Family history has it that my grandmother, Ouma Paulina, was an oorlamse kaffir.
The narrative on who Ouma Paulina is, as we all call her, depends on who my Pa is talking to.
To Africans who are not family members -his comrades- he tells of herstory and the forgotten story of many like her. The buried story of the black people who suffered as much, or even more, than the Boers in Horatio Kitchener’s concentration camps in Transvaal and Orange Free State.
To Boers people like his half brother Koos and half sister Sallie, Pa talks of Ouma Paulina as dignified and cultured, nay, more cultured than they who call themselves civilised.
A woman whose journals are still legible because she had great penmanship.
A woman written out of South African history although, because of her writing, she took some of the notes that were later used to write Native Life in South Africa by Solomon Plaatje.
And to the inner circle of family members, my Pa, a historian, speaks of an Ouma Paulina who was a clevah of the worst kind. A liker of things.
The first time the soldiers came to Salome Kruger’s farm, she had been listening to Karien reading the Bible out loud as they prayed for the burghers’ success against the English.
Dusk was falling.
“And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee…’
Karien’s daughter Paulina, and her daughter Elsie had run in with so much terror on their faces that the tongue-lashing she had on her lips for the interruption died.
‘Ma, the English. They are here,’ Paulina, always more talkative than her Elsie, blurted out.
Elsie nodded her head vigorously in agreement.
‘Sit,’ Salome said with more firmness than she intended to the girls. Then a little more gently as though to calm them and herself down, ‘stay here. We shall deal with this.’ And turning to Karien she said, ‘let’s go.’
They walked out just as the men and their horses galloped into the yard.
The man in charge gave a command and the soldiers got off their horses. She and Karien watched from the courtyard as some of the uniformed men made their way to her hen house and took all the chickens there. They were stunned as they saw others shoot the pigs and threw the carcasses on one of her carts which they commandeered and attached to two horses.
While others walked into her farmhouse as though she were not there. It was then that she and Karien were spurred into action and followed them. Their daughters were in there. Salome regretted asking the girls to stay in the house. As they entered they saw one of the men, exhibiting sheer cruelty, kick at Paulina yelling, ‘silly kaffir.’
And then it happened.
Like a lioness whose cub had been grabbed, Karien ran to him and scratched his face, yelling. All the time yelling, ‘leave my baby, you English killer. Fokof.’
Salome had never heard Karien raise her voice, let alone use untoward language. Karien seemed to realize too what she had said, how unladylike she had been, how lacking in decorum as she put her bloodied hand to her mouth.
The soldier, perhaps seeing the blood, got incensed. He slapped her and she fell down.
‘Bloody, stupid kaffir. You think you can touch me? Did your whites here not teach you any better?’
Salome wanted to yell out, she is not a kaffir. She is an oorlamse. But words died in her throat.
She watched in fascinated horror as this man turned beast unbuckled his belt while Karien screamed. The noise of the other men taking things from her home seemed but side issues to this abomination being visited on her mother’s oolarmse who had been her mother’s daughter before she was born. And she was frozen with shock. It was only when he was zipping up his trousers again that power returned to her limbs and she ran and pushed him in futility. He pushed her back and she stumbled on the Bible. Dear God. Not her too? He was not going to…
He saw the fear in her eyes and leered at her. Then he took out his gun, turned to Karien and shot her.
It was the casualness of it all.
The way he appeared to have so little regard for human life.
And his dead eyes that made her blood turn to ice.
Then Salome screamed. As she did, she saw her daughter Elsie holding on to little Paulina as the two of them shook and sobbed across the room.
God why? That any child should witness such violence being visited on anyone but worse, to see it being delivered on their mother.
And then the English, not content with the horror one of them had visited on Karien, went crazy. Perhaps it was the bloodlust triggered by the gunshot.
They dragged clothes and blankets from the bedrooms.
They broke her plates from the kitchen.
They struggled successfully in dragging out cabinets and wardrobes.
Antiques gifted to her by her parents when they left for the Cape Colony.
Everything they did not break, they dragged outside.
All her attempts at stopping them resulted in being pushed out of the way and twice, earned her a klaap. In the end she stood as helpless as the girls and watched them as they put many of her things in a giant heap outside the house and set it on fire.
All of them seeming to possess a maddening gleam of cruelty in their eyes.
She looked across and saw her. Poor little Paulina. Poor poor child.
She remembered wondering what she would tell Karien’s husband Adam. Wondering what she would tell the man who had generously offered to take her cattle to his grazing lands when he had heard of the approach of the English. In her mind she asked herself how she would tell him that their daughter was orphaned and he was now a widower. Was it not as unnatural for African husbands to bury their wives in the same way that it was unnatural for any parent to bury a child? Who would accuse the surviving spouse of witchcraft then? Where was God?
When he came with her sons to bring the cattle to the kraal, she saw on his face, the sadness at the devastation caused by the vile English. The fire was still smouldering and she had attempted to save what precious little she could from it but with little luck.
But he had no idea what had happened to Karien.
So when she looked pitifully at him and told him after he got off his horse, he looked at her in confusion and said, ‘Ek verstaan nie…’
She did not understand either.
She did not understand how any human could wantonly violate another human being and then afterwards shoot them. Did those men qualify to be called humans?
They were lesser than animals. They were the kak at the bottom of a century old latrine.
She hurt for him, for herself, for his children at their shared loss.
She repeated what had happened again slowly, leaving out the shameful violation of Karien at the hands of that man. What did it matter? The end had been death. That was all he needed to know.
Before he came, she had cleaned up Karien and attempted to make her respectable in death as she had looked in life. As she wiped the blood between Karien’s legs, she could not help remembering that it was Karien who had talked to her, washed her and allayed her fears when she saw blood coming from down there and thought she was dying. It was Karien too who showed her how to cut strips of cloth that she would use for that time of the month. Until she got married in a church to Adam, Karien would go with her to the river so that they could wash their rags. Their private girl time. An oorlamse but still too in many ways, her only sister. They had maintained their closeness after Karien’s marriage, with Karien visiting her regularly and reading the Bible together as they had been doing that day.
When the English came, she had been reading from the book of Ruth 1:16 which was a favourite of theirs.
“And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”
Looking back, although Salome was the younger woman, in many ways, Karien had been her Ruth and she a Naomi. Except that she had lodged herself in death before Salome.
And although it was she who had received this farm when their parents left for the Cape Colony, it was almost as much Karien’s home as it was hers. Karien was like family to all of them. Well. She was family.
She had told Adam then, ‘We shall bury her here in the orchard under the orange tree.’ She paused and with a faraway look in her eyes and a distant voice, ‘she planted that orange tree.’ And Adam did not seem to have much strength for fighting.
And later, much later after Karien had been buried, when Salome insisted that Paulina remain with them, Adam did not argue. Now left with a household of five boys all older than Paulina, Adam probably would not have known what to do with an eight year old girl.
It was Adam who gave her and the children more blankets and all of Karien’s clothes and sewing machine. She used some of the clothes to sew new clothes for her children and kept some for herself.
That was months ago.
She had refused to let Karien’s violation and death break her despite the devastation and hopelessness she had felt then.
As her neighbours on farms nearby surrendered to the English and went into camps, Salome Kruger stayed on.
It flew in the face of everything she stood on to surrender and leave.
Her Marthinus and her brother Hermanus were out somewhere fighting and she felt that they needed to know that this was home and hearth.
A place to keep fighting for.
If she also gave up left, she feared, he would surrender too then where would they be?
Men, she knew, were weak and needed the strength of womenkind and belief of the volk to keep them fighting.
Many a burgher had already surrendered but she would not be one of them.
Her ouma and oupa had trekked so very long ago to this very land she was on and had received this piece of land as a gift from the Griqua Chief, Adam Kok.
Before there was the Republic of the Orange Free State, this land belonged to her family.
They had owned the land from the birth of the Republic to its seeming demise.
But she had lived in the hope that the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State would be theirs again. She had been determined not to give those damn English the satisfaction of owning or ruling over what belonged to her family.
But then last night, six months after the death of Karien and in the dead of the night, Marthinus had come and knocked on her window. Since they had left home to join the other burghers, Salome always left a plate for him and Hermanus whether they came home or not. The night before, he had come home. Since that time, six months ago, when the English soldiers had senselessly broken and burnt her bed and other furniture, she had never bothered to get another bed. In these warring times, it seemed like a luxury they could do without. She woke up and went to open the front door, taking care not to wake up the girls who were sleeping on the floor in her room with her.
She blew a fire in the hearth then warmed some water for him to bath. As he bathed, she warmed the food that would have formed part of the children’s lunch tomorrow, had he not come. She watched him as he ate, now clean. He had lost weight but with it, his looks had become more rugged. She would have liked to see him as he used to look before he went in the bush. Before he had a fully grown beard. She did not know why he had not shaved while taking a bath. She had put his shaving knife there. But she must not complain. He was here with her. Which was more than many other women of the volk had with sons and husbands who had died fighting for this land.
Then they started talking and what he said came to her as a shock.
He started, ‘Hermanus has been ill. He needs to come home.’
‘What happened?’ she asked trying to sound calm but with her heart beating fast.
‘A month ago during a raid on a kaffir village when we were hungry, he took the last cockerel from some kaffir village woman,’
She interrupted, ‘And?’
‘Let me finish,’ he said waving his right hand at her, ‘he took her last cock and she cursed him. One of the kaffirs with us said he would not eat that chicken. He sounded scared. So of course we all became afraid.’ It seemed all of them had been driven away from that chicken and ate other food except Hermanus who called them women. He had braai’d the chicken on an open fire when they got back to their camp, eaten every morsel of it, relishing every bite. An hour later, his troubles began.
This time he did not chastise her for interrupting.
He told her.
‘Every hour on the hour, that cock crows from his stomach. He cannot stop it. We tried to go back to the village to ask the woman to stop it, but the day we arrived she had died. So the General says he has to leave as that is a surefire way for the English to catch us. He comes tomorrow.’ Marthinus finished.
Then he added, ‘and when he arrives, you shall go with him and the children and surrender yourself to the English.’
‘But why? Why must I go when this is our home?’ she had said tears catching in her voice.
‘Because Salome, we are wasting more resources trying to keep you and the other women and children who refuse to leave safe. We cannot go on the attack because we have to be near the farms in case they come again. And look what they already did at this place. When they come again, they may not spare you,’ he answered gently.
‘So may be the children and I can come with you with the cattle? I can do the cooking . We cannot and will not stay in the camps set up by the English.’
‘Woman, you are trying my patience now. I am telling you…’
Marthinus had never hit her but he looked as though he was about to strike her now so she lowered her eyes.
Something in her died then.
Something of her love for Marthinus died.
She had heard it in his voice and she knew. His suggestion that she join the camps with the children meant he too was close to giving up.
This was not the brave man who had promised that he would die stopping the bullets of the English when she didn’t want him to go.
But what could she do? Perhaps he was right. It was no longer safe. The English might come again and who knew what they would do to her this time.
He tried to placate her, ‘look at it this way my skattebol,’ he had not called her skattebol since before the children were born. ‘Look at it this way. When you go in with Hermanus, they will assume he is your husband and Hermanus can get us intelligence from the inside.’
She was not entirely convinced, but she resigned herself.
In the morning when she woke up, she gathered the children together and asked them to pack the essentials.
‘But ma,’ her second oldest Theunis had tried to object. He always questioned more than his brother.
‘Do as you are told Theunis, you too Piet,’ she said in a voice that brooked no objection.
As they packed, Hermanus arrived and for a brief time, the packing was interrupted as the children went to greet their uncle. She noticed that he cringed whenever Paulina got close to him. Perhaps he was thinking of the old woman who had cursed him?
Paulina dutifully packed everything, folding her clothes quietly. Ever since her mother’s demise, she seemed to have exchanged roles with Elsie. She was now the quite one while Elsie chattered away until she slept as though silence scared her. Little Paulina would only talk in monosyllables but she wrote a lot on whatever scraps of paper she could find. Once, Salome had tried to see what she was writing when she left one of her scrap papers. They were words, not sentences.
Words that would seem random if one had not known what she had seen.
Tears. Blood. Death.
Elegant penmanship for one so young.
Among the few things she now packed, little Paulina neatly folded some of these scraps of paper. Salome was heart-sore. Poor child.
Hermanus, Piet and Theunis took the packed luggage to the ox wagon. The blankets. The biltong. The little flour that remained. Salome left the children with their uncle for a short time as she returned to her bedroom. She took three small bags that the English soldiers had overlooked. She then went to the orchard and knelt on Karien’s grave, seeming to be speaking to her but in fact, burying them in a hole she had dug earlier. She hoped the bags would be safe.
As the ox wagon made its way towards the gate with her driving it while Hermanus, Theunis and Piet drove the cattle, Salome took a look back at the orchard.
Karien had looked after her when she was a child. She would look after the small bags too.
And one day when the Republic was free again, she would come back and retrieve them.
For now, she would go with Hermanus and the children to the camp as instructed by Marthinus. And she understood now how Hermanus’ stomach could have been a distraction for the burghers fighting. Four times already, it had crowed and the sound was loud enough to awaken a village.
She bade a silent goodbye to the farm.
This was her home but it was also a place of tears, blood, death.
Maybe away from here, her little Paulina would talk some more. And her little Elsie would get quieter.
And away from home too, may be Hermanus would spy and get the burghers the information they needed to defeat the English.
Photograph: Aleni Agami