It's daybreak on the dusty plains south of Colesberg in the Northern Cape. Liesbet Booysen, 31, blows on the embers of last night's fire to spark a flame. In the distance two crows plummet towards the ground.
She knows where the birds are: on the road to Steynsberg, just 20 minutes on foot from her rusted shack at Garings Outspan.
She wakes Breyten, her six-year-old son. With sleep in his eyes and without mielie pap to spur him on - the water in the pot is yet to boil - he sets off on a bicycle. Breyten is small for his age and his legs are just long enough for his bare feet to reach the pedals. He bumps on the crossbar as he shifts his weight from side to side. At full stretch he leans to reach the handlebars designed for a grown man. But Liesbet’s first-born finds a good rhythm and cycles past the empty kennels (the dogs were taken away by someone “official”, Liesbet cannot say who) and out of sight.
Sometimes the crows send a false signal. The roadkill may be too small or too badly damaged to be of use, or the birds are found hopping around the remains of a carcass which has already been dragged into the veld by a scavenger. But today Breyten is successful: he returns with the carcass of a steenbokkie on the handlebars.
Liesbet holds the carcass up to the light and picks bits of dirt from the crushed skull. The wound is fresh, and blood oozes. She will clean, skin and gut the buck and hang tiny red strips of meat to dry from the ceiling of her shack. In this setting of abject poverty, the veld still provides.
Half a dozen families live at Garings. Each brown shack is furnished with little more than a mattress on the ground. These families are among the last “karretjie mense” who still live beside the dirt roads outside Colesberg. Only three donkey carts have survived from the old days. One of these lies useless, its wheels stolen months ago.
Liesbet, her partner Hendrik Hermanus and their brothers and sisters grew up on the road. Descendants of the San, the karretjie people moved from farm to farm across the Great Karoo. As one of about 1,000 karretjie units operating in the early 1990s, Liesbet’s family earned small commissions for shearing sheep and hand-processing the wool. Visits to the town were brief and usually only to buy basic supplies. For the rest her family scrounged what it could - firewood from the veld, water from farm reservoirs, and meat from hunted vermin like the “rooikat”. Nights were spent beside a fire and in low shacks on the *kort-gangetjie* (short corridor) between the dirt roads and the fences of the big merino sheep farms.
Farmer Danie van Zyl, the owner of the land on which Garings lies, remembers the karretjie people from his youth. He recalls the Afrikaans vernacular which was strange to him, and the lucidity and poetry of the shearers’ chat as they worked in his father’s shed for a few days each year. He remembers the neatness of their work and the speed and skill with which the small men handled a full grown ram. He compares this with the clumsiness of today’s shearers, men with electric shears and no feel for their work.
With mechanised shearing and the consolidation of small farms into fewer and larger enterprises, the need for the karretjie people’s artisanal skills, once an indispensable part of the rural economy, has fallen away, Van Zyl explains. But the old families have remained – coerced into an impossible choice between a wretched existence on the fringes of the farms and moving to town to try to sell their labour in the midst of chronic unemployment.
Hanneline and Izak Louw have chosen the town. Izak is the second youngest son of Oupa Lodewyk Slinger, a legendary karretjie patriarch who fathered 12 sons and is soon to celebrate his 101st birthday in Colesberg.
In the late 1990s Izak migrated to the wine farms of the Western Cape in search of formal work.
He married Hanneline from Franschoek, quit alcohol and became a devout Rastafarian – “die Boesman was mos die oorspronklike Rasta,” he says (“this Bushman was the original rasta”). After years away, Izak returned from the Cape with his wife to care for his ailing parents at Lowrysville squatter camp outside Colesberg (an erstwhile outspan for karretjie people on town visits). He says he was "burning" for the land where his "umbilical cord lies buried".
Hanneline, energetic and educated, successfully applied for a house with running water and electricity at the large Riemvasmaak government housing development outside Colesberg.
She is proud that the application was granted in time for the family to celebrate Oupa's 100th birthday in a brick house last year. Though his eyes, his smile and his gestures of greeting or farewell are alert, the old man cannot speak. But his wife Sina Louw - 20 years his junior - says they had hardly ever spent a night inside a house in the 60 years of their marriage.
Their son Salman Louw, 55, also moved back to Colesberg, after a period in the employ of Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) leader Eugene Terre'blanche.
Salman speaks of Terre'blanche as a father. He is proud that Terre'blanche trusted him enough to train him as a *soldaat* (soldier) and to give him basic instruction in firearm usage. This he demonstrates by squatting low and taking aim with an imaginary rifle.
"Oupa (Lodewyk) was a gentle man," says Salman, by way of explanation for his father's longevity.
"He would not drink so hard or be prone to stabbing and fighting with the other men when he was younger. He was a very proud man, and good with donkeys like no man I have ever seen. Now, he has been blessed with a long life."
Outside the Riemvasmaak house, the grandchildren help move Oupa's chair around the house, following the progression of the shade from the morning to evening. He sits still, smoking newspaper cigarettes and the occasional marijuana joint, rolled for him by his sons.
The house has running water, electricity, and a toilet - unknown amenities on the shearing trail through the Karoo. Isak has no nostalgia for the old life - it was too hard. Of his childhood on the road, he recalls that there were no new clothes or feasts at Christmas and he and his brothers would nestle "like small wet chickens" under a tarpaulin too small to cover them, when it was cold and raining.
But in Colesberg there are very few jobs, and the family ekes out an existence through government grants for the children and the pensions of Oupa Lodewyk and Ouma Sina.
Piet Louw, the youngest son, nostalgically shows a photo of himself at the last sheep shearing job he did in the region in 2009.
"That life was not so bad as they say. At least we had work. Here there is nothing for us now," he says.
The difficulty of finding work in the town keeps Liesbet and her family from migrating to Colesberg. Sitting on a paint drum in the dust, Liesbet counts six farms surrounding Garings where the family can count on old connections for periodic "los werk" (loose work). Colesberg with its bottomless labour supply is 50 kilometres away, so men like Liesbet's partner stand a better chance of sporadic employment here. But even so, weeks may pass with no work and no pay, she says.
Liesbet's brother lives in a little unit identical to that of the Louws at Riemvasmaak, but she does not want to join him.
Thanks to the Hantam Community Education Trust (HCET), which provides support and schooling for poor rural children, the couple’s kids have the chance of an education previously not available to families living on the Karoo's social margins. Breyten and his younger sister are in Grades 1 and Grade R respectively. Their parents are proud to display the children’s drawings and colouring-in books - proof that they are being formally educated.
But the potential for normal learning at the HCET is limited by chronic alcohol abuse. Hannah Mthembu, a teacher at the trust, is concerned about the home environment and development of children at home in off-the-grid, poor communities like Garings. Dealing with the learning disabilities associated with alcohol foetal syndrome (FAS) in her students is a daily challenge of her work.
"Pregnant women still have this belief that alcohol doesn't make a difference to the development of their child," says Mthembu.
"People now know what AIDS is, yes, because there was a huge campaign to educate these rural people. But people have not been taught about FAS in the same way. It does unbelievable damage to these kids, they struggle. It's so so sad, because the child has been hurt without deserving it. So, what we are trying to do is to empower these kids now, so that one day they can make a better choice for when they have children."
Liesbet too wants the best for her children, and she believes the old life at the *kort gangetjie* of veld and road is best.
"We have a place in town. But that is not the life we have come to know. I like the veld and the donkeys. I know nothing of electric lights and taps and warm water. It is a fire and a windpump that I know. I did not need those fancy things when I was young and I still feel young. Maybe one day when we are old people and cannot work it will be different, but not yet."
The sources interviewed for this article are protagonists in Move: The Lost Carts of the Karoo, a forthcoming documentary film by Timothy Gabb. The film, supported by playwright Athol Fugard, is being independently produced and relies on crowdfunding. To find out more or to support the project, visit Facebook or Gabfly.
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