After yearning for a homecoming through two unrelenting European winters, I get in a hire car at Cape Town International Airport. I proclaim to nobody in particular: “I should remember to drive on the left-hand side of the road. The Grotesque British Empire left its mark here.”
As I drive north, my love for Afrikaans is rekindled by endearing place names: Knersvlakte — plains of grit. Verneukpan — treason plain. Brakfontein — brackish fountain. Droërivier — dry river. Putsonderwater — well without water. Kleingeluk — a little luck.
A few kilometres before I reach the Augrabies Falls, I take the Witklip gravel road that leads to our family farm. I smile at the lack of urgency conveyed at the broken farm gate.
My childhood home beckons me from atop the koppie of Groot Vaalkop Island. When the rains from the Highveld reach the Benede Oranje District with its brown, thunderous force, we’ve always been above the flood lines. Isolated, but safe.
Living close to the land makes one acutely aware of the seasonality of work. Summer is harvest time. In winter, the vineyards take a much-needed breath of crisp desert air — that’s when we process meat. I’ve been living overseas for seven years, but I am no tourist this frosty June morning.
Every year, my dad loads his rifle and calmly walks up to the marked ox. I was in Sub A (Grade 1) when I underwent this ritual the first time: the baffled gaze when the bullet penetrates the amygdala, the unnatural warmth of bovine blood seeping through my shoes, the surprisingly white tongue limping from its jaw in a theatrical attempt at conciliation.
What happens next is a solemn blur: ferrying the ox with a tractor from the kraal to the workshop, rinsing the green distress from the hide, its head hanging down to the ground as the innards are removed in a loud slush. The gash under its jaw becomes a sticky, tough mass devoid of the passionate flow of life mere hours before.
The men spend the rest of the day carving and sawing the carcass. Our kitchen doorbell rings and an enamel bucket, or skotteltjie, is handed to me. I almost stumble under the weight of its contents. “What is this, Samuel?” I ask our farm manager. “It’s for the madam upstairs.” My mother and grandmother rush to the door in fluttered excitement.
My heart sinks. Every year, I suppress the revulsion I have for liver, tongue, heart and kidneys. Yet, an incontestable determination to consume these peculiar cuts of meat, not suitable for freezing, sets in. It’s a delicacy we Afrikaners even have a specific word for: karmenaadjie: a present of meat, given by one who has slaughtered an animal.
The next fortnight, the members of our family of four fry, steam, bake and grill offal. The pressure cooker burns the midnight oil to soften the muscle chambers of the tongue, leaving the house with the discomfiting stench of decomposing glands.
“Why aren’t we giving this away to our employees?” I asked my mother.
A slightly shrill rebuke: “They are valuable, extremely nutritious cuts of meat! It’s special! Nothing should be wasted!”
I want to object. “It tastes disgusting! None of us really enjoy eating liver for six days straight! The house stinks! There are flies everywhere! We have enough! We have too much!”
I’m suddenly overcome by the macabre complexities symbolised by the unfortunate bovine’s heart under my carving knife. Why did my mother’s reaction make me feel proud of my food heritage? Will Samuel ever be a neighbour to whom I can gift a karmenaadjie, or will it always be rueful charity as a result of excess, the excess gained through willful and ignorant exploitation?
I understand so little, but I heard somewhere that not too long ago, cattle used to be a symbol of celebration, loyalty and community in this country. Lobola is a price, but it’s discussed until it’s a fair price. A price to pay for priceless family bonds, bonds that build communities.
I wonder if I’ll ever get to see the bounty of our farm shared with others, be it enough space for grazing, or the skills you need to sever the artery without causing distress. Maybe I need to learn how to share first. Maybe I can start with a karmenaadjie.