Riverine Rabbit. Note the innocent-looking face the permanent smile and the beguiling eyes.
Gertruida has a way of telling stories that seem completely irrelevant. But then again, if you know Gertruida, you realise that her stories are rather convoluted tales that – although old and originating in a different time – are timeless. They speak about issues that are as relevant today as it might have been when the first Bushman told them to his audience around a fire on a dark and stormy night.
Take, for instance, her fable of the riverine rabbit…
Long ago, when the Karoo was an inland lake and the San hunters still respected all forms of life – that is, many centuries before ‘civilisation’ exploded all over Africa and destroyed the paradise forever – the Riverine Rabbit had dreams. Big dreams. Being clever and more nimble than all the other animals, the rabbit decided to proclaim itself as king over the land it roamed.
Of course, a king had to have a castle. Not any old castle, mind you – a castle that would proclaim its importance. It had to be the most impressive dwelling of all, there for the rest to see and to be envious about. Of course, no rabbit can build such a magnificent mansion on its own, so the rabbit spent many days thinking about how to manage this impossible task.
One sunny day, when all the animals gathered at the watering hole, the rabbit climbed onto a big rock.
“If you make me your king,” he shouted, “I shall see to it that you all have houses. You simply can’t go on living in the wild – it just won’t do. So I promise to build homes for all of you, where you can shelter from the cold wind in winter and the hot sun in summer.” He hesitated a moment, allowing the words to sink in. “Now, what do you say?”
The animals found this exceedingly strange and sat down to whisper amongst themselves.
“A house?” The hyena scratched the itchy spot behind his left ear. “I’ve never had one. It would be nice, I think.”
“Ah, yes, a home.” The impala eyed the lion suspiciously. “I can do with some protection.”
“I’d love a shelter,” the shy klipspringer murmured. “I hate being so exposed in the veld all the time. It makes me feel so…vulnerable.”
“Well, then,” the rabbit said, “we must all work together. As your king, I command you to collect all the things we’d need. Grass for the thatch, logs and rocks for the walls. Warthog can begin scooping away some earth, so we may have a dam. And elephant can start uprooting some trees to clear away an area in which we can build. The Hawks will provide security and lion can guard our materials.
“As your king, I shall not be working with you. I have much more important things to do.” He laughed softly. “Kings, as you will find out, are master organisers, not workers.”
The animals slaved themselves to a standstill for their king. They carried rocks, dragged logs, gathered bundles of grass. These they brought to the open space the elephants created, next to the new big hole warthog had made for the dam.
“Now the fence,” rabbit ordered, explaining that the new housing project needed to be secure at all times. Rhino and elephant then constructed a high fence, using branches torn from thorn trees. When the last branch was placed, all the animals were inside the enclosure. Following the orders given by rabbit – who was lounging stately in the shade – the construction of the mansion was started.
The animals were all excited by the project. The huge mansion had many rooms, and places to play and eat and have fun. They all agreed that they would be very happy in such a wonderful dwelling.
After many months, the building was complete. The animals were very tired at this time, and were relieved when rabbit informed them that they would have a rest for a few days. “We’ll move in after that,” he informed them, “and live here happily ever after. But now I suggest you all go back to your old places, collect all your belongings and return with the full moon.”
The animals obeyed quietly. They had hoped to move in immediately, but if the king issued an order, you obeyed. That is the way of kings, not so?
A very tired elephant lifted a few of the thorny branches to open a gate in the fence, and the animals trudged off to rest in the shade of the trees at the places they had lived before. They waited. And waited. Until the moon was full…
In the bright moonlight on the evening of their return, they stopped at the fence. It was immediately apparent that the fence had been strengthened by tying the branches together with poisonous creepers. Elephant shook his head – no, if he touched that fence, he would die. If any other animal would like to try…? They all shook their heads.
Inside his new house, rabbit laughed and laughed as he watched form a high window. Those animals can be as angry as they like; he, rabbit, had tricked them into building the most wonderful home, ever…!
But then, one day, a storm brewed on the horizon. Not just any old storm – a real bad one, with thunder and lightning like no animal had ever seen before. Knowing that a veldfire was sure to follow the lightning, they all huddled next to a rocky hill, hoping they would escape the wrath of the storm.
But the veldfire raced across the plains, burning the grass that would have fed them in the season to come and destroying the trees under which they used to shelter from the sun. On and on the wall of flames marched…until it got to the fence around rabbit’s mansion.
And they watched as the fence went up in flames and the rabbit sought shelter in the dam that warthog had dug.
And the animals sighed and went back to their old ways of living, vowing never to trust a king again.
“That’s a great story, Gertruida!” Vetfaan pats her on the back. “But what’s the moral?”
“The riverine rabbit, Vetfaan, is one of the most endagered species in the world. Only a few are left. The fable is correct in that these rabbits never stray far from water. The have the most intricate burrows and are the only rabbits that have their young underground, They also…” Gertruida pulls a face, “…have to eat their droppings to get enough Vitamin B – it’s produced in their bowels by bacteria, see?”
“Ugh! Eating your own dung? That’s horrible…”
“Yes, Precilla, it is. The rabbit daren’t roam too far from it’s home to find enough nutrients in the veld. The other animals have not forgiven him at all.”
“Soooo….” Boggel brightens and raises an enquiring eyebrow. “You’re telling us the president is in for a tough time when he delivers his State Of the Nation Address? Is that why you told us about the fable?”
Gertruida flashes a warm smile at her friend.
“O course, Boggel. The veldfire is racing towards Nkandla. We’ll watch that fence burn down soon….”
‘Sometimes alone in the evening,I look outside my window
At the shadow in the night
I hear the sound of distant crying, the darkness multiplying
The weary hearts denied
All I feel is my heartbeat
Beating like a drum
Beating with confusion.
All I hear are the voices
Telling me to go,
But I could never run.
Cos’ in my African Dream
There’s a new tommorow
Cos’ in my African Dream
There’s a dream that we can follow’
Songwriters: Alan Lazar, Marilyn Nokwe