Go behind the scenes at the annual Dankfees in this quirky Karoo town.
What happens when there’s a power cut two days before the annual Dankfees in Merweville, threatening the pudding output? Everyone pitches in to help, that’s what – including visitors from all over the country.
It’s 10.30 pm on a Friday and Merweville is quiet. The streetlights cast shallow pools of light. At least the streetlights are working: An hour ago, this little Karoo town was still in the dark. The power had been out for about 30 hours. The power failure couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time: It’s the Dankfees weekend, an annual highlight for this farming community. A blue Ford bakkie pulls up. It’s Belia Muller, owner of Muller Handelaars. She’s here to bring me the key to the guesthouse next door. “We had to use the generator at the store to power the fridges,” she says. “We had to make a plan – bazaar pudding has to be kept cold!” Over the next few days I’ll learn that making a plan is something the people of Merweville are very good at indeed.
Unleash the visitors
It’s Saturday morning and the caravan park opposite my guesthouse is bursting at the seams. Men recline in camping chairs and sip coffee. A boy runs through the campsite with his toothbrush clenched in his teeth. Other kids pedal past on their bikes, their chatter rivalling that of the weavers in the karee trees. Despite a recent influx of incomers who have bought and renovated holiday houses in town, Merweville is not a busy place. That all changes during the Dankfees, however, when up to a thousand people arrive for the weekend. On the festival pamphlet, there’s a paragraph that reads: “Even though we’re experiencing a severe drought, we can look back at all the Dankfees festivals held since 1909 and know that God is great and merciful. [...] The Merweville Dankfees is a festival unlike any other. It’s a festival with heart, a festival that cares. It’s a have-you-been-there festival. Everyone is welcome.” I walk to the church, two blocks away from my guesthouse. The bell tolls once, letting everyone know it’s 7.30 am. A shaft of sunlight lights up the big cross on the hill. The church, built in a neo-Gothic style using blue sandstone from the area, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the whole Karoo. It’s the centre of life in town for the 123-strong congregation, as it was in 1904 when the congregation was established after the Anglo-Boer War. The Dankfees is their only fundraising event – some of the money raised goes towards paying dominee Herman Burger’s salary. The festival grounds are already busy. I see lots of white bakkies. Tables and chairs are set out, fires are lit and coals are heaped into braai drums with shovels, ready for braai grids packed with juicy burger patties. People from as far as Patensie in the Eastern Cape and Kuils River near Cape Town have donated fruit and vegetables for the stalls: bags of butternut, cauliflower, oranges and peaches. A jumping castle has been brought in from Somerset West and a visitor from Stellenbosch is doing face painting for the kids. Some people are wandering around in cycling gear, ready for the 50 km mountain-bike ride or the shorter fun ride. Unlike many other country festivals, the Dankfees doesn’t have a beer tent and a stage where singers perform to booming backing tracks. The soundtrack to this festival is much more laid-back, courtesy of Dawie le Roux and his Donkiekar Boere Orkes from George. I chat to Reinie Dick, a retired dominee from Stellenbosch, who’s here visiting friends. “Look how people are stocking up on food – you’d think the Second Coming was upon us!” he says. I buy one of the legendary Dankfees hamburgers – more like a giant braaibroodjie with a patty and sauce. “It’s a secret recipe,” says Gina Mans with a wink. “But if you eat enough of them, you’ll soon be able to figure out all the ingredients…”
Inside the church hall, I walk past a room full of meat. Meat is one of the biggest attractions at the Dankfees: There are crates full of every imaginable cut. Then there’s the pudding table, where I find Lerouna le Roux. “It’s like we’re preparing for war,” she says, standing behind 60 bowls of bazaar pudding. (In the end, they sold more than R11 000 worth of pudding.) A little girl sidles up to sneak a glance. “Looks good, doesn’t it, sussie?” says Lerouna. “Come back in a little while and buy one.” But Sussie will have to wait until after 8.30 am, when dominee Herman has finished his welcoming speech with the word that everyone is looking forward to the most: “Amen.” Amen means “So be it”, but today it also means: “Go forth and buy!”
I ask Lerouna about the secret to a great bazaar pudding and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “It’s just bazaar pudding. It should look tasty and colourful and it should be made with love.” Lerouna lives in Gansbaai, but her daughter Zaria Barnard is a teacher at George Fredericks Primary School in Merweville. Zaria asked her mom to come and help with the festival and she obliged, much like many other visitors in town. It was a struggle to get the pudding to set due to the power cut. “We bought hand mixers and boiled water on a gas stove to mix with the jelly powder, then we put ice in the kitchen sink to get the jelly to set,” Lerouna says. “It made me think about how people would have made bazaar pudding in earlier years when there was no electricity. Everyone had to pitch in, even the men. I told them they’d have to work their muscles – the pudding wasn’t going to make itself!” Lerouna knows all too well what happens after the dominee says “Amen”. “As soon as the first people arrive, you get so busy you don’t have time to see who’s in front of you,” she says. Mary-Ann van Heerden, manager of the Springbok Lodge in town, lends a hand at the pudding table. “Once a Karookiewiet, always a Karookiewiet,” she says. “You’ll always long for this place. You grow used to the arid conditions and not having everything available all the time, and you learn to plan ahead.”
At 8.30 am, dominee Herman greets the congregation. “I hope you have a wonderful weekend and that when you leave, you’ll already be making plans to come back next year.” He wishes a few members of the congregation a happy birthday and extends his condolences to the family of Sakkie Marais, a resident of Merweville who passed away the day before. Then he ends his address with a prayer. Amen. The mass of people starts to move, splitting up and gathering around the tables and stalls. The Dankfees is now in business and money is handed over for biscuits, rusks, carrot cake, pancakes, children’s toys and lamb chops. A little while later, I meet the Mocke family. They grew up in Merweville and all six siblings (one brother has passed away) have returned for the Dankfees. “Once we had seen more of the world, we all realised how fortunate we’d been to live here,” says Anton Mocke, a retired dominee from Krugersdorp. “When I leave this town, I leave with the knowledge of what the stones feel like under my feet and how it feels to run up a gravel ridge and stub your toe. I know the smell of the grass and the trees and the veld.” Back at the hamburger stall, I talk to Johan Basson. He and his wife Annemarie drove here from the coastal town of Reebok on the Garden Route and set up camp in the parsonage garden for the weekend. “People need to escape the city, even if it’s just for a few days,” he says. “That’s how these small towns survive. If you grew up on the platteland, you’ll always long to be back here, long for the quiet lifestyle. For many people, the power cut was a highlight. You could see the stars in the darkness.” While Johan was gazing at the night sky, Annemarie strapped on a headlamp and decorated cakes in the dark. “We worked three nights in a row, but I loved it,” she says. “People have such a positive attitude here. The drought is severe, but people work together to make a plan. The Merweville residents are an example to us all.” By now, the Donkiekar Boere Orkes is in full swing. Inside the church hall, dominee Herman and another resident, Johnny Mocke, are auctioning off items to raise funds. At one point, local blockman Stuurman Krediet makes his way to the stage with a springbok carcass over his shoulder. All too soon, the final items have been auctioned off, the pudding bowls have been scraped clean and the braai fires have burnt out. It’s the end of the busiest day in Merweville.
Late on Sunday afternoon, I join Herman, his wife Priscilla, their three children and some of their friends on the stoep of the parsonage. Earlier in church, twins were baptised by their grandfather Anton Mocke – the boy and girl are the third generation of Mockes to be baptised in Merweville – and then more than 300 people gathered in the church hall to feast on 30 legs of mutton. The hustle and bustle has since died down,
and now only birdsong breaks the silence. “The town will quieten down and stay that way for the rest of the year,” says Herman with a smile. Priscilla thinks back to all the hard work put in over the past few days. “My children were all here and they brought their friends. Everyone helped. I measured all the dry ingredients for the baking beforehand so only the wet ingredients needed to be added, but then we couldn’t use the oven because the power was out. So we lit gas stoves in the church hall to start the process and when the power came back on we went home to finish the milk tarts. The tarts were done around midnight and then we moved on to the cheesecake…” Herman nods and looks towards the church. “A Karoo town can go one of two ways,” he says. “Either it dies or it thrives.” It’s clear which way Merweville is going.
The next Merweville Dankfees will take place from 27 – 29 April 2018. Contact Esther Fourie for more information: 084 962 2725; firstname.lastname@example.org