New Year’s Resolution (Now to take Action)
My few followers (probably sick to death of THE BOOK) have suggested that the South Africa I grew up in might find its way into blogs and stories. They are more relevant to the book than might be imagined since all I grew up with found its way in somehow, furnished images, spoke dialects, poked fun. So are you sitting comfortably? What’s in it for you? A safari round Africa, encounters with elephants and elephantine characters and then some Proper Stories (note the capitals) if you’d like. Just ask.
Recovering Maweni Heights.
Mandela’s death has pricked slow oozing memories from my earliest life, like bitter beads of sap from a cut aloe. They are of the beloved country with its smell of grass, and wood-smoke, and the whiff of rain promised in sudden moisture; of mielie meal in sacking and pungent sweet sweat beneath blankets. The sounds are peppered with incredulity ‘Ow Nkosi!’ and courtesy ‘Sala gahle’ reassurance, and always laughter behind shy hands. There is singing somewhere, in harmony of seconds, and in the evening’s low light wending figures piled with wood, or water containers, going home. The sky immense, and unending, the stars bright salt in the black velvet of a night that falls like a curtain at an appointed hour. The day closing with the sudden certainty of an angelus, and the dim lights of the kraal fires flickering soon after.
Most of my memories are cast in the remote areas where a bushbuck might appear, mountaineous from horseback, or flat and arid from a ten ton truck grinding through sand, but no matter how different the regions we inhabited or travelled the essence remained, of tolerance, and gentleness, and above all an open curiosity. People were books to be fathomed, and opportunities to read them were precious. I never recall fear or any warnings, or prohibitions. From the moment I could walk I was encouraged to walk wide, as far as the eye could see, and away. Where people were concerned, nothing was unsafe. Nobody ever asked when I would be home.
My earliest recollections offer the view of legs below a table in a room with an audible clock. A clean scrubbed kitchen, with a cat cuffing a dog and eventually lifted onto cushions to eat a bowl of yellow mielie porridge with brown sugar and cream. I do not recall the faces but the sense that things would always be just like this, immortal and forever. The barefoot maids came and went with piles of ironed linen, and basins on hips or heads, and when spoken to raised their aprons to hide the smiles and embarrassment. Through the open doorways the light was blinding, and by contrast the room dark, with surfaces so polished that gleams from the edges of things, silver and copper would whisper grander rooms elsewhere, the rooms I later found in picture books or museums; grand tureens, silver trays, and by the back door saddle trees and boot hooks. The stoep (verandah) was where the older family lived and entertained the always unexpected guests (people were always an excuse for more strong coffee and peach brandy if sunset threatened) and over the stoep railings Catorba grapes rambled, the round small black grapes you popped by squeezing their sour skins, (sour enough to freeze-dry the palate) into the mouth, an explosion of unique sweetness, unlike any other grape.
Down along the left, marching away from the house like defending warriors, were the oak trees and below them rusted old tractors where I had a swing and a bouncing metal seat afforded control of a steering wheel. The farm, braced against the buttress rock behind it, where a silver pencil of water fell into the pool below, was the only homestead visible in any direction. Behind that waterfall the dark python cave held shivers of courage. My days were endless roaming between the kraal where I was teased by the women who plaited my hair, and the swing and the grapes, with a pocket full of dried peaches so hard they had to be sucked before they could be chewed. They were sour too, and green or sour fruit has always brought memories and been preferred.
I was less than three and probably only a few months on that farm, but the memory has flashed unchanged ever since as though caught swinging below deep oak. I recall my first ride, in front of a saddle and the view of a rippling neck and the ears that flickered when the rider spoke but I have no memory of what the rider looked like. Three year olds seldom see a face. I recall the boots and the knees under khaki shorts, sharp brown against the blue-white sock covered skin. Mostly it was grass and the hurumph of a horse nodding and stopping to crop when it thought it could. I thought I might die for a horse, I loved them uncontrollably and breathed in their smell as though it was life giving. Horses understand passion, and accept it as their rightful due. So it is, which is why I daily gave my mother thanks for my name- lover of horses. My father was her big mistake but at least the first name she got right.
That was the van den Bosch farm where I was with my galleon grandmother while my poor abandoned mother returned to the Reef to finish her interrupted medical training. I was the interruption and I’ve tried not to repeat that in later life. I always retained the vivid memory of the farm but for seventy years no further encounter. Later the van den Bosches were spoken of, occasionally; the polo playing wild boys, the Dutch home in the Heerengracht from which their forbears had sailed, the first qualified vet in the country, but they were the hidden side, from my grandmother’s mother of whom there are forbidding photographs and a terrible tale. From that terrible event my grandmother had sought refuge in the other half of her blood and other places. Her father was a Barrett, related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a gentleman raised in a world of civilised discourse, at sea in those fields of limitless grass and the harsh barter of Afrikaanerdom. The farm might have been the setting for a book I had read rather than a memory. I was never totally sure.
Until my mother died. After burying her in Swaziland ( and that’s another story) I realised I had to bequeath my Africa to those closest to me. After forty years in England I took my Welsh husband to experience the Africa he had built in his imagination, from fragments of Rider Haggard, the Zulu wars and BBC travelogues. I could scarcely recall those smells, those sounds, so flattened and eroded had they been by England’s dripping seasons. We were making for the Drakensberg and stopped in Harrismith, where I was born, and where we waited for a library to open. A library? In Harrismith! I just wanted to ask. In case anyone might remember a farm beneath a rock.
‘Do you happen to know a farm belonging to the ‘van den Bosches’ I asked
‘Several farms belong to van den Bosches. Which ones do you want?’
‘I have no idea. I just remember a farm which stretched at the foot of a sheer cliff rock, over which a waterfall fell…I was very small’
‘That’s Maweni Heights. You will want Taeke…Shall I ring him for you?’
Taeke rang no bells, not a name I had heard.
‘Well I don’t really know him, or even of him. He may be no relation.’
‘They are all related, if you are a van den Bosch he will be family, he’ll be pleased…I’ll call him’
She did, and after a few words handed over the telephone. I explained. He remembered having seen me when he was about eight. ‘Why not come out right away? He gave directions. We were to turn off the road into a field of grass and drive across the grass because there was no road, ( ‘You can’t be bothered maintaining roads in our climate’) but ‘you will see flattened grass tracks.. don’t worry the stones have all been cleared from under… until you reach a bridge across a deep kloof. Be careful because the bridge has no railings, you have to drive across two girders, so you needed to make sure you line up your wheels first, because its quite a drop, and I don’t want to have to get a tractor to pull you out…’
‘After the bridge is the garden, just drive over the lawn, and park under the trees in the shade’.
There it was. There he was; looking exactly like my long dead grandmother, unmistakeably family. The house was as quiet as I remembered, the clock measuring out silence in slices like bread. His wife had gone to ‘ town’ because it was Friday, and Fridays he had alone. That was a shame; we wouldn’t meet her. He could manage coffee and rusks, mos-bolletjie rusks. Just as remembered. He also remembered; ‘Your grandmother; now she was a ‘femme formidable’ ( which I admit she seemed, unless you saw her laugh) and told me it was his father, Tommy, whose saddle I had straddled. He and his younger brother Eelco would have been away at school. The swing had been replaced many times but there were no longer any children so it had finally rotted unmourned. He took us past the family cemetary, a few leisurely leaning stones, another group of collected dogs and we followed his red leather boots and his stick picking the pathway between rocks and tufts of grass up behind the homestead into the shadow of the great rock. Even the Catorba grapes were again in fruit, and the waterfall still fell. After seventy years all was entirely unchanged.
Only in rural Africa are memories held in aspic, preserved in the truth of communal recollection. The sufficient is enough. Africa is immortal in ways that sophisticated countries shaped by civilisation cannot be. They have all been negotiated, trodden over, resurrected. Africa itself is non-negotiable, though recently politically shaped and painted like a calabash to hold the promise of better. When we left it was with sticks of home made biltong. This we lost at the Swazi border; confiscated for a guard’s delight, under pretext of ‘regulations.’ I had forgotten survival tactics. I should have buried them in a bag of clothes.
Ten years later my own daughter took the same pilgrimage and found Maweni Heights still unchanged but now in the care of younger brother, Eelco, but with Mandela ailing and unlikely to prove immortal, some apprehension for the future had removed the shotgun and rifles from their rack in the hall and for the first time locked them away.
“Zimbabwe could happen here. It is very possible now. ‘Alles sal regkom’ far from certain for us white farmers. Maybe he just delayed things. We’ll have to see.”
The girders across the chasm seemed a fragile passage after that. There are no
van den Bosch children to inherit Maweni.
‘Alles sal regkom’ – Everything will work out.
Mosbolletjie- Bread made from fermented grape juice instead of yeast
(I have written the ‘Terrible Tale’- a short story called Red Hot Pokers. It introduces the ‘Femme Formidable’ and what had built her, and, all of us, in different ways. It is entirely true. If you would like to receive a PDF to read it go here (top right) to become a friend and I will dispatch. There will be many more to follow.
My tribute to South Africa will be told in stories and memories. Some have asked for them. As a writer I thank you for that kindness.)