From The Rooinek in Mafeking Road
by Herman Charles Bosman
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Then, the year after the drought, the miltsiekte broke out. We all became very discouraged. Nearly all of us in that part of the Marico had started farming again on what the Government had given us. Now that the stock had died we had nothing. We couldn’t even sow mielies because, at the rate at which the cattle were dying, in a short while we would have no oxen left to pull the plough.
It was then that somebody got hold of the idea of trekking. In a few days we were talking of nothing else. Somebody mentioned German West Africa.
‘The blight of the English is over South Africa,’ Gerhardus Grobbelaar said. ‘We’ll remain here only to die. We must go away somewhere where there is not the Englishman’s flag.’
In a few weeks’ time we had arranged everything. We were going to trek across the Kalahari into German territory. Everything we had, we loaded up. We drove the cattle ahead and followed behind on our wagons. There were five families: the Steyns, the Grobbelaars, the Odendaals, the Ferreiras, and Sannie and I. Webber also came with us. I think it was not so much that he was anxious to leave as that he and Koos Steyn had become very much attached to one another, and the Englishman did not wish to remain alone behind.
The youngest person in our trek was Koos Steyn’s daughter, Jemima, who was then about eighteen months old. Being the baby, she was a favourite with all of us.
Webber sold his wagon and went with Koos Steyn’s trek.
We had got so far into the desert that we began telling one another that we must be near the end. Although we knew that German West was far away, and that in the way we had been travelling we had got little more than into the beginning of the Kalahari, yet we tried to tell one another lies about how near water was likely to be. But, of course, we only told those to one another. Each man in his own heart knew what the real truth was.
After a while there was no more weeping in our camp. Some of the women who lived through the dreadful things of the days that came after, and got safely back to the Transvaal, never again wept. What they had seen appeared to have hardened them. In this respect they had become as men. I think it is the saddest thing that ever happens in this world, when women pass through great suffering that makes them become as men.
So far we had followed Gerhardus through all things, and our faith in him had been great. But now that he had decided to turn back, we lost our belief in him. We lost it suddenly, too. We knew that it was best to turn back, and that to continue would mean that we would all die in the Kalahari. And yet, if Gerhardus had said we must still go on, we would have done so. We would have gone through with him right to the end. But now that he had as much as said that he was beaten by the desert, we had no more faith in Gerhardus.
That is why Paul Kruger was a greater man than Gerhardus. Paul Kruger was that kind of man whom we still worshipped even when he decided to retreat. If it had been Paul Kruger who had told us that we had to go back, we would have returned with strong hearts. We would have retained exactly the same love for our leader, even if we had known that he was beaten. But from the moment that Gerhardus said we must go back, we all knew that he was no longer our leader. Gerhardus knew that also.
Then we saw that Koos Steyn had become mad. For he refused to return. He inspanned his oxen, and got ready to trek on.
‘But, man,’ Gerhardus Grobbelaar said to him, ‘you’ve got no water to drink.’
‘I’ll drink coffee then,’ Koos Steyn answered, laughing as always, and took up the whip and walked away beside the wagon. And Webber went off with him, just because Koos Steyn had been good to him, I suppose. That’s why I have said that Englishmen are queer. Webber must have known that if Koos Steyn had not actually gone wrong in the head, still what he was doing now was madness, and yet he stayed with him.
We separated. Our wagons went slowly back to Malopolole. Koos Steyn’s wagon went deeper into the desert. I looked back at the Steyns. At that moment Webber also looked round. He saw me and waved his hand. It reminded me of that day in the Anglo-Boer War when that other Englishman, whose companion we had shot, also turned round and waved.
Eventually we got back to Malopolole with two wagons and a handful of cattle. We had abandoned the other wagons. Awful things had happened in the desert. A number of children had died. Gerhardus Grobbelaar’s wagon was in front of me. Once I saw a bundle being dropped through the side of the wagon-tent. I knew what it was. Gerhardus would not trouble to bury his dead child, and his wife lay in the tent too weak to move. So I got off the wagon and scraped a small heap of sand over the body. All I remember of the rest of the journey to Malopolole is the sun and the sand. And the thirst.
Until today I am not sure how many days we were on our way back, unless I sit down and work it all out, and even then I suppose I would get it wrong. We got back to Malopolole and water. We said we would never go away from there again. I don’t think that even those parents who had lost children grieved about them then. They were stunned with what they had gone through. But I knew that, later on, it would all come back again. Then they would remember things about shallow graves in the sand, and Gerhardus Grobbelaar and his wife would think of a little bundle lying out in the Kalahari. And I knew how they would feel.
Afterwards we fitted out a wagon with fresh oxen; we took an abundant supply of water and went back into the desert to look for the Steyn family. With the help of some Bechuanas, who could see tracks that we could not see, we found the wagon. The oxen had been outspanned; a few lay dead beside the wagon. The Bechuanas pointed out to us footprints in the sand, which showed which way those two men and that woman had gone.
In the end we found them.
Koos Steyn and his wife lay side by side in the sand; the woman’s head rested on the man’s shoulder; her long hair had become loosened, and blew softly in the wind. A great deal of fine sand had drifted over their bodies. We never found the baby Jemima. She must have died somewhere along the way, and Koos Steyn must have buried her.
But we agreed that the Englishman Webber must have passed through terrible things; he could not even have had any understanding left as to what the Steyns had done with their baby. He probably thought, up to the moment when he died, that he was carrying the child. For, when we lifted his body, we found, still clasped in his dead and rigid arms, a few old rags and a child’s clothes.
It seemed to us that the wind that always stirs in the Kalahari blew very quietly and softly that morning.
Yes, the wind blew very gently.