The driver shook his head. “Dangerous. Too dangerous. You drown!”
We were facing a raging torrent. It would have been foolhardy to try to ford it.
The start of the rainy season had not been expected quite so early. Mrs Strauss might have postponed our trip but she knew that we two youngsters – her son and I – would have been very disappointed. For our vacations we had been promised a holiday in the ‘real Africa’ – lions and pythons and all. We were on our way to the remote farm near Nega Nega which her husband was managing.
Mail trains did not stop at minor sidings like Nega Nega so we travelled by goods train. The last wagon had one small coupé which could seat three passengers – white passengers, of course. That is what our corner of the British Empire was like in 1944.
Just before we reached our siding the engine driver gave three short hoots. We picked up our suitcases and climbed down to the bare soil of Africa. The engine gave one last short farewell hoot and departed for the south, abandoning us in the bush. There was not a soul around. The station was nothing but an open- sided corrugated iron shed. Farmers had left large churns of cream in it. The first goods train going north would be picking them up.
Mrs Strauss had been nervous: would her husband have remembered to send transport? The transport arrived a little later. It consisted of a two-wheeled ox cart drawn by four oxen. The driver greeted us. Mrs Strauss addressed him as Kumbilwa. With him came a herd boy – a lad of eight or nine.
“Plenty rain!” said Kumbilwa. “Too plenty!”
“But you got across the river?” she asked.
“This morning – early.”
For almost an hour we jolted along a rough earth road. The little herd boy walked at the head, guiding the oxen. The driver called encouragement to the beasts and from time to time flicked his whip at them.
Then we had reached this raging torrent.
“You can get us across?” she had asked.
He shook his head. “I promised Bwana Strauss to get you to him safely.”
We considered going back to Nega Nega station.
“When is the next train back?”
I suspect Kumbilwa had no idea but was reluctant to admit it. “Tomorrow,” he said vaguely.
The idea of a night in that open-sided shack sitting on cream churns did not appeal. I had noticed there was not even a bench.
“Maboonu?” suggested Kumbilwa. It was the term that Africans used for Afrikaners – perhaps a corruption of the word “Boers”. Was he suggesting we ask a nearby Afrikaner for shelter?
It started to drizzle.
“I’ve met this Afrikaner farmer”, said Mrs Strauss. “He came to our farm once to borrow salt. Very poor people. Van Tonder is the name, I think.”
The driver nodded. “Van Tonder.” Then a chuckle overcame him: “You like nsima?”
The little herd boy laughed out aloud.
Mrs Strauss looked puzzled but her son and I understood: many Africans thought it hilarious that there were whites so poor that they ate maize meal porridge, just as they, the Africans, did. This lost the whites the status of belonging to the master race.
The driver called instructions to the herd boy and a little later we turned off on a side track. Eventually we reached a farmstead. Dogs barked furiously and a tall bearded man emerged, carrying a rifle. He greeted us in heavily accented English. Mrs Strauss explained our predicament.
“Come in,” he said “Come and dry yourself.”
He and his wife placed chairs for us near a warm cast iron kitchen range. A daughter, aged perhaps ten, prepared sweet coffee for us, using bottled liquid coffee. “If you’re lucky the stream will be down by tomorrow morning,” said Mr van Tonder “but if there is more rain during the night I don’t know. Anyway, neighbours, you’re welcome to stay as long as you like. “
“Neighbours?” she queried, “Our farm is eight miles from yours!”
“To an Afrikaner you’re neighbours. Yes, we like the wide open veld. If we see the smoke of a neighbour’s chimney we trek on. Too crowded! Or we used to do in the good old days. Besides – the people of the Bible are always welcome.” Then, after a hesitation, he added “but you’d be welcome even if you were English!”
“You don’t have much love for them?”
“No. Nor would you if your mother had died in one of their concentration camps. My father always said the English put ground glass into her food. I myself, I don’t know. I grew up in the same camp and I only got – pardon my language – I only got the shits.”
The Boer War, almost half a century earlier, was still very much alive for them: “We lost our farm. We lost our cattle. They burnt our house. We lost everything. When my old man came back from fighting those Rooineks he found ruins, only ruins, so we gave up on the old Transvaal and trekked north.”
As it got dark they lit a small paraffin lamp which barely illuminated half the kitchen table. In the near-darkness we became drowsy early. They served us fried potatoes flavoured with bits of sun- dried meat. It was not appetising but we were hungry. Mrs Strauss said the boys had better be put to bed early. They led us to a room which their daughter had vacated for us. There were two beds and a hurricane lamp. Young Strauss, they said, would have to share a bed with his mother. Fortunately their older daughter was spending the night with friends. I soon fell asleep despite a periodic “ping” which puzzled me. Later I awoke to see the little girl sneak in and removed a bucket. It had been placed to catch drips leaking from the roof. She emptied it outside and brought it back reporting that the rain had now stopped. I noticed that her English was very much better than that of her parents. She must have been attending an English-language school.
Next morning she came again bringing a jug of water and a basin. She showed us a drain in the concrete floor into which we could empty our water. She pulled out a coil of wire which had blocked the drain hole.
“Put it back firmly. It stops snakes from getting in. My dad killed one here … right here”. She pointed to bullet damage on the floor near my bed.
Had she told us the evening before I suspect I would not have slept so well.
I was sitting on the edge of my bed putting on my shoes when there was a rumbling sound and suddenly part of wall of our room collapsed. Fortunately it fell outwards. From my seat I could look up to the morning sky and the rising sun. All three van Tonders rushed in to make sure we were not hurt. She turned on her husband berating him in rapid Afrikaans that I had difficulty in following. I gathered she had long been warning him that the outer wall was not stable. I had not observed, the previous evening, that the house was not built of burnt brick but of adobe – a material more suited to the dry climate of the Sahel than to the sharp seasonal rains of subtropical Africa. They rushed us to the kitchen and served us a breakfast of maize meal porridge – just as Kumbilwa the driver had warned. I found it more palatable than I had expected.
We found Kumbilwa waiting outside. I never discovered where he had spent the night. He said he had already been out to check on the stream. It was fordable now provided we came before the next downpour.
We climbed into our cart. The oxen were already inspanned.
We repeated our thanks to van Tonder. He waved off our little speech.
“No Afrikaner ever refused hospitality to a traveller.”
So far as I knew this was true – provided, of course, the traveller was white.