For Shirley Marais, her grandparents’ farm in the Kalahari was always a place of miracle and wonder.
Scratching out a living on the edge of the Kalahari is not for everyone, but as Shirley Marais remembers, her grandparents’ farm was a place of miracle and wonder.
My Ouma and Oupa farmed an incredibly flat, incredibly stony piece of red earth in the Northern Cape, near the dusty dorp of Daniëlskuil, where the Kalahari edges into the Great Karoo. They would have been called subsistence farmers today, although for them it was just a way of life, and one they had not really chosen. It was a continuation of the only path that they, and their parents and grandparents before them, had ever known. Their surname was Van der Merwe and they had six children, born between 1934 and 1952. From time to time, they also took in children from their extended family. The Great Depression, World War II, a crippling drought, the great locust epidemic of the mid-1930s… All of these took a terrible toll on agriculture and rural communities in South Africa. Most people turned to their families first. On his narrow strip of Kalahari earth, Oupa provided enough not only for his own family and other family members in need, but also for some of the townsfolk who were not able to support themselves. He farmed vegetables and mealies and Ouma had a magnificent orchard that year after year bore enough quinces, apricots, peaches, gooseberries and figs for what seemed like decades, judging from the pantry that was always tightly packed with preserves, jams, syrups and pickles. Dried fruit sat in huge white flour bags on the floor, next to a paraffin fridge that hummed and ticked in the corner. They also kept chickens, sheep and
dairy cows. Oupa sold milk and mutton to buy the things they couldn’t make themselves, like sugar, flour, oil, paraffin, knitting wool, clothing fabric and one pair of shoes per year for each child who couldn’t make do with hand-me-downs. Once every winter they slaughtered an ox for biltong. Ouma was a superb seamstress. At the age of 15 she was apprenticed to an uncle who was a tailor and she must have dreamt of a life as a dressmaker. Instead, at the age of 20, she was married off to a farmer in the Kathu district. When that farmer died three years later, his mother ordered her to leave. With her two young daughters and all her possessions in a suitcase, she walked 20 miles to Daniëlskuil and found employment with the Jewish tailor in town. (The younger of those two daughters was my mother.) Oupa saw her sitting on a horse at a celebration to mark the centenary of the Great Trek, and he instantly fell in love. They married and during their long life together, she sewed all his church suits, fully lined, and clothes for their own and any other children who happened to be living with them. Oupa was the second eldest son in his family, so he didn’t inherit his father’s farm, nor did he inherit the right to education. That, too, went to his older brother. My grandparents’ lives were hard, sometimes impossibly so, but they had a deep love and respect for the earth, even though that love often seemed more like a peace treaty or a ceasefire. They were utterly dependent on soil, wind, sun and water, and the pendulum would swing from gratitude to despondency and back again at will. They both had a kind of superhuman energy, born of suppressing the tremendous urge to walk away and never look back. (I’m convinced this urge was transferred to me through blood and osmosis and it has manifested in an insatiable wanderlust.)
We spent many holidays on Oupa and Ouma’s farm, driving there from Krugersdorp in one day in my dad’s Ford Taunus. This meant leaving at 3 am (great excitement!) so that we could get there well before dark in winter, or before the worst of the heat in summer. For us townies, the long drop and chamber pots were charming rather than tedious. The paraffin lamps, Dover stove and the manual washing machine also added to the flavour of the holiday. (When Eskom power eventually arrived, Ouma and Oupa were certainly not sad to see these things go!) Oupa and Ouma’s nearest neighbours were a man called Oom Chris and his sister Tannie Pietie. (Their father had been hoping for another boy…) Chris and Pietie lived exactly a mile away across the flat expanse and their house was clearly visible from the front stoep of my grandparents’ small, perfectly square, stone dwelling. As a child I sometimes walked over to visit them, stopping to watch a dung beetle scuttling across the gravelly soil. I found the weird, dry Kalahari flora fascinating, often squatting down to examine minuscule flowers that seemed to be making a huge effort to look dead. Apart from those ambles, which were always accompanied by some of Tannie Pietie’s soetkoekies (Ouma’s patience didn’t stretch as far as treats that disappeared in the blink of an eye), I would spend my holiday wandering all over my grandparents’ farm. I would walk to the kloof at the top, which was home to wild bees that once chased Oupa into the farm dam after he attempted to raid their honey. He grumbled for days, but being an ouderling in the church, he was precluded from swearing. That kloof was a beautiful place, made up of bands of red, brown, yellow, gold and ochre rock, commonly known as tiger’s eye. There was an abandoned asbestos mine a few hundred metres away, on land that Oupa had once rented to a mining company. The blue-grey heap was in total contrast to the reds and browns of the surrounding landscape. Oupa kept his pigsties on that dump as an additional income stream. As a child and later as a teenager, I would set off from the farmhouse after breakfast, carrying a small bottle of water and some cold meat and dried fruit. I’d give the mine dump a wide berth, but I explored every inch of the rest of the farm, sometimes only returning at sunset. Occasionally I was accompanied by my brother or a cousin, but they soon got bored of the veld, preferring to go bum-sliding at the dump, out of sight of the adults, who had forbidden us to go anywhere near the old shafts and buildings. No one ever asked me where I’d been. I was a timid child and the grownups hardly expected me to do anything risky. Besides, I was never in any danger, although I did occasionally come across a rinkhals or a Cape Cobra. I would freeze and either backtrack or drop to my haunches, depending on how interested in me the snake looked. I loved that deceptively barren piece of earth from which Oupa managed to coax a miraculous, borehole-watered vegetable garden. No other carrots in my life have ever matched up. Ouma’s orchards and her hanepoot grape trellis were also legendary in those parts. Astonishingly, she even managed to grow tea roses, fed using leftover washing-up water. I loved the sparse, thorny vegetation and the countless varieties of prickly grass, shrubs and succulents. And most of all I loved the seemingly limitless solitude.
Oupa and Ouma eventually had to move to Kimberley to be close to a good hospital. A year after they had left the farm, we went back to see how it was doing. In the course of that short year, the vegetable garden had all but disappeared and the orchard looked as if it had been abandoned a decade ago. Forty years of scratching out a living had been obliterated by 12 months of sun, wind and sand. For the first time, I understood what a never-ending struggle it must have been to raise a family on that land. Never mind how Oupa and Ouma always somehow managed to produce a little bit extra to share with others. And on top of it all, they still found space within themselves to appreciate the scent of roses.
My grandparents’ lives were hard, sometimes impossibly so, but they had a deep love and respect for the earth, even though that love often seemed more like a peace treaty or a ceasefire.