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.

go! - - Contents - WORDS & PIC­TURES ERNS GRUNDLING

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.”

A-a-a-men!

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.

Giv­ing thanks

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; ngk­erk­mer­w­eville@gmail.com

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