It was then – Oom Schalk Lourens said – that an unusual thing happened.
For we suddenly did see Mtosas. We saw them from a long way off. They came out of the bush and marched right out into the open. They made no attempt to hide. We saw, with amazement, that they were coming straight in our direction, advancing in single file. And we observed, even from a distance, that they were unarmed. Instead of assegais and shields, they carried burdens on their heads. And almost in that same moment, we realised – from the heavy look of those burdens – that the carriers must be women.
For that reason, we took our guns in our hands and stood waiting. Since it was women, we were naturally prepared for the lowest form of treachery.
As the column drew nearer, we saw that at the head of it was Ndambe, an old tribesman whom we knew well. For years he had been Sijefu’s chief counsellor. Ndambe held up his hand. The line of women halted. Ndambe spoke. He declared that we white men were kings among kings and elephants among elephants. He also said that we were ringhals snakes more poisonous and generally disgusting than any ringhals snake in the country.
We knew, of course, that Ndambe was only paying us compliments in the ignorant Mtosa fashion. And so we naturally felt highly gratified. I can still remember the way Jurie Bekker nudged me in the ribs, and said: ‘Did you hear that?’
When Ndambe went on, however, to say that we were filthier than the spittle of a green tree toad, several burghers grew restive. They felt that there was, perhaps, such a thing as carrying these tribal courtesies a bit too far.
It was then that Veldkornet Joubert, slipping his finger inside the trigger guard of his gun, requested Ndambe to come to the point. By the expression on our veldkornet’s face, you could see that he had had enough of compliments for one day.
They had come to offer peace, Ndambe told us then.
What the women carried on their heads were presents.
At a sign from Ndambe, the column knelt in the mud of the turf land. They brought lion and zebra skins and elephant tusks, and beads and brass bangles and, on a long mat, the whole haunch of a red Afrikaner ox, hide and hoof and all. And several pigs cut in half. And clay pots filled to the brim with white beer. And also – and this we prized the most – witchdoctor medicines that protected you against goël spirits at night and the evil eye.
Ndambe gave another signal. A woman with a clay pot on her head rose up from the kneeling column and advanced towards us. We saw, then, that what she had in the pot was black earth. It was wet and almost like turf soil. We couldn’t understand what they wanted to bring us that for. As though we didn’t have enough of it, right there where we were standing, sticking to our veldskoens and all. And yet Ndambe acted as though that was the most precious part of the peace offerings that his chief, Sijefu, had sent us.
It was when Ndambe spoke again that we saw how ignorant he and his chief and the whole Mtosa tribe were, really.
He took a handful of soil out of the pot and pressed it together between his fingers. Then he told us how honoured the Mtosa tribe was because we were waging war against them. In the past they had only had flat-faced Mshangaans with spiked knobkerries to fight against, he said, but now it was different. Our veldkornet took half a step forward, then, in case Ndambe was going to start flattering us again. So Ndambe said, simply, that the Mtosas would be glad if we came and made war against them later on, when the harvest had been gathered in. But in the meantime, the tribe did not wish to continue fighting.
It was the time for sowing.
Ndambe let the soil run through his fingers, to show us how good it was. He also invited us to taste it. We declined.
We accepted his presents, and peace was made. And I can still remember how Veldkornet Joubert shook his head and said: ‘Can you beat the Mtosas for ignorance?’
And I can still remember what Jurie Bekker said, also. That was when something made him examine the haunch of beef more closely, and he found his own brand mark on it.
It was not long afterwards that the war came against England.
By the end of the second year of the war, the Boer forces were in a very bad way. But we would not make peace. Veldkornet Joubert was now promoted to commandant. Jurie Bekker was still with us, and so was Fanie Louw. It was strange how attached we had grown to Fanie Louw during the years of hardship we had been through together in the field. But up to the end we had to admit that, while we had got used to his jokes, and we knew there was no harm in them, we would still have preferred him to stop making them.
He did stop – and forever – in a skirmish near a blockhouse. We buried him in the shade of a thorn tree. We got ready to fill in his grave, after which the Commandant would say a few words and we would bare our heads and sing a psalm. And as you know, it was customary at a funeral for each mourner to take up a handful of earth, and fling it in the grave.
When Commandant Joubert stooped down and picked up his handful of earth, a strange thing happened. And I remembered the other war, against the Mtosas. And we knew – although we would not say it – what was now that longing in the heart of each of us. For Commandant Joubert did not straightaway drop the soil into Fanie Louw’s grave. Instead, he kneaded the damp ground between his fingers. It was as though he had forgotten that it was funeral earth. He seemed to be thinking, not of death, then, but of life.
We patterned after him, picking up handfuls of soil and pressing it together. We felt the deep loam in it, and saw how springy it was, and we let it trickle through our fingers. And we could remember only that it was the time for sowing.
I understood then how, in an earlier war, the Mtosas had felt – they who were also farmers.