New friends

2017-01-16 13:31
‘Two young boys, their duties done for the morning, brought out their bright orange soccer ball … The ball was fatally punctured and responded poorly to the most determined barefoot kicks, looping gently with the shape of a crescent moon to be pouched easily by the agile keeper.’

‘Two young boys, their duties done for the morning, brought out their bright orange soccer ball … The ball was fatally punctured and responded poorly to the most determined barefoot kicks, looping gently with the shape of a crescent moon to be pouched easily by the agile keeper.’ (Doug Morton)

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It was another day outing for the three photographers, this time to Spioenkop near Winterton. On this early November morning we could be forgiven for thinking it was winter. We stood upon a side road contemplating the dramatic view of the purple Drakensberg backdrop to a cluster of huts, some paperbark thorn trees, a creaking windmill and a garish green JoJo water tank.

In the slanting golden sunlight, the protruding ribs and hips of the cattle cast lined shadows on their bodies as they made no attempt to graze, staring forlornly at nothing. The ever-active goats busied themselves with unearthing whatever remotely edible morsels could be found. Birds came and went, some delving for insects and grubs hidden in the myriad folds of tree bark, others hopping about in search of a meal for hungry chicks that made their unending food demands on the parent birds. All was still.

The ground was a rockery, lacking even a suggestion of plants and grass cover. Round rocks and pebbles lay waiting for the heat of the day, strewn haphazardly as if by an uncaring landscaper. Fine dust puffed from under our shoes as we walked, hanging in the still air before slowly settling again upon the surface of the burned ground. The windmill stood silent, waiting for a breeze, and the water trough held just a murky puddle of water for the lethargic beasts.

The drought had entered its third year. The countryside was reeling, and the animals and rural people with it. The past three winters had yielded almost no snow on the mountains, and the rivers that rose on the high summits had run low during that time, most springs and streams drying up altogether in the cold months. Summer rainfall had been light and patchy, enough to encourage shallow growth that was immediately burnt by the next day’s scalding sun. The summer heat had been unrelenting, leaving only the deep-rooted established trees bearing foliage that was out of the reach of the grazing livestock. It was a travesty that the beauty of that scene should exist in this arena of devastation.

As we moved along the road in search of photos, the hut dwellers emerged into the still cool morning to begin their tasks for the day. Small groups of women, armed with bush knives and axes, headed off to the areas of thick bush in search of firewood, to emerge later, each of them bearing impossibly large bundles of dead branches on their heads. They moved with a grace that came from balancing their loads, some singing, others chatting and laughing.

In the doorways of some of the buildings, evidence of housekeeping could be seen as makeshift brooms swept the previous day’s dust from the hardened dung floors. The men had left for their places of work long before dawn, farmworkers among them, some to their jobs in the businesses in Winterton. Children of different ages, dressed in bright colours, had their jobs too. The boys arrived to herd the livestock to their appointed places for the day’s feeding after releasing water from the green tank into the trough, while the girls made their chattering way to the vegetable gardens that seemed to promise poor reward for all the work lavished on them.

This day had started as every other day did. Everything was routine, everyone co-operated for the communal good, and there was a generous measure of happiness and humour in the harshness of this subsistence lifestyle.

Presently, two young boys, their duties done for the morning, brought out their bright orange soccer ball. One lad was the goalie, the goalposts being a strategically placed tree trunk on one side and a small cairn of round rocks on the other. His partner did his best to score goals from a necessarily short range as the ball was fatally punctured and responded poorly to the most determined barefoot kicks, looping gently with the shape of a crescent moon to be pouched easily by the agile keeper. Not many goals would be scored that morning. The game palled before long, and they made their way from the field of battle to find another occupation. And all was quiet again, the clicking of our camera shutters audible at a distance.

Tiring of patrolling the roadway, Nola moved closer to the buildings for photos. Unlatching the rusted gate and closing it firmly behind her, she marched the route of the eroded track that led to the homestead. Happily using her limited fanakalo vocabulary, she greeted the people who came to meet her, telling them that she wanted to take pictures but needed their approval. Soon there was a loud general council in progress punctuated by much laughter and many gestures when the spoken communication inevitably failed. She told us later that she’d asked if she could build her own house there and got a very enthusiastic approval. The meeting was joined by the returning firewood gatherers, while wide-eyed children and scrawny dogs milled about revelling in this deviation from their daily activities. An old man, a kehla, emerged to join the fray, his crutches glinting in the sunlight as his empty trouser leg flapped with his movement. He looked on solemnly at the group, his grizzled white beard stark against his very dark complexion, his thoughts his own.

We left them there as we moved on to look for more photos. On our way home, we drove past the homestead again, but in the heat of the day there was no one to be seen. Africa has its own pace.

The following week, Nola phoned me. She’d been thinking. The family group had made a deep impression on her and had been on her mind ever since.

“Let’s do something for them,” she suggested, “something small, but enough to show appreciation for their friendliness and to give them something different, something that they wouldn’t be able to provide for themselves? It’ll be Christmas in a few weeks,” she continued, “the ideal time.” Over the next few days, we talked it over and decided to put together a hamper of some staples and some little luxuries that they were probably never able to enjoy. We contacted our friend Hugh to ask him if he’d like to join in and he happily agreed. A few days later Nola and I visited the wholesalers and spent the money as wisely as we could.

Fully laden, it was back to Spioenkop. Again, the menfolk were away at work, but the women and children recognised us easily. We explained to them that we’d brought a gift for their little community and that we hoped they would all enjoy it. There were many wide eyes, some hugs and even some tears. Their version of “oohs and aaahs” greeted each item that emerged from the cartons to be stacked neatly on the ground under one of the paperbark trees. Soon all had been revealed, and the repacking commenced.

Then it was time for a photo of our new friends. Through all of this, the kehlahad been absent, but he arrived just in time to be included. He’d been delayed climbing through the fence that surrounded the buildings. Having just one leg and struggling to balance with one crutch on either side of the fence took some doing but he managed. He sat on the ground, serious as always, giving us his very best pose for the occasion. We left them there, and as we drove off the little knot of people stood close together giving us a royal send-off.

But we’d overlooked the most important item. A soccer ball. We stopped at the local Spar to find only the cheap plastic balls that wouldn’t last minutes on that rugged field, but in a nearly concealed assortment of oddments was a sturdy white leather football. But there was a snag. The ball needed pumping, but there was no valve for it. Unsuccessfully we tried the compressed air hose at the Engen station next door. There was no shop that sold sports equipment either. It seemed we were stuck but a tour guide friend we were to see near Spioenkop was a keen cyclist and might be able to help.

Lee was a star and within minutes the ball was ready. Our journey home took us past the homestead again and we found the two youngsters playing with their halfmoon ball again. We parked where we had earlier and walked across to them to hand over the new ball. They were shocked into silence, staring as if at a dream come true. One of them tucked the treasure firmly under his arm as they sprinted for the field and its goalposts. The ball went into service without delay. We watched them for a few minutes, then left them to their game.

The drought is still with us, and no doubt the family’s days are little changed. I wonder if they recall our visits as fondly as we do.

About the author:

Doug Morton, a resident of Pietermaritzburg for the past 45 years, began writing short stories some four years ago, mostly based on childhood experiences and his early years in a mining community near Pretoria. He is an avid photographer and undertakes many trips to various parts of the KZN Midlands region, often taking out groups of photographers who are not familiar with the area. Married to his wife Terri for 47 years, he has two children, a daughter living in England, and a son who is a born and bred Maritzburger who still lives in the city.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  true stories of kzn 2016

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