Finding common ground in the big hole

2012-11-08 00:00

AFRICAN myth has it that humankind originated when all our ancestors walked out of a big hole somewhere in Central Africa. Living in the North West Province has proven to me that if we all came out of any one big hole, then that big hole was somewhere near Strydpoort.

The lady in the post office also adds to my point, as she stamps the postal slips with a twisted mouth that is disappointed with her life, muttering while we all grow old in the queue: “Ek vra vir myself wat die hel maak ek in hierdie gatkant van die wêreld ?” My ears prick up — gat ... there is proof, yet again!

I can be pretty much anywhere, talking to pretty much anyone with the surname of Du Plessis or Van Wyk or Van Nêrens, and the conversation goes something like this: “From Strydpoort, you say?”

“Yes,” I answer. “You have probably never heard of it, but it’s a farm between two towns that no one has also ever heard of.” Then Du Plessis, or Nel, or Van Nêrens starts shaking his head slowly and his wife asks him why he has goose bumps rising on his arms. Is he cold, or is it just from lekkerte? “It’s ­lekkerte,” he answers her and then tells me: “Dis my wêreld, daardie. Ek was daar gebore en getoë.” Now I get goose bumps, too, because I nearly did not take the conversation there. I nearly didn’t take the time to pass the time of day, and I nearly missed finding out that Du Plessis, or Nel, or Van Nêrens, was actually a homeboy.

“So you know the Van Niekerks?” I ask.

And the Krugers and the Van Wyks and the Besters. Do you mean the Wit van Wyks or the Swart van Wyks? I ask him. He knows both. And we nod and agree that after the Wit van Wyks eventually married into the Swart van Wyk family, it became harder to categorise their descendents. And do you know Soetgoed and Duif? He asks me. They now live where Ou Tannie Grieta used to live. Do you mean Groot Ou Tannie Grieta, or Maer Ou Tannie Grieta? You mean Groot Tannie Grieta — yes, then I do know Soetgoed and Duif — I just know them as Jaapie and Anna-Marie Cronje, and Pippa is in their son’s class at school. Just this week we were sewing costumes together for the nursery school concert. I am at once sorry that I did not know him before, or he and his wife could have come to the concert. He would have enjoyed being there and seeing everyone again. But on second thought, tickets for that concert sold out quicker than the U2 tours do in Jo’burg. It would not have been possible.

And so it goes. We continue throwing surnames at each other, and stories of births and marriages and unexpected tragic deaths that not only shook our town but also sent seismic ripples through family networks into all four corners of the Earth where the descendents of the old Westransvaalers are now living. And we enjoy the fact that we both know and love Tannie Esme, for being one of the funniest women in the world. “You know what she told me yesterday,” I tell him, “she said she had just renewed her post box for the year, after which she went to get the post out. When she found it empty she went straight back into the post office and said to the gatkant lady, ‘What the hell did I pay all that money for? There is no blerrie post in there at all!’” We laugh. And the conversation goes on.

And I can see the disbelief and the amazement in his face, that I know what he knows. I know the same potholed roads edged with dry white winter grass, where flocks of birds endanger their lives playing chicken at harvest time, desperate to pick up the mielies that have fallen out of trucks and that lie sprinkled on the N12; I know what it is like when a thunderstorm, a dust storm and the sunset reign together, pouring down mud and leaving the sky stained end-of-days red; I know about skuur dances where adults sokkie until late at night, while children curl up asleep on blankets under the tables.

Before long, our conversation establishes a fact. We are family. His mother is my mother-in-law’s cousin.

We pause. There are more goose bumps.

And while I can see he finds satisfaction in his corporate career in the city, that he and his family have pride in him having moved away and established a life for themselves that counts, I can also see that his heart still beats somewhere else. Somewhere where there are vlaktes and thorn trees and space for boys to run wild. Somewhere closer to that big gat that all our ancestors walked out of, once upon a time, long, long ago.

“Invite us to a skuurdans,” his eyes almost plead before we say goodbye.

And I promise I will.

• Catherine Smetherham is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West Province. Contact her at Catherine@holtzhausen.com

 

 

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