Advent: Time for Sowing
By Roon Lewald
It’s the first of the four Advent Sundays, when folks here in Germany light the first of four candles on their Advent fir-branch wreaths and get into the pre-Christmas spirit. Even agnostics can’t help reflecting on the meaning of it all on a quiet Sunday evening when Christmas-minded people take a short break from their gift-shopping labours before plunging back into the seasonal shopping rush again on Monday (illuminations are already up and Christmas markets are booming in the city centers, and Germans are again spending this year as if the recession never happened.) With new terror scares vying with the global economic crisis for attention, the news is so depressing nowadays it’s hard to believe that there’s any room left in the world for the human love, friendship and compassion we hear so much about at Christmastime. I can only draw comfort from the knowledge that many people like myself are at least linked to other individuals by such bonds.
In this mood, I was reminded of a short story by a South African author named Charles Bosman. He knocked about a good deal, but based most of his yarns on his days as a school teacher in the remote Groot Marico district of the Northern Cape frontier with Bechuanaland (Botswana) back in the 1920s. These tales about the backward, scarcely literate Boers who inhabited this isolated region sympathetically capture their sturdy, basic character but do not shy away from describing their oddities and fierce prejudices. They are told in the folksy idiom of a narrator who calls himself “Oom Schalk”. This bushy-bearded, pipe-smoking old story-teller’s seemingly complete identification with his neighbours is subtly belied by the dry, poker-faced humour with which he exposes the ludicrous or morally dubious aspects of their strange values. The story below recounts a punitive expedition by a Boer commando against rebellious black tribesmen in the late 1800s. The twist at the end drives home how even the worst prejudices can occasionally be penetrated, however briefly, by a flash of recognition that we are all literally brothers under the skin. And since that is what Christmas is really all about, it’s a fitting story to read at this time of year.
Herman Charles Bosman
WE HAD A DIFFICULT TASK, THAT TIME (OOM SCHALK LOURENS said), teaching Sijefu’s tribe of Mtosas to become civilized. But they did not show any appreciation. Even after we had set fire to their huts in a long row round the slopes of Abjaterskop, so that you could see the smoke almost as far as Nietverdiend, the Mtosas remained just as unenlightened as ever. They would retreat into the mountains, where it was almost impossible for our commando to follow them on horseback. They remained hidden in the thick bush.
“I can sense these kafirs all around us”, Veld-kornet Andries Joubert said to our “seksie” of about a dozen burghers when we had come to a halt in a clearing amid the tall withaaks. “I have been in so many kafir wars that I can almost smell when the kafirs are lying in wait for us with assegais. And yet all day long you never see a single Mtosa that you can put a lead bullet through.”
He also said that if this war went on much longer we would forget altogether how to handle a gun. And what would we do then, when we again had to fight England?
Young Fanie Louw who liked saying funny things, threw back his head and pretended to be sniffing the air with discrimination. “I can smell a whole row of assegais with broad blades and short handles,” Fanie Louw said.” The stabbing assegai has got more of a selons rose sort of smell about it than a throwing spear. The selons-rose that you come across in grave-yards.”
The veld-kornet did not think Fanie Louw’s remark very funny, however. And he said we all know that this was the first time Fanie Louw had ever been on commando. He also said that if a crowd of Mtosas were to leap out of the bush on to us suddenly, then you would not be able smell Fanie Louw for dust. The veld-kornet also said another thing that was even better.
Our group of burghers laughed heartily. Maybe Veld-kornet Joubert could not think out a lot of nonsense to say just on the spur of the moment, in the way that Fanie Louw could, but give our veld-kornet a chance to reflect, first, and he would come out with the kind of remark that you just had to admire.
Indeed, from the very next thing Veld-kornet Joubert said, we could see how deep was his insight. And he did not have to think much, either, then.
“Let us get out of here as quick as hell men, ” he said, speaking very distinctly. “Perhaps the kafirs are hiding out in the open turf lands, where there are no trees. And none of this long tamboekie grass either.”
When we emerged from that stretch of bush, we were glad to discover that our veld-kornet had been right, like always.
For another group of Transvaal burghers had hit on the same strategy.
“We were in the middle of the bush,” their leader, Combrinck, said to us, after we had exchanged greetings.”A very thick part of the bush, with withaaks standing up like skeletons. And we suddenly thought that the Mtosas might have gone into hiding out here in the open.”
You could see that Veld-kornet Joubert was pleased to think that he had, on his own, worked out the same tactics as Combrinck, who was known as skilful kafir-fighter. All the same, it seemed as though this was going to be a long war.
It was then that, again speaking out of his turn, Fanie Louw said that all we needed now was for the commandant himself to arrive there in the middle of the turf lands with the main body of burghers. “Maybe we should even go back to Pretoria to see if the Mtosas aren’t perhaps hiding in the Volksraad,” He said. “Passing laws and things. You know how cheeky a Mtosa is.”
“It can’t be worse than some of the laws that the Volksraad is already passing now,” Combrinck said gruffly. From that we could see that why he had not himself been appointed commandant was because he had voted against the President in the last elections.
By that time the sun was sitting not more than about two Cape feet above a tall koppie on the horizon. Accordingly, we stared looking for a place to camp. It was muddy in the turf lands, and there was no fire-wood there, but we al said that we did not mind. We would not pamper ourselves by going to sleep in the thick bush, we told one another. It was war time, and were on commando, and the mud of the turf lands was good enough for us we said.
It was then that an unusual thing happened.
For we suddenly did see Mtosas. We saw them from a long way off. They came out of the bush and marched right out into the open. They made no attempt to hide. We saw in amazement that they were coming straight in our direction, advancing in single file. And we observed, even from that distance, that they were unarmed. Instead of assegais and shields they carried burdens on their heads. And almost in the same moment we realized, from the heavy look of those burdens, that the carriers must be women.
For that reason we took our guns in our hands and stood waiting. Since it was women we were naturally prepared for the lowest from of treachery.
As the column drew nearer we saw that at the head of it was Ndambe, an old native whom we knew well. For years he had been Sijefu’s chief counsellor. Ndambe held up his hand. The line of women halted. Ndambe spoke. He declared that we white men were kings among kings and elephants among elephants. He also said that we were ringhals snakes more poisonous and generally disgusting than any ringhals snake in the country.
We knew, of course, that Ndambe was only paying us compliments in his ignorant Mtosa fashion. And so we naturally felt highly gratified. I can still remember the way Jurie Bekker nudged me in the ribs and said, “did you hear that?”
When Ndambe went on, however to say that we were filthier than the spittle of a green toad, several burghers grew restive. They felt that there was perhaps such a thing as carrying these tribal courtesies a bit to far.
It was then that Veld-kornet Joubert, slipping his finger inside the trigger guard of his gun, requested Ndambe to come to the point. By the expression on our veld-kornet’s face, you could see that he had had enough of compliments for one day.
They had come to offer peace, Ndambe told us then.
What the women carried on their heads were presents.
At a sign from Ndambe the columns knelt in the mud of the turf land. They brought lion and zebra skins and elephant tusks, and beads and brass bangles and, on a long mat, the whole haunch of a red Afrikaner ox, hide and hoof and all. And several pigs cut in half. And clay pots filled to the brim with white beer. And also – and this we prized most- witch doctor medicines that protected you against goël spirits at night and the evil eye.
Ndambe gave another signal. A woman with a clay pot on her head rose up from the kneeling column and advanced towards us. We saw then that what se had in the pot was black earth. It was wet and almost like turf soil. We couldn’t understand what they wanted to bring us that for. As though we didn’t have enough of it, right there where we were standing and sticking to our veldskoens, and all. And yet Ndambe acted as though that was the most precious part of the peace offering that his chief, Sijefu, had sent us.
It was when Ndambe spoke again that we saw how ignorant he and his chief and the whole Mtosa tribe were really.
He took a handful of soil out of the pot andd pressed it together between his fingers. Then he told us how honoured the Mtosa tribe was because we were waging war against them. In the past they had only flat-faced Mshangaans with spiked knobkerries to fight against, he said, but now it was different. Our veld-kornet took half a step forward, then, in case Ndambe was going to start flattering us again. So Ndambe said, simply, that the Mtosas would be glad if we came and made war against them later on, when the harvest had been gathered in. But in the meantime the tribe did not wish to continue fighting.
It was the time for sowing.
Ndambe let the soil run through his fingers, to show us how good it was. He also invited us to taste it. We declined.
We accepted his presents and peace was made. And I can still remember how Veld-kornet Joubert shook his head and said, “Can you beat the Mtosas for ignorance?”
And I can still remember what Jurie Bekker said, also. That was when something made him examine the haunch of beef more closely, and he found his own brand mark on it.
It was not long afterwards the war came against England.
By the end of the second year of the war the Boer forces were in a very bad way. But we would not make peace. Veld-kornet Joubert was now promoted to commandant. Combrinck fell in the battle before Dalmanutha. Jurie Bekker was still with us, and so was Fanie Louw. And it was strange how attached we had grown to Fanie Louw during those years of hardship that we went through together in the field. But up to the end we had to admit that, while we had got used to his jokes, and we knew there was no harm in them, we would have preferred it that he should stop making them.
He did stop, and forever, in a skirmish near a block-house. We buried him in the shade of a thorn tree. We got ready to fill in his grave, after which the Commanadant would say a few words and we would bare our heads and sing a psalm. As you know, it was customary at a funeral for each mourner to take up a handful of earth and fling it in the grave.
When Commandant Joubert stooped down and picked up his handful of earth, a strange thing happened. And I remembered that other war, against the Mtosas. And we knew – although we would not say it – what was now the longing in the heart of each of us. For Commandant Joubert did not straightaway drop the soil into Fanie Louw’s grave. Instead he kneaded the damp ground between his fingers. It was as though he had forgotten that it was funeral earth. He seemed to be thinking not of death then, but of life.
We patterned after him, picking up handfuls of soil and pressed it together. We felt the deep loam in it, and saw how springy it was, and let it trickle through our fingers. And we could remember only that it was the time for sowing.
I understood then how, in an earlier war, the Mtosas had felt, they who were also farmers.