Sediment and Tearsby Timothy Gabb / 09.08.2012
The next morning begins as the previous. Loud birds and the church bell.
It’s still very early when the men come and find me at my campsite. They arrived with the first rays of light on the back of a bakkie – riding the dust storm through the chilly morn. I am finishing my coffee when they enter through the old cattle gate.
“Timmy! It’s so good to see you my friend! Sarah-Lee told us you were here…. It’s been how long? A year?” says the team foremen, Andrew Oudtshoorn, brother of Jannie, who’s also there, as well as Willie Tromp, Abdul Menees and Tommy Hartlief. They are the last team of sheep-shearers left in Nieu Bethesda, and go by the name “Boetie Kom Kyk”. In the time that I have spent with them (which has now been over four years, including two shearing trips) they have displayed a striking show of integrity; they are dignified, they have social elevation and ranking amongst the mainly unemployed community. They play an integral role in the political economy of the Karoo. Yet, they are of some of the most marginalised peoples in South Africa.
When they shear, they usually go out and stay on the farm on which they’re shearing, until the work is done. Their pay is minimal, and work supply unpredictable. They have no bargaining powers, are not represented by any unions, and are rendered invisible by the national political forces at play. Yet, they seem so positively engaged with their lot, and live life with a contagious spontaneity; a hungry smile which keeps them bounding forward in large steps towards nothing in particular.
These people are the residual memories of the dying Karretjie Mense, the nomadic sheep-shearing and fence-fixing gypsies of the Great Karoo! They are the Karretjie Mense minus the Karretjie, which takes the form of a Toyota Hilux in most cases today.
They each posses a hessian sack, in which they carry their shearing gear (a blade, oil and a sharpening stone), an old folded mattress, and a few blankets. They set up on the farm they’re shearing at, and slag a sheep for food. Out of every 1000 sheep sheared, they get one to keep. They are thus semi-nomadic, itinerant in their life-style, moving from place to place for work, always returning to their small rural community on the verge of Nieu Bethesda.
On the job, there is an entire hierarchy involved in the order of shearing. There are five shearers in the town, the men listed above. With them go two men to catch the sheep and collect wool after it has been sheared, and then an old man, who sorts the wool on a table of chicken-wire, the finer pieces filtering through the mesh. The wool gets graded, packed into different compartments, and is then bailed. Here, in the town of Nieu Bethesda, the bailing proccess is all manual, and works the same as it did 80 years ago. The wool gets thrown into a large vice-like wooden box. The lid then fits over flush, and a big screw-like gear starts compressing the wool. A big bag is then strategically fed into the side of the frame, and with the help of a series of large steel pins, the bag gets put together around the wool. The wool is then ready to be trucked off or spun by a handful of the artisanal local ladies.
I sit down with the guys, and put my camera on a tripod, and we begin chatting. Andrew rolls a huge zoll out of newspaper, stuffing it with rough Boxer tabacco.
“Andrew… I am so so sorry to hear about Bieu!” I begin.
“Ja Tim, you know, it’s actually a sad story…”
“What happened? Have the police found out who done it yet?”
“No, the police don’t know… But we do… We know the skelm… Willie, remember that night…”
“JA! Ja ja ja ja…” answers Willie. He is a soft soul. Childlike in his admiration for Andrew. Wherever Andrew is, Willie is by his side.
“We went to the tavern, Willie and me,” Andrew continues, puffing from his big smoke, “and we saw Karel there… He had a few rands on him, and so I said to him, ‘Boet, let’s drink together.’ He said: ‘Uh-uh, I came here on my own.’ So I said to him, ‘let’s go home, broer, come home with Willie and me.’ He stayed on, and we went home. The next morning, Abdul was calling my name from outside my house,” and he points to Abdul, sitting a few paces from him. “Remember that?” he asks Abdul; the question is rhetorical. He continues: “Abdul called me and said it’s your brother, come have a look! And I went round, to the back of our place there, and lying in front of our toilet was a body… Bieu!”
He pauses, pensively recollecting the painful imagery.
“You know, Tim… I didn’t believe it! It was horrible… And I had to clean him up… The cops came, and took photos… You know… We miss him, so much. I still remember it so clearly… Four months ago hey… You shouldn’t have to clean your brother’s blood off his dead body…”
“And Meisie said it’s not the first time either, hey?” I ask.
“Nah-ah… How many times…” Andrew is counting on his fingers, looking at the others for assistance… “Tommie… Gary… Ja, Gary… Aanhoek… Ja, four times…”
I start questioning why I have a camera rolling. We fall silent. Andrew has spotted a bottle of whiskey at my tent, and gestures towards it. I get up and fetch it, and pass it over to him. He takes a large slug, his face contorts, and he passes it on. It does its rounds. The birds are still chirping frantically, as if they’re aware of something impending that we are oblivious to.
I decide to leave my camera out of it, and switch it off. We continue chatting. I ask if they received the photographs, knowing that they had.
“Ja, thank you so much… I loved that letter you wrote – your Afrikaans is good!” laughs Andrew. “You know, you must keep visiting us Tim. You must come and stay for long; we’ll show you everything about sheep-shearing, the right way,” a big grin wraps around his face, the others chatter quietly, affirming what their foreman has just said. “We are the people of this land, Timmy. If you want to see rock-paintings, then we will show you!”
“Ja, ja – we’ll show you tjom; we’ll show you boetman,” smiles Willie in an excited follow-up.
The people of this land! Yes you are. The only real endemic bloodlines to this land beneath my feet… I ponder over my position. The weight of being the one here, able to ask questions and record answers with expensive equipment. A foreigner. Trying to get a glimpse at their experience of being human. Their reality. The murder story turns into a detective story… Trying to make meaning; trying to piece together the puzzle. Who’s stories are these in the land? These stories that I think I am understanding. Who’s history lies in the strata of rock, concealed by eternity’s sediments and tears?
Consciousness. Here in the Karoo I am even more aware of it than in places of routinised familiarity. “The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners.” Julia Kristeva, the feminist psycho-analyst, her words give me slight solace as I try and position myself in the greater scheme of things. Can anyone be truly of somewhere?
It’s the same battle I fight with trying to put words to the landscape. What language would it speak? What form would it flow through: poetry, prose, experimental cut-ups?
Best leave these questions alone for now. The pen has drawn. The road has been crossed. Time has marched forward, with a relentless pace. Time will tell. Like the desert tells. Yet the desert resists too. It cannot be claimed by anything, anyone. It is a palimpsest – meaning is applied, erased, and re-applied… Repeatedly. It is alive, and eager, and writes its own ballads to the stars. A cosmic correspondence. A dialogue with heaven that happens over eternity. Each grain of dust a reminder of history’s cataclysmic past. Our very universe, the product of a violent first cause.
And now… Still a level of violence present in the order of affairs – only structurally so.
It’s time to leave. What do I leave with that I did not arrive with? A dreamscape of emotion. A feeling of stillness. Memories. To this day, I still have a duiker horn in my car that I bought from Bieu the first time I met him. And the murder? What can be done? What could I do? The police treat it as they do all weekend disasters in these small rural communities. He was drunk. An investigation has commenced; unfortunately we are unable to comment on this with you, it’s procedure, you must understand sir… The rest of the bureaucratic bullshit that exists where motivation for justice only exists in cases regarding social status or financial incentive.
I can let it be known, at least. The detective story mutates into an anti-detective story, where logic and reason are subverted by bureaucracy and power, fabrics of logic unwound thread for thread… Dead! Who cares about an unknown impoverished trekker of the Karoo. He was drunk. He got what was coming to him… That sheep-thief!
Meaning… Only tangible insofar as we apply it. But application is a selective process, a subjective undertaking correlated to our linguistic, referential and hermeneutic frameworks; our socialized and cultured vantage point. Mmm. Bieu, the man, becomes a mere memory. A face on a photograph. A representation only…
The long drive home is slow. Beautiful and sad. The voices that have permeated my soul whisper to me, make me shudder in my comfortable seat. Even now, eons later I hold in my mind a story of another life. A shared dream with the people of the Karoo. A lost memory that sparks up beneath the chaotic humdrum of daily life. Find the desert. The mountain. The fynbos. Breathe in a still affirmation that we are all unified. All foreigners, all akin. Laughing over stories, crying over road kill, leaping into the moments that bring euphoria; we remember it all. We experience it all.
In the words of the late visionary, TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
My eyes are moist. The sun sets on me, as I alert myself to the possibility of Kudus in the dark. I slow down, and roll through frontier country with a smile and a song. Home? As is everywhere.
*All images © Timothy Gabb.