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.

go! - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION NI­CO­LENE LOUW

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.

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