SHOWTIME IN GROOTFONTEIN
Kuier with the friendly people of the north
The Grootfontein Agricultural Show is the biggest platteland show in Namibia. For more than a century, it has been the thread holding this community together. Come with us behind the scenes.
September is show season in Namibia. Grootfontein, Keetmanshoop, Rehoboth and Gobabis are just some of the towns that get expo fever in spring. It all builds up to the Big One, the Windhoek Show, at the end of the month.
Of the agricultural shows on the platteland, Grootfontein is the biggest. It was first held in 1911 and now attracts more than 10 000 visitors over three days. Even though the area between Otavi, Tsumeb and Grootfontein is known as the mielie triangle, this show is about the animals: cattle, small livestock and horses.
At the 2014 show, the motto is “Nat, Natter, Namibië!”. On the back of the programme, above photos of full rivers and green fields, it reads: “We thank the Lord for the rain. May the next season be equally blessed.”
It’s Tuesday evening and the showground is abuzz. A few Flemish horses gallop under the floodlights on the sports field to the tune of “Ek en my meisie” by Worsie Visser. Everything smells like farm and braaivleis.
Outside one hall, schoolchildren in catering uniforms wait for the opening ceremony to begin. “What do we actually have to do? Do we have to carry things on a tray?” one girl asks. Her friend doesn’t answer. She’s on WhatsApp.
Over at the amusement park, lights flicker in the dark. The Inverter, a monster of a machine, spins its occupants in circles. “Some kids have ridden the Inverter until their noses bled,” says Deon van Blerk, the vice president of the show committee.
Deon is at the helm of the Proudly Grootfontein initiative. They recently took 250 kids to clean six schools in the area and planted a hundred trees. “Small communities are wonderful,” he says. “I’m always drawn to them. It all revolves around the school, the church, the town, and the local agri show.”
I also meet Johann van Heerden, the show president. “It’s falling down and getting up, highs and lows and snot en trane,” he says, talking about the “tough seat” he occupies. He tells me how tempers flare when the competition gets tough: “Men have thrown punches down at the stables. ‘My horse is better than yours,’ stuff like that. But the community can work together. We’ve been part of the Grootfontein Show for 103 years. It’s incredible.”
At the opening ceremony, the hall is filled with breeders, sponsors, farmers and exhibitors. Kanaal 7 radio presenter Neal van den Berg is the MC and he calls the audience to order. “You guys sitting outside... How do I know you’re listening and not playing footsie or getting into trouble?”
Then, on a more sober note: “Ouens, let’s say thanks for a country like Namibia and its wonderful people.”
Dominee Hendrik van Zyl opens with scripture and emphasizes that we are the show animals of God. Speeches follow and Johann ends the proceedings: “I want to say a real Boere-dankie. May you pick up where you left off last year and enjoy the show.”
Kuier like you’ve never kuiered before
The whole community gets involved. Pensioners keep the showground clean and churches and schools operate food stalls at the horse and cattle shows. You can easily wreck your diet with pancakes,
chops, gemsbok steak and peppermintcrisp tart.
Neal van den Berg is the announcer again. Tickets to a performance by Die Campbells are up for grabs. Neal asks the audience: “What is the show secretary’s surname? What is the name of the show president’s dog?”
The stalls sell anything you can think of: arts and crafts, kitchenware, clothes, toys and snacks. At the Xtreme Body Art stall, people are queuing for tattoos. Ricci van Tonder works here and says the most popular designs are stars or the names of loved ones, although according to Ricci getting inked with your partner’s name “is the dumbest thing you can do”. She recommends a design that can be easily altered instead.
(Ricci also tells me that Namibia is full of incompetent tattoo artists with unsteady hands and poor spelling abilities. In Walvis Bay, one “artist” misspelled Jesus as “Juses”.)
At the Gideons International stall, chops and sosaties sizzle on the coals. I chat to Landman van Greunen (77), former show president, former mayor and former school principal. He’s a legend in Grootfontein. Apparently Landman doesn’t like English much – the dominee even goes so far as to apologise: “Verskoon my oom Landman, maar ek moet nou die volgende in Engels sê…”
“This show is the link between Grootfontein and the rest of the district,” Landman tells me. “It does well. It has never made a loss.”
He remembers some “diep kuiers” in the past, back when the army was still deployed in the area. “One night, when I was mayor, we partied so hard that I ‘gave’ the army the Freedom of the City.”
In the show office, the committee is hard at work. “Stay calm and tackle the problems head on. Don’t fight with each other,” Johann van Heerden tells his team after reading them a verse from the Bible. One-liners fly around the office: I
It doesn’t have enough masculinity. It doesn’t say “ram” to me.
can see your calf muscles are stiff this morning – about 2 bar; you’re too pretty to be this bad-tempered in the morning; ons gaan nóú skou!
The Inverter is on everyone’s lips. It seems to instil equal parts excitement and fear. Dian Jansen (15) pops into the show office and says, “I’m never going on that thing again! I prayed to God like ten times!”
How to judge a goat
Livestock judge Bertie van Zyl watches as handlers lead grumpy goats into the ring. A woman from the stands shouts: “Lize, sta-a-a-a-dig, rustig. Lize, vashou, váshou.” The goats take a few minutes to settle down: Some butt heads or try to mate; others are frozen in place, bleating forlornly.
Polla Potgieter from Doringdraad Boerbok Stud outside Tsumeb is one very proud grandfather. He’s been bringing his animals here since the 1970s and his sons and grandsons will continue the tradition this year. “Og, I live for this,” he says.
Bertie studies each boerbok from head to tail. Apparently “a large, well-formed scrotum” counts in a ram’s favour. He has an almost forensic approach to judging: “This one has a good waist and great length. Look, the muscles from its haunches run almost to the heart.” He sums up another candidate: “It doesn’t have enough masculinity. It doesn’t say ‘ram’ to me.”
I hope no one ever says that about me...
On the first afternoon of the show, there’s a parade to the showground: bakkies and trucks, a fire engine, the army orchestra, the Luiperdheuwel Primary School drum majorettes, motorbikes, a 1930s’ Model A Ford and marching police officers. Miss Tsumeb Gymnasium waves at the crowds from the school bus.
A carnival atmosphere reigns in the arena. “The beautiful girls of Luiperdheuwel, you’re our pride and joy,” says Suret Botma, the organiser of the parade.
The crowd comes to its feet to sing the Namibian and African Union anthems. There’s something beautiful and deeply human about the parade. It binds everyone together, young and old.
Ben-Hur and tough love
Horses are well represented at the show: Some come from as far afield as Keetmanshoop, Mariental and even South Africa. This is also where the Frisian and Flemish national championships take place. Many of these horses belong to Karen Woermann from Windhoek, who is well known in Namibian horse circles.
There are lots of events and classes, but I find the pleasure-driving event the most entertaining. Fine harness, single harness and double harness horses make their way around the ring. It feels like watching something from a bygone era – like Ben-Hur without the testosterone.
Announcer Frans Steyn steers the proceedings with a firm hand. When some kids light a firecracker too close to the ring, he chases them off. But mostly he gives patient instructions. “Galop asseblief. Canter please.”
A boeresport event is held for the kids – a type of musical chairs on horseback – where brothers and sisters and cousins from the district compete against each other. The costume event is also popular with the younger crowd, especially the horse and rider in Spiderman attire.
During one of the items, teenager Amoret Louw falls off her horse. Her grandmother Martie is on the scene immediately, ready to dole out a strong dose of tough love: “If you don’t get back on the horse now you’ll never ride again. Put on a brave face and smile. There you go…”
What is femininity?
Dawid Krause is a popular announcer on the cattle circuit in Namibia. He likes to tell anecdotes over the microphone. When the applause is not to his liking, he says:
“You know those rent-a-crowd people you can get to come cry at your funeral? Next year I’ll pay people to clap their hands.”
The cattle programme features 140 heads of stud cattle: Brahman, Braunvieh, Santa, Simbra and Simmentaler are some of the breeds on show.
In a separate camp there’s a huge Brahman-Charolais ox – its skin is the colour of the Highveld in winter and it weighs 920 kg. “Put a horn on it and sell it as a rhino,” someone says.
On Thursday it’s 36° C. Dawid brings a little relief: “We’ve obtained permission for the judges to take off their blazers.”
Cattle are less manic in the ring than goats. They patiently wait their turn like models in a heavyweight fashion show. The judging gets technical: “This heifer has great capacity and good femininity. Just look at the lines. See how the udder gives her a nice wedge shape,” says Barend Dorfling, one of the cattle judges.
I chat to Alex de Koning (26), one of the new generation of cattle judges, over a beer. Alex teaches me what constitutes good “masculinity” and “femininity” in livestock. “A slight build, curvy hips and a delicate face – that’s femininity,” he says. “If the animal peeks around a corner, you should be able to tell that it’s a cow and not a bull by the head alone. You don’t want a rugged, strong, masculine cow. For masculinity, you want a prominent brow ridge and a more developed neck with a deeper colour.”
Alex is a farm manager and calls himself a “novice farmer”. “We always talk about the groot gees of Grootfontein,” he says. “The Windhoek Show is more competitive and people keep to themselves. Here we get together, the guys tease each other and socialise.”
A Simbra cow owned by Hardus Breedt is crowned as the overall winner in the Grand Champion Beef category. “It’s not about the breeder, it’s about the animal,” Hardus says. “I just want to thank the Lord for the opportunity to show such an exceptional cow. There’s no such thing as a perfect animal, but she’s close. I think this is her best year.”
Salt of the earth
The show ends on the Friday night with two heart-warming items. Grootfontein resident Marié Kriel (38) has been in a wheelchair since a shooting accident at the age of 7 – tonight she’ll drive around the ring in a cart drawn by two Flemish horses. “I haven’t been on a horse in such a long time. I can’t even remember what it feels like. I dream of being on horseback again,” she says.
“After the accident, everyone feared that I’d be a zombie. But I finished matric and now have my own Arabian horse stud. I like challenges. If you get given an opportunity you should grab it with both hands.”
Marié drives around the arena with Shaun Esterhuizen and her brother Sam. The crowd goes wild and tears flow freely.
For the last item, eight Flemish horses pull a cart around the arena. A whole bunch of Grootfonteiners – parents, children and famous horse breeder Karen Woermann’s 81-year-old mother Emily Nothnagel – are on board. (Emily herself still competes in pleasure-driving events).
Karen and I stand under the floodlights and chat about the people of Grootfontein. “If someone encounters a problem here, everyone lends a hand,” she says. “There’s amazing team spirit. People work hard, party hard and pray just as hard. They are the salt of the earth.”
For accommodation options in the Grootfontein district, see page 122. In 2015, the Grootfontein Agricultural Show will take place from 16 – 18 September. Other shows: Keetmanshoop 2 – 5 September; Gobabis 21 – 23 September; Windhoek 25 September – 3 October.