Oom Karel had the skin of a parched lakebed.
Oom was an adoptive word from the white Afrikaans culture—it meant ‘uncle’, but was widely used in the generic sense to address or mean any older male.
The Oom was a small man with the darting eyes of a marmoset. But those eyes were becoming glassy now, opaque with years.
The more gaunt his features grew with age, the more prominent his high cheekbones stood, making him look ever more Oriental with each passing season. It was another of the hallmarks of his Bushman heritage.
He loved to be asked his age; “I am as young as the most beautiful wish in my heart,” he’d declare, “…and as old as all the unfulfilled longings in my life.”
Empty bags of skin hung in gathered folds all about his withered body that in his advanced years had become scarcely more than a sack of bones; yet he put in a full day’s work five and a half days a week. People often remarked that if he ever grew into all those wrinkles he’d be a giant, and it never failed to send him into paroxysms of laughter that always ended in a hacking cough. He’d eventually choke on it, bring up something colourful and spit it into the dirt.
Always into the dirt—he was never not in the dirt with his bare feet. He lay or squatted in the dirt under the sun or a tree, even if there was a level of cast cement and comfortable chair alternative. He declared that the contact with the soil was his roots and nourishment, “You never find plants growing on rock bed in a cave,” was his mantra.
It was the wild tobacco and whatever else it was he packed into his ancient yellow ivory pipe that kept him hacking and spitting. The putrid smoke that engulfed his head much of the day fortified him against the cold of the winter and fierceness of the summer’s heat. Against the pangs of hunger and agonies of teeth now rotted away.
Most of all it killed the pain of loss, the loss of dignity and freedom, the loss of his culture and kin, nearly all gone now.
“My boy,” he told Dawie, “it is soon my time to go.”
“Your time is a long time off,” Dawie assured him. The old man had looked the same and said that same thing for as long as Dawie could remember.
“It is different now Dawie. I know I have said it many times, but I didn’t really mean it. I have loved my life. It has been hard and I have seen many things. But my family are now all gone.” Oom’s brother had died two months before and it had cut him deeply.
“We are your family,” Dawie reminded and assured the old man.
“You are, my boy, all of you are. I am proud of you all and happy to have lived my last days with you. But my real world has passed—has passed long ago. When I was a boy I had great grandparents and brothers and sisters. And there were cousins, and later came the children of these, all of my family, yes. But they have gone now, all gone. They were the people who knew me as I was, when I was a man. Strong! I could run all day. I could track an animal on the run for three days without sleeping or eating. They knew that me. Now I am alone in remembering that man; I am the only one still alive who knew the real me.”
Dawie was about to protest, but Oom stopped him.
“No my boy. I am not sad—I am happy. I am not complaining—this is as it should be, that the old leave a new world for the young. The world is changing and you are like a green branch that can bend with it. Look at me…” he held out a withered old arm that looked like it belonged to a mummy. “I can no longer bend. I can’t adapt to the changes. `I must go while I have dignity and my memories.”
He went on, in the bushman tradition of word of mouth history, reminding Dawie of the clan’s remote past, it’s folklore; of how they outsmarted the newcomers for so long, until the newcomers had taken their livelihood—their game—shot it out, penned it in behind fences.
He disappeared into the dreamstate, his eyes glazing, travelling far back through time; marveling at the springbok that he saw as he went—the native antelope of the territory, moving in herds that spanned from horizon to horizon, millions in number; now all gone. All hunted to near extinction in his lifetime.
Now their sustenance and staple were owned, he sighed. Everything reduced to being a commodity with a profitable value.
And his mind was gone again; dredging the painful memories of times when they too were hunted; his people hunted, a bounty on each head, out in the deep bush. Their crime; no traceable linage recounted in The Big Book—the Bible—the only law the Trek Boer frontiers men carried or cared about. It consigned The First People, as they had subsequently come to be known in our more enlightened era, to be numbered among the animals back then.
Now they too were owned, he admitted; also just a commodity with a profitable value in menial labour… and perhaps more than that.
Back then, before the game were gone, even the authorities—the British and German colonial masters—had sold licenses to hunt and shoot the ancestors too; whole families, men, women and their children on the run from hunters with guns; a practice only abandoned in the 1920’s.
Dawie had heard it all countless times before, but culture dictated that he should drink it all in as if it was the first time of hearing, and so he did, sitting with his grandfather under the shade of a thorn tree deep into the late afternoon.
“There are big ears coming to our land soon,” he told Dawie, “steel ears with roots into the ground, listening to the sky; the Dominee came to tell me this.”
It snapped Dawie out of his stupor of listening to oft-repeated recounts of their place in history. Oom Karel hated the Dominee—he had never capitulated to the angry Christian God that they had tried to threaten and bribe him and the clan into.
“The Dominee says?” Dawie’s shock was unmaskable.
“Yes, my boy. He and the Baas and some others came to see me. I have been thinking about what they said. They told me of what you also told me—about the big ears to listen to the sky.”
Dawie always fed a constant stream of news from the village and school back to the farm where his grandfather and family still toiled. The SKA and its giant dish antennas, ‘ears’, was a hot topic of course for him—the younger members of the family imagining that they would somehow see their lot improve immeasurably—what, with the new tar roads, construction, airstrip and countless other exciting-sounding developments coming to town.
That not one of them and nobody they knew had personally ever been in an airplane, driven a car or done more than shop for the basics seemed to elude them; if these things were coming, surely, they reasoned with their timeless optimism, they would participate in it?
Now Dawie wondered, what was up with the Dominee bringing this news to the old man? What did he want? This was unprecedented. The masters never came to the servants to engage them or seek their opinion. Yes—sometimes they came to get support; maybe to win election votes; but that was dished out as an instruction leaving no doubt that an “or-else” consequence stood behind it.
The way the old man was talking now though, it seemed that the Dominee wanted something—wasn’t demanding something, but was seeking help; almost like an equal.
It was most suspicious.
“The Dominee said they are going to listen to the sky with the big ears,” Oom Karel was repeating. “And the Dominee said that his God has already put His voice in The Big Book so these troublemakers can now only hear what the Devil wants them to think.”
“And you believe this, Oupa—Grandpa?” Dawie quizzed carefully.
“Hell no….” the withered old man chuckled. “That Dominee is mal—he’s crazy! He always thinks there’s a devil behind every bush and shadow, but I’ve never heard him say the devil is also in the sky! That is where his God lives… that’s what he usually says… So, who knows? Maybe the Devil is visiting his God up there?”
He broke off into peels of laughter that ended in hacking and spitting, “I believe they are listening for what you told me they are listening for; a different kind of light—light we can’t see, like sound we can’t hear… even though the sound is there.”
The culture worked both ways—the old also listening intently to the children and parsing what they heard through the filter of possibility to see if it could defeat any dogma they held; it was the only way to survive nature.
“What does he want then Oupa? Why did he come to you, to us?”
“He says that the ears are going onto our land and that we must fight it and stop them.”
“Our land?” Dawie was stunned and disbelieving. “The Dominee said it is our land? Ours…? What does he mean?”
“Yes my boy. It is our land now. His people’s farms are now on our land because it was our ancestor’s lands… lands he says they are protecting for us with their laws… or we would otherwise destroy it because we are backward. He says he can show us how to protect our heritage with their laws—with the new Black man’s laws, he says. That is the claim he makes; but we all know it is only their interests they want us to protect.” He laughed again. He laughed a lot. There were very few things he didn’t laugh at.
Dawie instantly gauged and understood what was afoot. The country was rife with land-claims under the new South African Constitution—groups of mainly Nguni tribes and clans laying claim to pockets of land that their ancestors had farmed before the white man had arrived. Successful claims on land by Bushmen were pitifully rare; unless it was settled, the courts were disinterested in entrenching the rights of those that wander; it was a farmer’s law, not a huntsman’s.
“So are they handing the land back, then?” Dawie asked shrewdly.
“You are a clever boy. That was my first question,” the old clan leader said.
“You asked the Dominee that?”
“Of course not!” The old man’s eyes twinkled, “That was the question I asked myself… When you find your Eland, do you race unchecked over open ground to kill him immediately?”
The Eland is Africa’s largest antelope—large and rare—they occupied a deeply mythical realm in Bushman lore. A Bushman, certainly not by an elder of Oom Karel’s standing, did not lightly choose an analogy to an Eland.
“When we hunt, we don’t let our quarry know that we are a threat.”
“Did the Dominee also go to the Xhosa for their help?” Dawie asked.
The first community of farmers to permanently settle in the area was a Xhosa faction under leadership of Gert Kaffer. By all accounts, the Cape government of his era had cordial relationships with the Xhosa and wished to use them as a buffer between the colonists and the troublesome Bushmen.
In 1839 the Cape Governor, Sir George Napier, officially granted 98,000 morgen of land to the Xhosa people. Before the end of that year 110 Xhosa families had settled in this area.
“The boere are too cunning to take it to the Xhosa,” the Oom predicted, “The Xhosa run the government and they will make it their own idea and cut the white man out completely. The Dominee thinks he is safer with us yellow men; he thinks he still controls us.”
He started to laugh again until he choked and spat.