White men with backpacks and Bibles, goggles and cameras, have come to have us dance for them. This can only mean one thing: springtime in Namaqualand. Springbok is renowned for its remarkable transformation which occurs every spring when the near lifeless scrubland explodes into colour from thousands of flowers hidden in the dry dusty earth, brought to life by winter rains. This time of the year, the Gouws flowers in my grandmother’s backyard stand tall and proud as soldiers, and an endless stream of tourists often comes to take pictures in front of her house. She always says no, ashamed of the chipped paint or the rusted window frames, but the tourists always say that it adds to the “authenticity” of their photographs.
I’ve never participated in any of the dancing and prancing spectacles. First, I have no rhythm, second, I don’t go to their homes to gawk at the way their feet fall over each other. I don’t say that their mothers and grandmothers should pose with their hands on their hips, exposing the front teeth that are not missing, in front of their toilets that are inside the house – and can flush – because it shows the authentic white man. And since I also only used to be in Springbok during this time of year, like those tourists, I never knew for sure whether I was part of us or them.
At first, my absence was because of school, but later because I realised I hate the winter rains. If I’m going to be in a semi-desert, I want it hot and dry and dusty. My family says I have a cat-like personality, but I have chosen to attribute my hydrophobia to the Nama’s abstinence from water during sacred phases in our life cycle.
When a woman gives birth, she is kept in a different hut for seven days; isn’t allowed to wash herself (or her baby) and is supposed to avoid human touch as far as possible. This is to minimise the child’s risk of “catching track”. It is believed that evil spirits walk about at night, and anyone who walks on their track, can spread it through touch. Washing the child or mother makes them more vulnerable to that touch.
Since we no longer live in huts, we stay in our homes for ten days after the child’s birth. This is something I’m preparing myself to tell the nurses at the clinic on my next pre-natal visit. I would not be able to bring the child on his third day on this earth, because a bedvrou is not allowed to leave the house.
It is the same tradition before death, where before passing on, we are isolated from unnecessary touch or water.
I don’t know why anyone would want to be wet for the sake of being wet. Water is for washing and drinking. I seem to be fixated with water, as I am on my way to my home in its driest season.
In our childhood home, we grew up being breastfed our parents’ memories of the Land of Milk and Honey, or the Land of cheap Seabreeze-plastic-bottle-wine and filling Sourdough bread. It is a place where people are just as brown and seemingly lifeless as the scenery, but where, if you know where to look, Kokerbome and succulent plants and little zinc-roofed houses host an unimaginable magnitude of life and death.
It was here, in Springbok, where my father let his dogs chase after my mother one day after school, to which my mother replied, “This is romantic, let me marry this boy”. It was on our way here, where as children, my sister and I would always sing, “Kimberley (clap clap), Griquastad (clap clap), Groblershoop (clap clap), Upington (clap clap), Keimoes (clap clap), Kakamas (clap clap), Pofadder (impossibly long pause, clap clap), Springbok”. We would, however, never sing the song in reverse.
This journey, I was very well aware, would be different from all the other trips we made to this Promised Land. For one, we weren’t children anymore. I am not very fond of change, and I wasn’t sure if my sister was up for singing our song with me. Then there is the fact that I am six months pregnant and do not know if I will survive an eight- hour drive in the back of a bakkie in the harsh Northern Cape heat. But most importantly, the purpose of the journey sets it apart – my grandmother’s funeral. Life and death are jumping in front of me like the wild kudu antelope on this very road.
Before we take to the 800-and-something-kilometre drive in the back of my father’s white Corsa bakkie, I look at all the bags, the gifts, the food that still has to be loaded into the back and think there is no way to fit it all.
I don’t know how I am going to climb inside, an ability I took for granted until, at six months pregnant, I can barely see my feet.
Heaven’s eye stares angrily at the side of the bakkie where I sit, like my father’s fuming glances when he looks at my growing belly, rising like sourdough bread in a round oven. I can feel the heat of both, blazing into my arm.
My mother keeps pouring tea from the metallic-coloured flask and dampening the facecloth on my father’s forehead every half an hour.
Driving farther north, the sun is even more furious. Sometimes Upington, the halfway mark, can get up to 45˚C (some say you can even bake an egg on the bonnet of your car). We stop at the garage to use the toilet, which costs R2, and to fill up on petrol and snacks for the next four hours.
They say the road always feels the longest when you’re closest to your destination, but my father’s favourite saying is: “a long road always has an end”. The dorp, or the central business area, where only the rich people live, is the first part of Springbok you enter.
I step outside to stretch my legs while my sister takes a deep pull on her cigarette. The air smells like damp soil. It smells like those scents you don’t think about until you smell them again. It smells like scents that you cannot describe, except to say that it smells like home.
I look around at all the beautiful houses with trimmed bright green lawns surrounded by signs on large electric fences that warn: “beware of the dog”.
Once, my aunt and I walked through Xhoeroe-passageway – a thin dusty footpath that snakes through rocky hills (it is the easiest way to walk from the coloured location to town). I must have been twelve or thirteen, and my freshly relaxed and straightened hair threatened to show its true colours.
We made it all the way up the rocky hill and then down again to the tarred road, stopping for just a moment in the shade of a big tree. An old white lady came out of her house and yelled, “This is private property! Gaan weg!”
At the time I didn’t think that trees were not theirs to claim.
In Bergsig, the coloured community – which made up 79% of the town’s entire population – there were a few tarred roads. Most Nama people who were erroneously labelled as “coloured” during the apartheid census, lived in four-room “matchbox” houses with outside toilets.
I had never in real life seen a swimming pool in Springbok. My father had not seen a black person until he was fourteen years old and went to Cape Town as part of his army training.
My father always says things were much better under apartheid.
Now, we see the entrepreneurial spirit of newcomers. Many new shops have popped up on almost every corner in Bergsig. The only one I remember from visiting during school holidays, Aunty Betsy’s Mobile, has closed. I feel a pang of loss. I buy a loaf of bread at the corner shop and the owner, who is known as Bafana, not caring that I am pregnant and probably thinking their entrepreneurial spirit matches mine, slides three R200 notes underneath the loaf of bread and says, “One night”.
During apartheid, the indigenous people of South Africa could be promoted from “black” to “coloured” which would mean better opportunities. If a coloured had light skin, they could straighten or chemically alter their hair, the most stubborn attribute, to be promoted to white. The end goal was always white, so we were taught to choose our boyfriends or husbands wisely, so that our offspring may have a chance at a better life.
When I stopped wearing my hair straight, my grandmother cried, and said that she would now have to be ashamed to walk with me in town.
I didn’t attend any of her services during the week and took to hiding with my tail between my legs. I remained a recluse until I had to go to town to buy the customary new clothes for the send-off.
In town, eyes follow us like an evil track. I am flustered by the attention because I didn’t think we would stand out this much. Everyone here looks like us. Everyone is short. Everyone is brown. Then I hear a whisper, “Are they rastas?”, as I walk by and realise no one else wears their hair in its natural state.
My father hasn’t spoken to me for the visible part of my pregnancy
– I have disappointed him beyond consolation, which, as I see him the morning of the funeral at his childhood home, crying like a baby, I wish I could do.
My proud father, my soldier father, bawling in front of a crowd.
My maternal uncle knots my father’s tie and puts it around his neck. It’s very striking because my father is very finnicky about his ties, having learned how to do it the proper way in the (pre-1994) army, or, as he says, “the real army”.
He always ties his own tie.
On our way back to Kimberley, we’re quieter than usual. We stop at the garage in Pofadder. My father goes into the gift shop and comes back into the bakkie with a bag of dried fruit, and a little knitted springbok with buttons for eyes. He passes it to me through the small window without saying anything.
Sometimes forgiveness doesn’t need announcing.
It starts to rain before we get to Upington and I know: we have gone to Springbok to be baptized.
Published in New Contrast Issue 188
Artwork by Theo Paul Vorster