Two kindly, jovial fellows

2011-08-20 16:18

Last October, 53-year-old twins Casie and Driesie took up residence in a nursing home for mentally challenged people in a small town in North West.

Their brother and sister-in-law, who had previously looked after them in Grootfontein, ­Namibia, were growing older and realised they would need full-time care.

Both twins were mute and, ­according to an old psychiatric ­assessment in their file, they had the mental ­capacity of five-year-olds.

Both struggled to control ­saliva and constantly had to clean their chins with handkerchiefs they kept clutched in their hands.

They soon conquered the hearts of their new caregivers. Both enjoyed hugging the nurses, they laughed all day and made enthusiastic grunts when people tried to communicate with them.

“Driesie spends most days knitting and Casie mostly sweeps in front of the stoep,” says the home’s manager.“And on days when they just want to sit around, they just sit around.”

Nothing unusual for patients in a home of that sort – with one ­exception. On the door of a ­cupboard in their room, Casie and Driesie have put up a black-and-white photograph of ­themselves when they were about 20 years younger.

It’s not a pretty picture.The composition indicates it was taken by a professional photographer, but in the picture the twins, usually meek and well-kept, look mean and suspicious.

Their clothes are dirty and their hair dishevelled. They are drooling. This picture, it turns out, is the reason Casie and Driesie are probably the two most famous ­inhabitants of the town where they have settled.

It was taken in 1993 by ­photographer Roger Ballen and published a year later in his book, Platteland: Images of ­Rural South Africa.

It was one of the most ­controversial books of photography to come out of South ­Africa, filled with pictures of poor and ­neglected people.

In the furore that followed, Ballen was accused of portraying ­Afrikaners as ­backward.

He has consistently refused to disclose the twins’ identity.

“I get contacted by so many people who want to know about them. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t phone me to put them on a bottle of tomato sauce or whatever,” he said.

“I really don’t want to talk about them too much any more. I took thousands of pictures in my life, but I’ll probably be ­remembered for that one.”

An American by birth, he made a name as a photographer when he documented the ­protest movement during the Vietnam War.

While touring rural South ­Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, he started photographing little towns.

While still refusing to divulge ­Casie and Driesie’s identity, he ­recently agreed to talk about how he had met them.

He says: “I was staying on a game farm with my wife and children. I drove to the town to buy something and saw Casie working in a garden.

“I got out of the car and ­greeted him. I didn’t know how much he understood. He couldn’t talk too well, so I asked his mother for permission and got him to stand against a wall so I could photograph him.

“Suddenly, I became aware of a shadow. I turned around and saw his brother. It was amazing, such a strong figure.”

But the twins’ family claim their mother only realised what had happened when she read about the controversy in a newspaper.

They say she was sad about the undignified ­representation of her sons.It’s hard to believe the two guys who now live in the nursing home are the ones in the photograph.

Casie and Driesie laugh most of the time. Driesie, especially, is ­obsessively neat and constantly ­tidies up his wardrobe.

They were born in Outjo, ­Namibia, but as adults spent a while living in Wolmaransstad with their mother.

When she died 16 years ago, they returned to Namibia to be looked after by family.

“They were four months old when people realised something was awry. The doctors said the brain cells that control speech, the hands and saliva, those cells were dead,” says their sister-in-law, who was their main caregiver.

From early on they were like Jacob and Esau.

Driesie followed his mother around while Casie worked in the garden.

She says: “Actually, they’re very intelligent. Driesie has used my ­automatic washing machine. He knows when it’s finished and can hang up the washing. And Casie can change an electric wall socket.”

The staff at their new home ­believe they understand more about their surroundings than one would believe.

“Some Sundays, they turn on the radio to listen to the church service,” says the manager. “They even hum along. They’re very religious.”Only when their sister-in-law phones from Namibia do they ­become sad.

“Then it’s snot en trane (crocodile tears).”

When melancholy sets in they pass around a picture of their mother and indicate with an open hand next to their faces that she has gone to rest.

Driesie has a special talent, says one of the caregivers. ­People gather around him so he can demonstrate.

“Pray for us, Driesie,” the ­caregiver asks.Driesie pinches his eyes shut and frowns with concentration. His toothless mouth contorts and noises pour forth, like the moans of a child who wants to say something but can’t yet form the words.“Ahhhh-em!” he concludes and his eyes snap open.

People laugh and slap him on the back.

“That’s how he says amen,” someone explains. And Driesie beams with pride.

» Driesie and Casie’s surname, as well as the name and location of their ­nursing home, have been ­withheld to protect the twins’ ­privacy 

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