Saturday, April 17, 2010

Nieu Bethesda

Ja. As we walked from the post office that day, for the second time, I laughingly said to Vincent, We should call this Love and Loathing in Nieu Bethesda. It seemed funny at the time, but neither time nor reflection have made me change my mind.

My first impression of this village was of the white bakkie roaring up the steep road as we drove down to it for the first time. The white woman alone in the cab, the black man in blue overalls, standing in the back, holding the roof. My second impression was of utter peace, impressed on me by the solemn coolness of the soft dirt road under enormous pines.

We left the village that day to travel to the farm Doornberg, but returned later to mail some postcards from what was billed as The Funkiest Post Office in South Africa.

That was no lie.

Looking for the place we drove through the tiny hamlet whose picturesque streets spoke of pastoral calm.

And in we went.

At the counter I waited my turn to speak to the lady behind it, who was engaged in conversation with two elderly women, obviously well known to her. Without warning a horrible cold electric jolt shot through me. My arm hairs stood up, my body iced over and without thinking I interrupted the shorter and stouter of the two women: You can't say that.

She: I can say what I like. He is a kaffir!

Me: No, you can't. That is a terrible word.

She: Kaffir? No it's not, it actually originally means human.

[Me internally: That's the route you're choosing..???]

Me: It is a racial slur and is loaded with racist prejudice.

She: Rape Pillage Murder.

Seriously, she gave me the whole speech. Here in Nieu Bethesda. Home of the Owl House. Home of the artist (whose death put the place on the map), shunned by the townsfolk, who put herself to death by drinking caustic soda. Not a quick way to go. Inspiration for Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca. The playwright who wrote about black people when no one else would.

And then with confidence, she finished with a flourish: You're not even South African!

Finish en klaar, she rests her case.

Me, now explosive: Ek is in Bloemfontein gebore! Moenie vir my se ek is nie 'n Suid Afrikaner nie!

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Trembling with anger. Die blond en die blou. Ons vir jou Suid Afrika, the love of my childhood, the tears pricking, singing the old national anthem in the school hall, ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe, me believing I would die for this country, that I should, the tears at the new national anthem... Flashbacks to riots on television, women burning alive with tyres around their necks (I know what she would say to that too, "they did it to each other"), my Rustenburg Girls High headmistress' husband chatting to me as I waited for the school doors to open one day, early in the morning: They should barricade the townships and let the kaffirs kill each other. My teenage idealism and passion for reconciliation, Mignon Hanow in science class: Marie, I hear you kissed a kaffir, after my sixteenth birthday party, my trip to the headmistress' office after slapping her; my certain hopeless teenage conviction that order could only come from children knowing each others' languages and lives, this whole pitiless spiral of South African chaos.

You're not even South African. What made her think that? Maybe I was too tall? Too red headed. Too fucking Scandinavian looking?

I don't remember what she said after that. I knew it was futile. I could not remember whether I'd paid the post mistress for the stamps. I had. She said, in a soft voice, I'll post them for you. No thank you, I said. Two very small boys who had been playing behind the counter stared at me tearfully. I turned on my heel, leaving Vince in some stunned constellation of his own, and walked blindly into the bright street, crying.


In casual, everyday  gossip at the post office in the enlightened dorp...

A minute later the second and taller of the two elderly ladies pulled up beside us as we walked, leaned through her bakkie window, touched my arm kindly with her sunspotted hand and said, I am so sorry. Her arm was bandaged.

A tear slid from behind my sunglasses.

She: She is scared. They steal from her. It's all petty but they are on drugs. She's a frightened old woman. We're not all like that.



At the Owl House, we walked under a grape arbour whose sweet grapes I tasted and wondered whether Helen Martins ate them too. Sweeter than caustic acid. Sweeter than this.

The interior is lit with coloured glass, crushed.

The house was empty. We were the only visitors. Outside sat many black vendors selling scores of exact replicas of the sculptures.

Her sculptures were made by her brown (coloured) helper, Koos Malgas, to her instruction. And what was their relationship, really? If you don't know, I could, should go into a whole explanation of coloured. Not black, not white, coloured. It's complicated, and very simple. It is a relief, in fact, to be with South Africans who do not require the explanations but who have absorbed the distinctions through generations. I recommend Google.

This whole yard full of her people and animals.

Owls with big eyes. In South Africa, depending on your belief system, an owl sitting on your roof is a harbinger of death.

The storks we'd seen in the fields of Doornberg were there. Symbols of new life.

And lambs under the pepper trees. I could hear Handel's aria from The Messiah, Come unto me, all ye that labour. Come unto me, ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

A freize beside her back door.

We went back to the post office. I felt that I had launched a missile on a small place and that I should present myself in a more diplomatic light. I was, after all, a guest. I went in and apologized for throwing a fit. The same post mistress, a woman nearer our own ages, said, No, she was sorry. That she thought I had been very "dignified." Funny. That once the lady had started on the tirade, she, the post mistress had gone cold as though watching an inevitable car crash in slow motion. We chatted a little.

But only a few feet outside in the soft dust of the quiet sunlit road I thought: if it was all so dreadful, why did you stay silent. Why did you say nothing?

Why did no one speak? Then?


[Update: please read the comments. There is a new postmistress in town.]


  1. I'm still sorry this all happened, after all this time, and yet maybe we need to have our eyes opened by external forces once in a while... The tears, however, should have been hers. Maybe they were.

    In any case, I was not in a constellation of my own but rather a trail to its comet, trailing the best I could... ;-)

  2. It is the NOT speaking that does so much damage.

    You relay it with a calm clarity, but I know how you must have felt.

  3. I grew up in North Carolina in the sixties - a time of segregated bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools, etc. I moved back to Ohio at the age of 13 and then back here to Greensboro when I was 30 in 1985 - long after desegregation.

    And, yet, it too is the same way here as you found it in Nieu Bethesda, except the word used is too vile to post on your blog. While it is mostly the people of our parents generation, there is still no justification for it or the attitude behind it, except to say that they are scared of the way things are changing within our society that they have no control over.

    I have hopes, however, for the kids who are coming into their own now; the ones who put Obama in office. Even here in the South, they seem to have transcended our shameful past.

  4. Beence - xxx

    dinahmow - always.

    Karen - yeah. I thought about writing 'kaffir'. And about not writing it. It is our k-word, as Americans have their n-word, and I assure you it is no less vile, as you say.

    Ironically, I hear it on the streets of NYC every day, in the mouth of black schoolkids. I am amazed the word still lives in the south. Though the little time I spent outside of Orlando, FL convinced me this was no place I would ever want to be, for the same reason.

  5. Such a sad and beautiful post, Marie! Unfortunately, racism is not dead in either SA or America, nor in places in between. It is fear that perpetuates the worst in us. As long as people project those fears onto the "other", true peace remains out of reach. It makes me cry, too. Thank you for sharing with us ...


  6. My eyes prick with tears at what you have written. Despair is what I feel so often but then - there is a poem by Uys Krige - maybe someone will know it - which describes despair, despondency, and about meeting a black man on the road. He smiled and the poet ends "I walk in your light"

  7. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
    -Dr. King

  8. Ikaika - ^^

    Hen - ^^

    EOH - ek weet...

    melanie - ^^

  9. This is old, but I'm still new to your blog so I hope this is o.k.
    What I have learned to know is that you are a person that speaks up. For yourself, for others. For things, that have no way to talk since they were not made to (yes, I'm referring to your whole park-cleaning actions).
    I wish there were more persons like you.

    Best wishes


  10. Marie - here we are almost six years later after this post was written and I'm sitting at my desk in tears. The profound emotion in this post really touched me today, working my way backwards through the links you've posted in more recent days. Thank you for sharing this story, albeit a difficult one.

    I think why this touched such a nerve with me today is all the inner turmoil I'm feeling due to the persistence of this type of rhetoric in daily life, now greatly magnified on the political stage. The MLK quote above is so important and so resonant, and I'm starting to feel more and more compelled to speak out about how egregious and damaging some of these images coming out of recent political rallies are. I'm just feeling so heartsick about it.

    Anyway, thank you for helping me work out something that's been on my mind so much lately - even in such a roundabout way. :)

    1. Ah, Jill. So I re-read it and cried all over again. Because so much does not change. x

  11. Sending virtual hugs your way. xoxo

  12. I am Bethesda's newest post mistress, sadly I started a year after this happened, I hope this gets to you, and I hope it means something. Bethesda is...a tough place to be. It breaks one open and tears one up, it is only once your heart has suffered this that you realize ho much you need it and how glad you actually are for it. I am nieu Bethesda's postmistress. My daughter is mixed race,the most gorgeous little 5 year old junior postmistress you could possibly meet,trust me when I say that my pregnancy and mothering in this town has been hard,hard being an understatement with regards to the local racism and prejudices we encountered. But... This place is special,it really is,the bushmen were all hunted out in the 1800s,the descendants of the hunters still in town,but for those who are quiet the laughter of the bushmen can still be heard in the remote veldt,and the others who screech "kaffir" are just sad, angry ignorant people who need so much love. Times have changed here,things are better, the Karoo always will be a cruel place, but the people here have goodness hidden in their drought cracked hearts. I am very much a loner,and some of the reason for this is due to my love for my daughters people,but I also choose this for myself, and surprisingly Annie my daughter has brought out the humanness in quite a few seasoned racists. Please come back!! There are 2 dogs and a wild gypsy child running wild here,and sometimes a grumpy postmistress,and other times a shortage of stamps. But you and the Africa in you will be welcomed with a cup of good coffee and cake if you eat cake? Lots of love from one African to another xxx

    1. Grace, thank you very much for leaving your comment (on old posts I moderate comments for spam so they do not show up at once, sorry for the delay).

      You have made me cry (again!).

      I would like to come back. As much as I loved the veld, I didn't think I would.

      Yes, I eat cake.

      One day. xxx


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