For The People

The Land of Milk and Honey

Springbok is renowned for its remarkable transformation which occurs every spring when the near life-less scrubland explodes into colour from thousands of flowers hidden in the dry dusty earth, brought to life by winter rains. It’s this time every year when white men with backpacks and Bibles and goggles and cameras come to have us dance for them.

This time of the year the Gouws flowers in my grandmother’s backyard stand tall and proud as soldiers and so many tourists have come to take pictures in front of her house. She always said no, ashamed of the chipped paint or the rusted window frames. But the tourists always say that it adds to the “authenticity” of their photograph.  I never partook in any of this at first only because I have no rhythm and then because I don’t go to their homes to gawk at the way their feet fall over each other. I also only used to be in Springbok during this time of year like them, and as a result, I didn’t know whether I was a part of us or them. At first this was because of school and later because I realized I hate the winter rains.

If I’m going to be in a semi-dessert, I want it hot and dry and dusty. My family says I have a cat-like personality, but I have chosen to attribute my hydrophobia to the Nama’s abstinence from water during sacred phases in their life cycle. In particular, when a woman gives birth, she is kept in a different hut for seven days, isn’t allowed to wash herself or her baby and is supposed to avoi-d human touch as far as possible. This is to minimise the child’s risk of catching track.

Evil spirits walk about during the night and anyone who walked on their track can spread it. Since we no longer live in huts, rather, we stay in our homes for ten days after the child’s birth. This is something I’m preparing myself to tell the nurses at the clinic at my next pre-natal visit. I would not be able to bring the child on his third day on this earth, because a bedvrou is not allowed to leave the house. Before one passes on, you’re isolated again from unnecessary touch or water.  I don’t know why anyone would want to be wet for the sake of being wet. Water is for washing and drinking. All the other stuff people do in water is just to show off. I’m on my way to my home in its driest season. I am coming to be baptized here.

 In our childhood home, we grew up being breastfed our parents’ memories of the Land of Milk and Honey. A place where the people are just as brown and seemingly lifeless as the scenery. But where, if you know where to look, Kokerbome and succulent plants host an unimaginable magnitude of life and death.  It was here, in Springbok, where my father put his dogs after my mother one day after school, to which my mother replied, “this is romantic, let me marry this boy”. As children my sister and I would always sing “Kimberley (clap clap), Griquastad (clap clap), Groblershoop (clap clap), Upington (clap clap), Keimoes (clap clap), Kakamas (clap clap), Pofadder (and then which would feel like the longest possible pause, clap clap), Springbok. We would however, never sing the song in reverse.

This journey, I was very well aware, would be different from all the other trips we made to the Promised Land. For one, we weren’t children anymore. I am not very fond of change and I wasn’t sure if my sister was up for singing our song with me. Then there was the fact that I was six months pregnant and did not know if I would survive an eight-hour drive in the back of a bakkie in the harsh Northern Cape sun. But most importantly, here was the purpose of the journey, which was my grandmother’s funeral. For me, life and death were jumping in front of me like renowned kudus on this very road. We drove all the 800 and something kilometres, sitting in the back of my father’s white Corsa bakkie.  I looked at all the bags, the gifts, the food that still had to be loaded into the back and thought that there was no way we would all fit. I for sure didn’t know how I was going to climb inside, the ability you take for granted until you’re six months pregnant and can barely see your feet.

Heaven’s eye stared angrily at the side of the bakkie where I sat to take in the landscape of browns and pastel greens. My mother kept pouring tea from the metallic coloured flask and kept dampening the face cloth on my father’s head every half an hour. Driving further north, the sun was even more furious. Sometimes Upington can get up to 38˚ C. Some say you can even bake an egg on the bonnet of your car. We stopped at the garage to use the toilet which cost R2, and to fill up on petrol and snacks for the next four hours.

We arrived at the promised land around 17h00. We made the sharp bend between large rocky hills, right before you get to Springbok. The sun was setting and a cool wind blew soothingly over my skin that felt stingy on one arm. The central business area, which is the first part of Springbok you see when you drive in, smelled like damp soil. It smelled like those scents you cannot describe. Those you don’t think about until you smell them again. Those that indescribably smells like home.

We drove around in the dorp area a little. All the beautiful houses with trimmed bright green lawns had signs on the large electric fences that said “Beware of the dog”. I’m reminded of one time my aunt and I walked through Xhoeroe passageway, a thin dusty footpath that snakes through rocky hills. The easiest way to walk from the coloured location to town. I must have been twelve or thirteen and my freshly relaxed and straightened hair threatened to show its true colours. When we made it all the way up the rocky hill and down again to the tarred road and stopped for just a moment in the shade of a big tree. An older white lady came out of her house and yelled “this is private property! Gaan weg!” At the time I felt so embarrassed to have offended her.

In Bergsig, the coloured community, which makes up 79% of the whole town’s population, there are a few tar roads. Most Nama people who have wrongfully been labelled as ‘coloured’ during Apartheid census, live in four room match boxes with outside toilets.  I had never in real life seen a swimming pool in Springbok. My father had not seen a black person until he was fourteen years old and went to Cape Town for his grandmother’s funeral. My father always says things were much better under Apartheid.

 Now, we see many new shops have popped up on almost every corner in Bergsig. The only one I remember from visiting during school holidays, Aunty Betsy’s Mobile, has closed. I felt a pang of loss. I bought a loaf of bread at the corner shop and the owner who is known as Bafana, slid three R200 notes underneath the loaf of bread and said “one night”.

During apartheid, the indigenous people of South Africa could be promoted from “black” to “coloured’ which would mean better opportunities and if a coloured had light skin, they could try to straighten or chemically treat their hair to be promoted to white. The end goal was always white and somehow, we have inherited this. When I stopped wearing my hair straight, my grandmother cried and said that she would now have to be ashamed to walk with me in town.

I didn’t attend any of the services during the week. I rather took to sitting on the front stoep knitting my late grandmother’s floral quilt pattern and watching everyone walk by. I stayed home the whole week until the Friday before the funeral when we had to go buy clothes for the send-off. In town, eyes followed us like an evil track. I was flustered by the attention because I didn’t think we would stand out this much. Everyone here looks like us. Everyone is short. Everyone is brown. Then I heard a whisper “Are they rastas?” as I walked by and realized, no one else wears their hair in its natural state.

My father didn’t speak to me for the last six months of my pregnancy, I had disappointed him beyond console, which, as I saw him crying like a child the morning of the service at his childhood home crying like a baby, I wish I could do. My soldier father, my proud father, crying like a baby in front of a crowd of people. My mother’s brother knotted my father’s tie and put it around his neck and it was striking because my father is very finicky about his ties having been in the army or as he says, the real army. He always ties his own tie.

On our way back to Kimberley we were quieter than usual. More pensive. We stopped at the garage in Pofadder. My father climbed out to go inside.  He came out with a bag of dried fruit and a little knitted springbok with buttons for eyes. He passed it to me through the small window without saying anything. Sometimes forgiveness doesn’t need announcing. It started to rain before we got to Upington and I knew, we went to Springbok to be baptized.

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