It was one of those brilliantly clear days in early summer. I came within sight of the aloes of Jansenville. This dusty town lies about fifty odd kilometres from Graaff Reinet, near Kalkkop. I went there to inspect the crater left by a meteorite quarter of a million years ago.
This day, no crater interested me. I was told of a man, very ‘quarrelous’, who lived outside town as close to the earth as no-one in this most down-to-earth pocket South East of the Sahara. He relishes any fight, they say. A hearty and expensive quarrel about nothing occupies the place in aloe life which rugby and cinema occupy in Cape Town. Without these fights, I was assured, life for Oom Tos would be an exceedingly dull affair in Jansenville.
In the clear air of the Karoo, dusty and flat it mostly is, I saw a man on a donkey crossing the skyline and followed his slow approach every metre of the way. Be sure, he brings with him some dispute about donkeys, the right to use a certain well or perhaps some particularly nasty trick a neighbouring farmer played on him. On his way to the circle of Elders, he goes.
I followed at a respectable distance. On his back he had a goatskin robe thing, across the body a belt made of rhino hide. There he walks, erect, running a lean brown hand down his beard, hoping to extract justice from the Elders on the count of custom. His case: his younger daughter decided to get married against his wishes, before an elder one.
What fascinated me was his defence. Antiquity must have heard many such lines of defence, but it simply left me bewildered. “It is not customary for it to be so done”. More people have been acquited on the account of custom than any other, I was told. Even murder assumes a righteous aspect when it is proved that it has always been customary for certain tribes or communities to slay each other on sight.
Seated, the Elders conferred and the head Elder cleared his throat, saying quietly: ” It is customary for it to be so” and imposes a fine on the rebellious young woman. Three riding donkeys to her father and seven for the Council of Elders (one each — for their trouble to hear and adjudicate the matter).
A young woman drew near.
She carried a water pot on her head, to quench the Elders’ thirst. She was in that brief loveliness of youth which vanishes from a rural girl almost as one watches. At twenty she’s almost middle aged; at thirty two a wrinkled grandmother. But in her teens she sometimes justifies the rhapsodies of Anton Goosen and, standing for a moment against the ageless background of the time-frozen Karoo town, typifies in a remarkable manner all the young women through all the ages, momentarily the representative of the ghosts of the past stolen into the present. There was no way she would honour the decision of the Elders. That I saw from her entire manner. I looked at her, noting the fine poise of her head, so soon to be lowered beneath the yoke of motherhood, the pure-bred hands and narrow feet. She would not.
I thought, as she poured the water from the pot, of all the women whose lives, good or hard, are imperishably enshrined in the memories of all living people. They form a feminine picture gallery unmatched in the whole of present day literature. Their histories, the diversities of their destinations in life and the influence their stories have exerted upon communities and the world, make them unique. This young woman lives so vividly in the imagination of entire generations.
Why? Certainly, it is not because she happened to be in the Karoo. It is because she is so palpably alive in all of us. But I think there’s another reason. The more we know of our fellow human beings and the more we pay attention to the lives of those around us (those near and dear, those who are loveable and those who are unloveable, those who desire nothing less than the highest good for us and those who only wish us malice and pain), the more we pay notice of them, the more clearly do we realise that the strings of the heart are numbered, and that the harmony or discord that life draws from us is the same old tune that has been running through the world since Oom Tos (and many others before him) was born to sorrow and to joy.
The change (tragic as in the case of the disaster in China and blazingly hopeful as in the election promises of Barack Obama), the interventions (or not as in the case of Thabo and Zimbabwe), the fashions which are the keynote of our times, are perhaps apt to make us forget that men and women have not changed much since the age of time…
I started off wanting to take a glimpse into the life of Oom Tos, but a life larger than his “filled my vision” – an expression I borrowed from a very dear friend — a not too expected thing of the day…