Marita van der Vyver on her farm in Africa and being mistaken for Karen Blixen

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Marita van der Vyver looks back on her youth in her new memoir, A Long Letter to My Daughter. Picture: Netwerk24
Marita van der Vyver looks back on her youth in her new memoir, A Long Letter to My Daughter. Picture: Netwerk24

The author's new memoir, A Long Letter to My Daughter, has just hit the shelves. In the book, Marita (62), who now lives permanently in France, reflects back on her childhood, growing up in South Africa.

She decided to write the book as a letter to her French-born daughter, Mia (21), so she could explore the generational divide and the differences and similarities in their upbringings.

In this amusing extract from the memoir, Marita recalls living on a banana farm in Mpumalanga and her astonishment at once being mistaken for the Danish author played by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.

"When I tell my French friends that I have lived on a farm in Africa where there were mambas in the trees and once even a hippopotamus in the swimming pool, they look at me with such amazement that it feels like I am turning into Karen Blixen before their eyes.

That’s not a joke. Once, years ago, I was indeed mistaken for the Danish author of Out of Africa. A local high-school radio station had invited me to talk about my books, and while I was sitting there concentrating incredibly hard on my limited French language abilities, a learner took the wind right out of my sails by asking whether I had met Meryl Streep. Because hadn’t she acted in the movie that was based on my book?

Look, people have confused me with other writers before, especially in the early days of my writing career. At a conference of the Afrikaans Writers’ Guild in the nineties, an older and more famous Afrikaans writer with a somewhat crazed look in her eyes recited a whole paragraph from someone else’s work and told me how she admired me for having been able to create something like that. But I had never before been mistaken for a Danish baroness who had been dead for decades.

"Karen Blixen, ce n’est pas moi!" That was all I could yelp. Karen Blixen isn’t me. A bewildered contradiction of Flaubert’s famous Madame Bovary, c’est moi!

In truth I am more "out of Africa", of course, than the grand Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, also known as Isak Dinesen, ever was. I was born in Africa, like nearly all my ancestors for hundreds of years and even further back, thanks to Ouma Saayman’s connection to Krotoa of the !Urill’aelona tribe at the southernmost tip of the continent.

And when I think back, here in the heart of Europe, on the two years I spent on a farm in the Hazyview district, near the Numbi Gate of one of the biggest game reserves in the world, where we’d often see lions and elephants up close on weekends, I understand how compellingly exotic it must sound to anyone in Europe.

But for much of those two years of sweltering heat and dangerous snakes and fragrant frangipani flowers floating in the swimming pool, I yearned to be elsewhere.

I didn’t feel like Blixen in Out of Africa, more like Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a character who is compelled to journey deep into the interior, becoming more and more disillusioned by everything he discovers along the way.

I was a cosseted little pot plant who’d suddenly been ripped from my small patch of earth, roots and all, and left outside to survive in the wilderness. I was a city girl (a suburban girl, at any rate), a rebellious teenager who had recently discovered rock music and romance, who wanted to hang around in discos and hotels with my friends on weekends. And here was my father dragging our family from the city to the countryside because he wanted to develop a holiday farm in the Lowveld.

And then he went and bought a banana farm too, where we could live, because like so many Afrikaans men of his generation Pa yearned for the lost farms of his ancestors.

Marita at around about the age of six.
Marita at around about the age of six.

Ma was once again co-opted into Pa’s moneymaking schemes, whether she wanted to be or not. Because Pa would be very busy with the development and marketing of the holiday farm, Ma had to take care of the ‘real’ farm. And the more she protested that she knew nothing about farming, the more enthusiastically Pa assured her that farming with bananas and avocadoes and mangoes was child’s play.

Because in such a fertile subtropical landscape everything grew by itself, that was what Pa said, and all Ma would have to do was to ensure that the fruit was delivered to the right places on time.

I participated in farm life as little as possible. On weekends I stayed in my bedroom with its midnight-blue walls listening to rock music or reading. (I had wanted to paint the walls black, to make it clear that I was in mourning for my lost city life, but Ma put her foot down. So I chose the darkest shade of blue I could get my hands on.)

And during the week I lived in the hostel. That was the worst of all, even worse than suddenly being trapped on a farm ‘in the middle of nowhere’ – the area adjoining the Kruger National Park truly did seem like nowhere to me – the fact that I had to go to boarding school for the first time in my life.

By now I was convinced that Pa had a knack for moving me to new schools at the most inconvenient times. It is never easy for a child to adapt to a new school, especially not for an introverted child like me, but it had been particularly distressing to find myself in a new school in my last year at primary school.

And then Pa somehow went and did it again in my second-to-last year at high school. At the age of almost sixteen I had to move from a city school to a school in the platteland – and if I thought that Hoërskool Menlopark was strict, I learnt within days of arriving at Nelspruit High that I had no idea what strict meant.

After a week or so in the hostel my perspective shifted yet again. By then the school’s day scholars seemed like the happiest, freest children on earth, compared to us boarders who were trapped behind bars.

Two decades later I took on a bildungsroman about a teenage girl from the city who spends her final two school years in a strict Christian National boarding school in the imaginary town of Swartstroom in the Lowveld. Much of what happens in Childish Things is pure imagination, but I was able to construct the general background of the story from my own experiences. Especially the horror (and I don’t use the word lightly) of that first acquaintance with a hostel.

Mia and her brother, Daniel.
Marita and her daughter, Mia, in Paris during lockdown.
Marita and her husband, Alain Claisse.
Marita and her husband, Alain Claisse.

My family’s move to a Lowveld banana farm was a disaster on the scale of the volcanic eruption that had laid Pompeii to ruin. My previous life was destroyed, buried in ash, I would never be able to return to it. That was what I thought when Ma left me behind in a stark hostel room at Nelspruit High School.

There are two banana farms in my past, actually. We lived initially on the one farm, which had a dam rather than a swimming pool, while Pa looked for a "better farm" (with a swimming pool), which we moved to a few months later.

Both farms were near the town of Hazyview, which struck me as quite a poetic name. Plus it was English, a language I still found more appealing than Afrikaans. And if I absolutely had to live on a farm (which alas I did), I preferred the sound of a farm in Hazyview to one in Pofadder or Koekenaap.

These days, when I talk about my farm years in Hazyview, I don’t necessarily explain that there had actually been two farms. ‘Don’t let facts spoil a good story,’ as they say, and factual details like these could slow the pace of my story.

Besides, musing like Karen Blixen that "I had a farm in Africa" (especially in Meryl Streep’s fake Scandinavian accent), sounds decidedly more poetic than specifying that in reality I lived on two different farms in the Lowveld."

This is an extract from A Long Letter to My Daught
This is an extract from A Long Letter to My Daughter by Marita van der Vyver, Tafelberg. By Marit

Visit Marita van der Vyver's Facebook group where she'll be sharing more snapshots from her youth. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()