was the Family Rainer – the same family that eventually produced the Von Trapp Singers. Remember The Sound of Music? Anyway, the Rainer family sang Silent Night as part of their repertoire, impressing the Czar so much that he invited the singers to visit St. Petersburg. Then the song disappeared for a while. The Trapps had to wait another century for World War II; and the fame the musical would bring with Julie Andrews as the heroine.

It would be a full decade later before the Stasser family contributed to the survival of Silent Night. The Stassers were entrepreneurs. What do you need in Tyrol on cold winter nights? Gloves, of course! The Stassers were masters at the art of making the best, softest, warmest hand-warmers in Austria. They lived in Laimach, the neighbouring town to Fugan, where the organ-builders lived. What made them special? They sang, naturally! The Geschwister Stasser augmented their income by entertaining audiences with their yodelling and their Schuhplatter Tanz – a foot-stomping, rump-slapping dance that made them famous throughout Teutonic Europe.

Every year the Rainer family would travel to the Annual Leipzig Fair, where they’d sell gloves by day and be entertainers at night. Their small audience in 1831 would be remembered only for one single person: Franz Ascher – organist of the Royal Saxon Court Orchestra. He liked the group’s rendition of the song so much, he invited them to sing it again at the Christmas Mass in the Royal Chapel in Pliesenburg. This was an honour indeed. It also presented the entrepreneurial Stassers with an idea: why not arrange a concert or two while they were in Pliesenburg anyway? It was the Christmas season, after all, and extra income was always welcome. The concert was arranged in the ballroom of the Hotel Pologne.

And now we turn to another coincidence.

Silent Night still languished along as a Tyrolian song, a lullaby, an indigenous product of unknown origin. Whenever it appeared on a programme, it carried the little epithet of Authors Unknown. On the night of the concert, a man was ambling along in the street, killing time before retiring to bed. He was Anton Friese, a Dresden music publisher, and he whiled away the time before returning home the next day to his family. It was Christmas time, and he was homesick.

On an impulse (he had nothing better to do, remember?) he turned in to the Hotel Pologne, saw that they had a concert going on there, and so he slipped quietly into the audience. Music was his business and he always found solace in it.

When the Stassers sang Silent Night, it touched Anton Friese in a way no song had done before. In the yearning heart of Herr Friese, the words, the melody, the atmosphere of Christmas came together in a gush of emotion. This song, he knew, was worthy of a much larger audience.

Silent Night came to age that evening. The little poem Joseph Mohr had penned in his loneliness, the melody Franzl Gruber plucked on his guitar and Christmas time finally came together to reach the ears of people who really wanted to be reminded that they all needed to be loved, cherished, reassured and coveted. The nostalgia of the lonely priest had found its solace in the hearts of the audience that night.

When the Stassers fell silent after the song, the audience sat spellbound in complete silence. The Geschwister Stasser stood in front of the completely quiet hall: what was wrong with these people? Didn’t they like it? Were their voices false? Did they sing too softly – or too loudly? If you were there, you’d be able to hear the proverbial pin dropping. The quartet glanced at each other, exchanging worried looks.

Then the audience rose – like a sleeping giant caught off-guard – and cheered themselves hoarse. They became one with the nostalgia of poor Joseph Mohr, the courage of Franzl Gruber and the fight against the unfair Nostler. They remembered fathers and mothers putting them to bed, singing softly. They were reminded of the hopes and dreams of their lives and didn’t want the final little chorus to die away. Jesus der Retter ist da…Jesus der Retter ist da... Wave upon wave of emotion washed through their hearts while the applause went on and on.

Encore! They had to do it again – and they did. This time Anton Friese, tears streaking down his cheeks, was ready with his little black book and a pencil. He jotted down the score and the lyrics in a shorthand of his own. Later, alone in his room and with the song still echoing in his mind, he made the transcription that he would publish later – still under Tyrolian Christmas Song, Authors Unknown. And so, in 1840 Silent Night was published in print for the first time.

Our journey with Silent Night is nearing its end – but questions still linger. Why did the published version differ from Gruber’s melody? There was the claim that the melody was penned by Handel or even Beethoven – so how was that misconception cleared? And what happened to Gruber and Mohr?

While we ponder these questions, there is one fact we may never forget: Silent Night remains an integral part of our Christmases today purely by virtue of a string of coincidences, a line-up on characters so varied and strange and a sequence of events that reads like a fairytale. Yet, when all is said and done, the song did survive. Silent Night had to wait patiently for the right moment, the right audience and the right individuals to carry its message to the world.

In many ways, we need to hear and understand the song and what it is telling us. Patience, it pleads. Wait, it commands. Don’t hurry, it soothes. When your best-laid plans don’t work out – relax. The time and place may not be quite right. But then start looking for the coincidences: the hugely maned Karl Mauracher with the gentle fingers; the forebears of the von Trapps; the invitation to the Czar or the Kaizer; the Rainers. the Stassers, and finally  the lonely man with the little book and pencil, longing to be home. These fine and fragile threads were all so necessary for us to sing Silent Night today, and they all were such unlikely links – yet they were there and held true when the song needed them to survive. There is great comfort to be gained by remembering this. Nothing can be so destructive as the power of the impatient mind…

This Christmas, when we hear the now-immortal words of a lonely priest and the haunting melody of his friend, it’s good to remember how nearly the world had to celebrate the birth of Christ without Silent Night. Then again, the very fact that we’re still here and have the privilege to immerse ourselves in the song, should serve as a reminder that we are like the crumpled little piece of paper in Karl Mauracher’s pocket. We – often unknowingly – form part of a holy chain of events that may only come to fruition in the distant future. Maybe life seems dreary, sad, depressed, insignificant; but in the survival of Silent Night we learn one of Life’s biggest secrets: each of us has a role to play in the Message of Christmas – and not only on the 25th of December.

It took a lonely priest, a broken and sad childhood and a vindictive Nostler to bring us this song. The words and the music were entrusted to ordinary men and women along an extraordinary journey of survival. Not a single one of them could have dreamed what influence their roles would have on millions upon millions of people in 2012. And then, when you listen to Silent Night anew, each of us realise there is a divine plan for everything.

For you, as well.

Broken, Sad, Lonely and Not Now are often the little bricks used in the construction of Joy and Beauty. Let us not forget it. Silent Night won’t let you, anyway…

The Unfortunate Pilgrim

Francesco dreams about the mountains in Afghanistan, where the myriad of tracks lead to safe-houses, fortresses and caves. There are eyes everywhere – even the rocks are looking at him – as he works his way up the slope towards Giovanni, who waits at the top. His older brother is dressed in a general’s uniform as he sits at a table laden with fruit and wine.

There seems to be a problem with his backpack – it’s too heavy and it prevents him from progressing up the mountain. Irritated, he reaches for the straps to shift the weight on his shoulders.

“Now, Mister, you just stay where you are.” The voice is harsh, with a guttural accent. “We want to talk to you.”

Francesco wakes up in a flash. This isn’t happening! His eyes struggle to accommodate as the light is suddenly switched on. A huge man is sitting on his shoulders while some hunchback is talking in his face. To one side, two women look on with worried expressions.

Four. There are four of them. Think, Francesco! There is a gun under the pillow and only one able-bodied man. The women won’t try anything and the cripple isn’t much of an opponent. If he can worm his way to the gun, the fat one will get the first shot. The others won’t put up much of a fight.

“What do you want? If it’s money, I can’t help you.” Of course it’s not that. This – two men, two women – can’t be a burglary. Whatever it is, it’s unwelcome and must be sorted out quickly. The contract on Marco can’t be jeopardised by some silly people in his room.

“I checked at reception. You are Fancesco Francoli. From Milan. And you know what old Marco said? He says you’re Giovanni’s brother! Now that’s strange, isn’t it? What would somebody like you be doing in a dump of a motel in the Northern Cape? When old Marco heard it was you, he said we must call the police. He said you aren’t a nice person.” The older woman seems to be very sure of herself. “But, if you don’t believe me, you can ask him yourself.”

Francesco’s fingers touch the butt of the gun. Slowly now, slowly…don’t make any sudden moves. Keep them talking before they get a huge surprise…

“I don’t know what this is about, woman. And get this brute off my back – I can’t breathe properly.”

“No. That man he stay. First you tell me where my daughter is.”

Francesco turns his head fractionally. Only now can he see old Marco, standing next to the door. Perfect! Once he sorts out the rest, he can finish off the old man… they are playing right into his hands! His fingers find the trigger-guard as he palms the gun. It feels cold and familiar; an old friend that has solved so many problems in the past.

Francesco’s  move is sudden and unexpected. With a mighty heave, the surprised Vetfaan is sent sprawling as the Italian leaps to his feet. Vetfaan stumbles across the room to stare at the barrel of the gun.

“All of you! Now! Against that wall. Go on join your fat friend.” Francesco waves the gun at the rest. “And no fancy tricks. We don’t want to disturb the other guests of this illustrious establishment, do we?”  He smiles his satisfaction at the success of his move. Old Marco seems to deflate like a punctured balloon, and shuffles over to the fat one. The woman who spoke a few seconds ago follows suit, as does the stupid hunchback. The four of them form a pitiful huddle below the faded picture on the wall.

It’s funny how one’s mind focuses on things in times of stress. The picture – an old and faded photograph –  is of a running Springbuck. It’s leaping high into the air as it rushes across a barren landscape.  It’s the first time Francesco has ever seen a Springbuck and for a moment even his racing mind has to admire the grace of the antelope.

“You!” He points the gun at the thin woman, who seems rooted to the floor. “You too! Come on, now!” She hasn’t joined the others. There’s no time to waste.

“I can’t” Despite the situation, she seems unruffled.

Francesco can’t be blamed for not understanding. How could he, if he doesn’t know what flashes through her mind at this moment? He surely  has no idea of the years of pent-up frustration, the horror of remembering times when she wished she had been strong enough to tell her father to stop.  That, and the fear.

She has become so used to being afraid over the years! At first there were the footsteps, late at night, coming down the corridor to her room. Later fear threatened to drive her mad, as she relived those moment when she woke up to the alcoholic fumes in her father’s breath. There was fear of being discovered, and fear that nobody will ever know. Fear stalked her throughout her life, making her days miserable and making it impossible to sleep at night.

And now .. now this man is waving a gun at her and telling her what to do. She can see it in his eyes: the same mad and obsessed look she saw when those rough hands switched on the light in the room of a frightened little girl. This time, she knows, this time fear will make them all lose their lives. The eyes tell her. Murder lurks there…

“Can’t? Can’t? You miserable little wretch! You shall do as I say! Go on! NOW!”

Inside Mary Mitchell’s mind Francesco isn’t a handsome Italian any more. His face – his entire being – has transformed into the person she hates. It is her father standing there, calling her names and ordering her around. And her father is dead, isn’t he? Dead people can’t order you to do … those things … can they?

“No.” She lifts her chin in defiance. “I won’t.”

Three words. The three words she knew were somewhere inside her, but could never find when she wanted to use them. Three words that suddenly seem so natural; so surprisingly easy; that it causes her to smile.

Francesco hesitates. This is stupid! He’s got a gun. This waif is not armed. She should be quaking with fear and doing what he’s ordering her to do.

“Get. Over. There.” Each word is deliberate, a final warning.

Mary’s  self-confidence wanes as the big man takes a step towards her.

“I’ve taken the bullets from that gun, you oaf. You’re holding a worthless piece of iron.” The statement from the older woman is so unexpected that Francesco stops in midstride. “Before you woke up, I did it.”

Francesco looks at the gun and presses the release button for the clip. It shoots out to land in the palm of his waiting hand. Eight bullets. All of them neatly arranged in the clip, waiting to be fired. He’s about to slip them back into the gun, when everything happens simultaneously.

First the thin, defiant woman storms at him, mouth agape in a silent scream. He feels her nails dig into the flesh of his wrist, tearing the gun from his grip. Then the big man tackles him from behind, knocking his breath out. The older woman swings a chair at his head. And, the ultimate humiliation, the hunchback lands a perfect uppercut on the tip of his jaw.

Only old Marco doesn’t participate in the fight. He’s sat down on the bed, laughing so much he has to dab the tears from his cheeks.

***

Old Marco does the negotiations on the phone. Yes, Giovanni can have his young brother back. He’s unharmed, by the way, except for the chipped front tooth due to that blow that knocked him out. Sure, they’ll give him enough money to get to Cape Town and no, they won’t call in the police. The rest of the cash Francesco had hidden away in his suitcase will be used to defray costs, okay? Yes, they’ll do it … as soon as Lucinda sits down at the counter in Boggel’s Place. Without Lucinda, they’ll just have to keep Francesco locked up in the shed behind Vetfaan’s house. No, he can’t escape. Those chains are the ones Vetfaan uses to drag his tractor to town if it breaks down. And oh, Kleinpiet and Precilla will enjoy the two weeks in the Game Reserve – they say a big thank you. Most generous, really.

“Listen, we both know we can’t speak about this. If I tell your friends in The Family your young brother made a complete fool out of you, you’re finished. You’ll lose the respect of all the others – and without respect, they won’t support you anymore. So, as a sign of goodwill, I asked Francesco nicely to sign a paper. It’s not a long letter, just a simple note about what happened. And that you lured Lucinda to Italy so you can brag you took revenge on an old enemy. Oh, and that you sent your brother to take me out.  And some details about some of your business..

“Now, that paper I’ll give to somebody. If anything … unforeseen … happens to me or Lucinda or anybody in Rolbos, that paper goes to all your friends and the police. Capisce?”

Gertruida says se saw old Marco in a completely different light when he made that phone call. It was as if the years suddenly rolled back and something of Marco, the young man on his way to the top, surfaced again. Vetfaan still brags about that tackle, and when Boggel is in a good mood, he rubs his knuckles.

But, while the others had a good laugh about it afterwards (except Francesco, of course), it is Mary Mitchell who doesn’t brag about the events in Dusty’s Inn that night. When the others smirk about the crest-fallen Italian who believed Gertruida about his unloaded gun, Mary remains silent. Somehow her altercation with Mother Superior and with Francesco were rather similar; and in a strange way she is grateful for the Italian’s visit. He finally made her discover the three words she searched for all her life.

No. I won’t.

It’ll change her life.

Without them, the she’d never have found the other three.

Yes. I can…

Secrets

Vetfaan stood staring at the jackal for a long time.

For several months now, something has been killing the occasional lamb and the not-so-infrequent chicken on his farm. He’s set several traps, scouted around with Vrede, and even guarded the flock in the huge kraal – but still the killings went on. Lambs, mostly, when the sheep were scattered across the barren veld of the Kalahari.

Kleinpiet suggested setting out poisoned bait, something that prompted a verbal volcano from Gertruida. The dead jackal would, in turn, poison the rest of the feeding chain – from the vultures, right through to the beetles feeding on the carcass. “You wipe out an entire eco-system by using poison, you idiot!” She apologised immediately, and then had to explain what an eco-system is. Kleinpiet hung his head in shame and ordered a round of Cactus as a peace-making gesture.

That’s why Vetfaan eventually built the box-trap. A sturdy crate; with the trapdoor triggered when the bait (a nice piece of biltong) was taken; was set up near the rocky outcrop he suspected housed the vermin. For two weeks, the jackal avoided the trap. For two weeks, Vetfaan checked the box twice a day, with no results. For two weeks, the jackal disappeared…

But now the trapdoor is closed and he can see the animal through the slats of the crate. Now it’s only a question of pointing his old Mauser at the jackal, pulling the trigger, and he’ll be free of the scourge that has been eating away at his sheep.

The jackal watches him as he walks around the trap, its frightened eyes following his every move. Vetfaan knows a lot about jackals – they usually have a mate somewhere. Unlike humans, jackals mate for life. Yet this one seemed to operate alone – the tracks around the dead sheep suggested that. Something must have happened to its partner – a hyena, a wild dog, even maybe one of the occasional lions that venture about in the Kalahari? Or old age, disease? Another farmer with a trap and a gun? Who knows?

He slots the round into the chamber of the antiquated gun. Killing a trapped animal isn’t easy. Something about it seems so cruel, so primal. I can kill you because you are trapped and I have a gun. Hooray, I am the victor! Big man with a rifle will kill the defenceless bundle of fur. Vetfaan swallows away the bitter taste in his mouth as he takes aim.

The jackal gives a last, defiant snarl.

Nature, it must be said, is often unpredictable. Take animal behaviour, for instance. You can read up all the books you want, and still not know exactly what an animal will do under certain circumstances. Books will tell you about mating and predating and gestation periods and aggressive patterns. Even so, books don’t know everything.

The jackal-in-the-trap must have realised this is the end of the road. The tunnel of white light awaits. The beetles are going to have a feast. It is, without doubt, the end…

So it simply lay down, waiting for the bullet. It even turned on its back – but maybe that was a sign of submission. Who knows?

That’s when Vetfaan saw the swollen teats. This was a lactating mother, for goodness sakes! Somewhere there is a lair, with several pups. A single mother trying to feed her offspring…

If he killed her, the pups would die. Game, set and match to the brave farmer protecting his herd… But – to let the pups die of hunger and thirst, alone in some hole somewhere? It just doesn’t seem right.

For some reason, Vetfaan is reminded of his friends in Boggel’s Place. Most of them are loners (well, Oudoom is married, but Mevrou cannot really count as a mate, can she?), and they all are doing their best to survive. They are just as defenceless as the trapped jackal – caught in the Kalahari, with nowhere to go. Maybe their cage is bigger, but still – they don’t fit in elsewhere.

Gertruida said so, once. We’re prisoners here. Yes, we argue occasionally, but we have built a trap for ourselves. Whenever I go to Upington or Calvinia, I realise how important it is to return to Rolbos. Here, we understand each other. We help one another. Outside-people don’t work like this. No, Rolbos is our trap and Boggel’s is the bait. I wouldn’t have it any other way, thank you.

“Yes, Mama,” Vetfaan tells the jackal, “the Kalahari is your trap and my sheep is the bait. It’s the way it is. I can’t change that by killing you.”

*

Vetfaan went back to town to fetch Vrede. If the jackal gave birth recently – it must have been in the two weeks while Vetfaan watched the trap – then the lair can’t be far away. Vrede found the baby jackals within an hour, barking happily when he poked his nose into the crack between two large rocks.

*

“Geez, Vetfaan, we missed you today. Gertruida gave such a nice lecture on threatened animals and how we must protect the environment. And Boggel told the most outrageous jokes!” Kleinpiet slaps Vetfaan’s shoulder and orders two beers.

Even in Rolbos, you can’t tell everybody everything. After all, this is a tough place, where survival means you have to make tough decisions sometimes.  And there is an accepted norm to take into consideration, as well. Farmers kill jackals, for instance. No exceptions. Even if they feel bad about it, that’s the rule. And if you could wipe out a whole family of jackals, you’ve saved you and your neighbours a lot of sheep…

You can’t tell them about the small little baby jackals you loaded into your pickup. About the crate on the back. About the long trip into the arid desert, to where you know about the tiny fountain next to the rocky outcrop, where the rabbit-holes are. About the way you set the family free to be what God created them to be: jackals with the instinct for survival that served them so well over the aeons of time.

You don’t tell them those things. Not if you’re a farmer with a flock of sheep and a gun.