Photo essay The drought in Bushmanland, seen through Chrismari van der Westhuizen’s camera lens
When only 25 mm rain falls over a period of three years, we’re talking about a serious drought. It is a debilitating drought for humans and animals, one that causes you to wake up with a feeling of dread every morning, says Chrismari van der Westhuizen of the farm Uitspankolk, 100 km north of Loeriesfontein.
Bushmanland is wearing her shroud; a veil of dust hides her face. She is mourning the absence of the rains and the demise of her animals. Only the woeful keening of a windmill breaks the deathly silence – a fruitless attempt to suck a drop of water from the depths of the scorched earth. The sun shows the stripped plains no mercy.
Yet there is life here.
A herd of skinny sheep and a few Cape ground squirrels are watching the road attentively. A murder of crows are partying around the carcass of yet another drought victim. A couple of sadlooking springbok nibble at dry bossies… Then, suddenly, it is as if everything comes to life. The ground squirrels stand up straight, the sheep start bleating and a flock of small birds appear out of nowhere. From a corrugated twin track comes the rattling sound of an overloaded farm bakkie bringing feed.
My name is Chrismari van der Westhuizen-Batt. I am a farmer’s wife in Bushmanland. My husband Franchwa and I, and our two daughters, Mischa (7) and Mia (6), call the desolate area north of Loeriesfontein our home. But it doesn’t really matter where we live. Our story is similar to the stories of farmers from droughtstricken regions across the country.
BUSHMANLAND is bare and barren. I remember how we used to joke about the drought years ago when we ran into one another in town or along the road. As the drought dragged on, the jokes became increasingly fewer. >
Later, they were replaced by quiet despair. Everybody enduring their hardship in silence. Too proud to admit that we were suffering. Or maybe this happened gradually over such a long time that we somehow got used to making do with the minimum. >
And now? We have passed the stage where we try to hide our misery from each other.
We talk about our sadness and uncertainty. Every day you hear about another load of sheep leaving Bushmanland, never to return. Another farm deserted. Another person saying there is no hope left of saving their business. Our numbers are dwindling and we are scared. Scared of the day it’s our turn.
I have often wondered about the Afrikaans phrase “moedverloor se
vlakte” (literally, the plain of lost hope). How do you get to this place that you hear people mentioning? Today I know that many of our farmers are standing on that plain of lost hope. It is that feeling of powerlessness that washes over you when you run out of ideas. It is the bank manager shaking his head from side to side without meeting your eyes. It is accounts with high figures printed in red.
Moedverloor se vlakte is where the feed stores are empty and the co-op account is in arrears. It is the place where you don’t know where the money for wages or school fees or food will come from, because every cent is going towards feed. >
OUR FARMERS AND THEIR WIVES are resilient people. But this endless drought breaks something deep inside you. I was convinced I would stand strong and steady. I wouldn’t let this get me down… until that fateful day. Like most other farmers, we too decided to get rid of some of our sheep. >
Weeks in advance we started getting together a group of ewes that would end up going to greener pastures and new homes. These are sheep we have known all their lives. Selected as little lambs, they had been destined to spend the rest of their lives in Bushmanland. I told each one that they would be going to a better place now, a place where the veld was green. And
I was happy with our decision.
Then the big day arrived when they would leave the farm forever, and still I was strong and steady. Even when we loaded them onto the truck, it didn’t bother me…
But when the trucked left through the farm gate, the strong farmer’s wife inside me broke down. I cried for our beloved sheep I would never see again. Cried for the little lambs that are being rejected because the mothers themselves are barely able to survive, and for the ewes that simply succumb despite the care and feed. Cried about the drought aid that has turned out to be empty promises, and about the children I have to deny everything they ask for. No one can witness that much death and misery day after day and remain unchanged. >
And yet, in spite of all this, the drought also brings stories of hope, compassion and caring. Often we are so caught up in our own world of sorrow and despair that we forget about the generous people out there who are willing to lend a helping hand. Often we are too proud to ask for help, even when, deep inside, you are screaming “Just help me, please!” There are people who see through this brave facade and give generously to farmers without being asked. That single bag of maize, feed bale, R10 donation or wrapped bar of soap might seem insignificant to some, but for a farmer or his wife it makes a huge difference. It gives hope. And without hope, our bags would have been packed and the farm gate locked long ago.