A Farm at Raraba

A Short Story


MY LATE DAD WAS A MAGNIFICENT SHOT. ONE TIME when we were hunting in the Low Veld and had stopped for a smoke, we heard the yelp of a wild dog, and a troop of impala came bounding over the tall grass. Opposite us, three hundred yards off, was a stony ridge like a wall, six feet high. You would think those buck would avoid it, but no, they went straight at it. One after another, without pausing or swerving, they leaped over it. They cleared it by three or four feet. I tell you, friend, it was a beautiful sight.

By the time the first two impala were over the ridge, late Dad was ready, and as the next one leaped, Dad got him. In midair. Same with the next one, and the next, and the next. And the next. And the next. That was six buck, one after another.

Do you know, the wild dogs chasing those buck didn’t stop for the impala that late Dad had killed. They didn’t even react to the shots. They just followed one particular buck that they had marked, and we saw them pull it down a couple of minutes later. You’ve got to hand it to Nature; she knows what she’s doing.

But the most wonderful thing was when we got to the dead impala. Four of them were piled one on top of another, neatly, like sacks in a store. Late Dad had shot each of them through the heart, at exactly the same point in its leap. The other two had been a bit slow. Late Dad had got each of them in the shoulder. If you can’t get a head or a heart shot, the next best is the shoulder, because of the bone there. If you hit bone, it brings a creature down. It can’t run, you see. The worst place is behind the heart, because then your bullet goes through a lot of soft entrails. A gutshot animal will sometimes run a couple of miles before it drops, and you may never find it. When I hear of fellows shooting like that, I want to put a slug into their guts and see how they would like to die that way.

Those impala were a bit of a problem. We had a license for only two, and we had only the two mules we were riding. But God sent the ravens to Elijah, and so he sent us this Hottentot, Khamatjie. He worked crops on a share on the same farm as late Dad, but he was luckier with his farming—they live on the smell of an oil rag, those bastards. I don’t mean “bastard” in a nasty way. I just mean that Khamatjie, like some others, had a white father or grandfather, you understand. Well, thank God, this Khamatjie pitches up with his Ford pickup and a mincing machine, because he thought he would shoot a zebra. Nobody wants to eat zebra, but when it’s sausage it’s lovely; you call it beef or koodoo or eland. Late Dad and Khamatjie and I made impala sausages for two days.

In front of white people Dad treated Khamatjie like dirt, but otherwise he was very respectful, because he was always borrowing money from Khamatjie and getting drunk with him. He said Khamatjie didn’t mind supplying the brandy so long as he could say he drank with a white man.

The training late Dad gave me in bushcraft and using a rifle came in pretty handy when I was on the South West border doing my army service. The call-up interrupts a man’s career, if he’s got a career, but a fellow that hasn’t had army has missed an experience—encountering the outdoor life; learning about musketry and map-reading and section-leading, and who’s what in these little frontline states, and the tribes and the various movements in Angola and Caprivi and Botswana. The big thing, though, is the companionship. Until you’ve marched with four hundred other chaps all in step, all singing “Sarie Marais” or “Lilli Marlene” or “You can do with your loo loo what you will”; until you’ve sat with five or six buddies in an ambush, not daring to take a breath in case a guerrilla gets you; until you’ve done things like that, you don’t know what loving your land and your folk is.

Out there, in the bundu, the action is sort of clean, like they say it was in North Africa when we were fighting Rommel in late Dad’s war. Not like shooting black schoolgirls in the bum from inside an armored car. How brave does a fellow have to be for that? I wonder what these township heroes would do if they were faced with Swapo guerrillas like my lot were.

Because I was keen, and liked the bush, I got to be a sergeant, and they gave me six blacks they had scratched up in Damaraland, and sent us off across the border into Angola. An intelligence probe, they said. Just these six blacks and me, and an intelligence corporal called Johan. He had had a course of interrogation training, and his main job was to train these blacks to get information out of prisoners. Scary stuff, man. You’ve got to hate a person to do it properly.

Our first ten days on patrol yielded nothing. Then, on the eleventh day, I left Johan and the blacks to fix our bivvie for the night while I went ahead for a look-see, at a big granite outcrop about two miles ahead. Just before I got to it, I heard shots from our camp, then some answering shots, and then silence. I hid, and waited quietly. After five minutes I saw four Swapies, running for all they were worth, along the side of a kopje half a mile away. They disappeared behind a dune and then bunched up on the big granite outcrop before the first Swapie launched himself off it to cross a crevasse. By that time I was ready, and I got him as he jumped. The next one was too close behind to stop, and I dropped him and number three as fast as I could press the trigger. The last one in the bunch pulled back, but I was quick and ready. I hit him, too. I heard the bullet ricochet off the rock, so I reckoned he was probably only wounded.

I was sure the first three would be dead, and I thought, Late Dad, took at that! Three in midair! And day’re not impala, Dad. They’re royal game. Do you know about royal game? Late Dad told me that in the old days, before we became the Republic, anything you were not allowed to shoot, because it was rare or useful, like tickbirds or ibises or oribi, was called royal game. Kids in those days believed that these birds and animals were reserved for the royal family to shoot. Fancy Prince Charles potting away at a flock of egrets or an iguana, eh! So Dad and his friends called desert natives “royal game,” because they are wild but you’re not allowed to shoot them, see?

Like I told you, I can’t bear to think of a gutshot animal, lying in pain for hours. I felt the same way about this guerrilla, but I was on edge, too. They say a wounded lion or buffalo is the most dangerous game in the wild, because he stalks the hunter. A wounded guerrilla must be worse, because he’s got a higher IQ, so I circled very cautiously round the granite rock. When I got opposite the crevasse, I could see three bodies, one on top of another, quite still. At eight hundred yards, three in three shots, it’s a satisfaction, man.

And there, thank God, was guerrilla number four, just round the corner. He was standing upright in a narrow cleft in the rock, with one foot apparently stuck, and he was gripping his left biceps. A pressure point, I supposed. Through my held glasses I could see that his left sleeve was a thick mat of blood. So all I had got was his arm. I found myself making excuses, thinking that I had been slow because I used a peep sight. Late Dad always shot over open sights; he reckoned that a sniper’s eye aimed his hand, like a cowboy with a pistol, or a kid with a catapult.

The guerrilla’s rifle was wedged above his head. For safety’s sake I put a bullet into it. That left him unlikely to do much damage. When I edged my way closer. I saw that his leg was held fast in a crack, so he really was stuck and helpless. He was one of those yellow Hottentot types, with spaces between his peppercorns of hair, about my age but as wrinkled as a prune. These Kalahari natives go like that by the time they’re twenty; it’s the sun, or glands, I don’t know. He was wearing a cast-off Cuban tunic.

I climbed up the rock and looked down on him, trying to remember the few words of local lingo I had picked up from my men, but when he heard me, he said in Afrikaans, “Good day, my Baas.”

I was pleased, I can tell you. That meant I could interrogate him myself, and, as he was our first prisoner, Johan and my black soldiers would see that I was one step ahead of them, and that I was a sergeant for good reason.

The guerrilla bowed his head and pointed with his good hand. “If you are going to shoot, make it two shots, please, so that I will be properly dead.”

“I don’t shoot tethered goats,” I said.

After a moment or two he looked up. “Can the goat have some water?”

“First, talk.”

“Yes, I talk, Baas. What would Baas like to talk about?”

I interrogated him in the way we had been instructed, using trick questions and repetitions, in case he was lying or hiding anything. I prodded his wounded arm once or twice. He bore it as if he had it corning to him, but he didn’t appear to keep information back, and when his voice cracked, I passed down my water bottle. His name was Adoons, which is a jokey way of saying Adonis. It is what one calls a pet baboon. The farmer his family had worked for called him that. Eventually his own family Stopped using the native name his father had given him. It seemed to belong to someone else, Adoons said.

He had been a hunters’ guide, and a shepherd. When his family was pushed off the farm—for sheep stealing, it seemed—he joined the guerrillas who were fighting for Namibian independence. He had only the vaguest idea what the fighting was about. He knew it was against whites, but he had never heard of Namibia. Not surprising, when you think about it. He called it “South West.” just as we do. He moved from one guerrilla band to another, depending on whether he liked the band’s leader and how much food or loot was available. His present band was under the command of a Ndebele refugee from Zimbabwe. They were supposed to report to a General Kareo, but they had never seen him. I carefully recorded it all in my field notebook.

When I had done with questions, I sat back and lit a cigarette. At the sound of the match he looked up. Smoking or drinking alone is not something a decent man wants to do; it’s like making love alone, late Dad used to say. I gave Adoons the cigarette and lit another one for myself.

He exhaled till his chest was flat, and then inhaled the smoke to fill his lungs. He held it for a long time before letting it out, and said, “Thank you, Baas. Baas is a good man.”

He smoked in deep gulps, keeping his head down. When he finished the cigarette, he looked up. “Why didn’t Baas shoot when I was full of smoke?”

“I told you I don’t shoot jackal-bait,” I said.

“I can see Baas is a good man, but if Baas’s men find me here, they will do bad things to me. Perhaps it will take three days.”

“I will tell them you have already talked.”

“They will not care. They will torture me to make a game. My people will do it too, if they catch one of your black soldiers. This is not Sunday school, my Baas.”

“We don’t torture prisoners,” I replied angrily. I knew he would not believe me.

“What will Baas do with me?”

The fact was, I didn’t know what the hell I could do with Adoons. Once he has been interrogated, a native prisoner is worthless; worse, he is a danger. He would have to be fed and guarded, and if he escaped he could give the enemy all sorts of valuable information. We didn’t keep prisoners, except white men and Cubans—you can exchange them or use them for propaganda.

As if he understood my problem, he said, “Has Baas perhaps room for another shepherd on Baas’s farm?”

“I haven’t got a farm, and if I wanted a shepherd I would not employ a bloody Hottentot rebel.”

“It is near sunset. Baas will go soon, before it gets dark. And when Baas goes, the hyenas will come. A hyena can bite right through a man’s leg. A living man’s leg.”

I looked down at his skinny leg, disappearing into the rock cleft, and then climbed down and looked at his imprisoned foot. All I had to do was untie the laces and manipulate his ankle to get his foot out, leaving the boot behind. Then I gave the empty boot a kick, and it came loose too. Adoons wriggled till he found a purchase for his toes and raised himself a few inches.

“Give me your hand, Hottentot,” I said. “I’ll pull you out.”

He put up his hand. I took him by the wrist and he clasped my wrist. With unexpected agility he braced his feet against the side of the cleft and scrambled up. I threw him his boot. When he stood up to catch it his tunic opened to reveal a pistol loose in a leather holster, on a broad, stylish belt round his waist.

He smiled shamefacedly. “I took it from the policeman who arrested me for stealing sheep.”

“Is it loaded?”

“Oh, yes. Five bullets. I used one to learn to shoot it, but I’ve never fired it since. One has to be close to a man.”

“You could have shot me.”

“Yes, my Baas. The pistol was stuck fast, like me, but when you were asking all those questions and leaning down to hear what I was saying, the barrel was pointing straight at you.”

“Why didn’t you shoot?”

“If Baas was dead, I would still be stuck in that rock with no one to help me before the soldiers or the hyenas came.”

His wounded arm had been banged as he made his way up. It now began to bleed through the clot, not actively but clthip, clthip, clthip. Since I carried three field dressings, I could spare one. I dusted antiseptic powder on Adoons’s wound, bandaged it, and gave him one of the pain-killer pills we had been issued.

“I would be a good shepherd for you. It is easy to work well for a kind master. Anyone can see Baas will give good food, and a hut with a roof, and no sjambok whippings. Except for cheeky young men who have been to school.”

“Come on, we must find a shelter for the night,” I said.

I didn’t like the thought of the hyenas he had talked about.

“These pills are good. The pain is quiet. Baas is like a doctor, eh? A sheep farmer has to be a doctor. I am very good with karakul ewes at lambing time. Baas knows—for the best fur you must kill the lambs as soon as they are born. Stillborn lambs are better. Their skins shine like black nylon with water spilt on it. It’s messy, clubbing and skinning the little things without damaging the pelts. It’s sad to hear all those ewes baaing. The meat is fit only for crows and vultures. But the rich ladies want the pelts before they get woolly.”

He pointed out an overhanging rock twenty yards away. “Shall we spend the night there? Out of the dew, and it’s open on only one side.”

As we moved, I picked up dry sticks for kindling, but he put his hand on my arm. “If the soldiers see me in the firelight, or my people see Baas, they will shoot.”

I felt foolish and amateur.

“The dead men have clothes. Shall I fetch some?”

“We’ll go together,” I said. I wasn’t going to get myself ambushed.

We went round the rock to the little cliff where the bodies lay. He whistled in admiration. “Baas shoots like a machine. These dead Ovambos look as if they’ve been arranged with a forklift truck.” He added proudly. “I can drive a forklift. I learned on a sheep ranch.”

We collected a couple of goatskins, a bush shirt w ith only a small patch of blood, a water bottle, and a haversack of boiled ears of corn. There were three rifles. I grabbed two and took the bolts out of them. Adoons had already taken possession of the third. He grinned mischievously as he worked the bolt and demonstrated how he could use the rifle by tucking its butt under his sound arm.

“Now we can help each other, eh, Baas? Like that bird that sits in a crocodile’s mouth and cleans bits of meat out from between the teeth. The crocodile does not eat him.”

We settled down close together under the overhang and had an ear of corn each, and a pull from my hip flask. My dear old ma gave it to me when I was leaving for the border. “When you put it to your lips, it is your old momma kissing you,” she said. I wondered what she would say if she knew she was also kissing a Swapie Hottentot.

I got sleepy and he shook me. “No sleep tonight.”he said. “Listen,” We heard sounds of animals round the bodies. “Better we talk. Also, it is good for a man and his mate to chat, isn’t it?”

“I thought you fellows didn’t want white men to have farms,” I said. “You want all the land for yourselves.”

“Oh, yes. Yes, that’s right. General kareo says I will have a farm of my own. And a hundred sheep.”

“Why stop at a hundred? Why not a thousand? Be a big boss. Make people call you Mister Adoons.”

“How will I look after a thousand animals? I can’t even count twenty sheep without taking stones out of one pocket and putting them in the other. No, not a thousand. Unless—Baas was my foreman.” He laughed like a drunkard. “If my people win the war, will Baas be my foreman? Baas could have the big farmhouse and a motor car. Baas need not call me ‘Baas,’ just ‘Mister Adoons.’ Everything my foreman wants to do, he can do. Will my foreman be angry if some of the shepherds hide away when the police visit?”

“If your lot were the government, they would be your policemen.”

“Policemen are policemen. Dog dung. Always after passes.”

“Your lot say there won’t be passes anymore.”

“No passes! If people don’t have passes, how can you trace a stock thief? What will we do if bad Ovambo kaffirs steal my karakuls?”

“That’s your problem. Perhaps you’ll have to get fierce German guard dogs.”

“Oh, yes. That’s a clever idea. My foreman will always find a way, Now, let’s talk of nice things, not problems. What is Baas’s name?”


“That is a friendly name fora foreman. In the evenings after the shepherds have done their work and the sheep and goats are in their thorn kraals, Mister Adoons and Foreman Martinus will sit together and talk and look at the veld. Ai, it’s pretty country, between Platherg and the Boa River. Short sweet grass and big flatcrown thorn trees for shade. Animals eat the pods in the winter. We’ll have eland and koodoo and impala and bushpigs, but enough grass for karakul sheep, too.”

“Sounds all right,” I said.

“In the kloof are wild bees and baboons. Ai, those baboons! When a baboon finds a marula tree where the plums have fermented, he gets as drunk as a man. Ai, those drunk baboons! The leopards eat only baboons, never sheep.”

“Any water?”

“Water! The Boa River and big freshwater pans full of barbel and eels and ducks, and widow birds with long black tails like a church deacon, and spur-winged geese on the mud flats. The place is called Raraba. We shall sit and drink buchu brandy and talk. Or just sit silently, like old friends do.”

“What the hell would you and I find to talk about?”

“Ai, pals’ talk. About the grazing and the government and women and hunting and what happens after you die. I suppose Baas knows lots of Jesus stories.”

“I don’t like buchu,” I said.

“Do you like the kind of brandy called Commando? They say it is good.”

“Klipdrif is the best kind.”

“Then we will have Kiipdrif, Martinus.”

“If it’s hot and dry, one could irrigate a few acres tor a vineyard,” I said.

“Does Martinus know about wine?”

“My grandfather used to make wine with grapes from his back yard.”

“Ai, but this is lucky! So Foreman Martinus would grow grapes and make sweet wine. They say if you give a girl a bottle of that red Cape wine, her legs open before the bottle is finished. But I like brandy better.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Sometimes we will give a bottle of w ine to the old people. too. On Mister Adoons’s farm the laborers can stay even when they are too old to work. And when the rations are given out, the old people get meat and mealie-meal too, just like the others. Is that right, Martinus?”

“If the Baas says so,” I said.

AT FIRST LIGHT WE STRETCHED AND SCOUTED. WE heard no sounds of activity. Adoons tore a sleeve off a dead guerrilla’s shirt; I made a sling and tied his wounded arm against his chest. He kept a grip on the rifle all the time.

I offered him my flask, and we each took a swallow. He handed me one of the two ears of corn left in the haversack, and pointed south. “Foreman Martinus must walk that way. I will go north.”

“Good luck, Mister Adoons. I’ll come and visit you at your farm at Raraba after the war, and see if you still need a foreman.”

“Ai, Martinus,” he said. “We will drink and talk, eh, Ai, how we will talk!” He knocked his rifle barrel against mine, like clinking a glass, and set off.

I slid behind the rock, where I could watch him without exposing myself. Late Dad used to say if y ou trust a Hottentot, you might as well wear a cobra for a necklace, so I kept my cross hairs on him, expecting him to whirl round any moment, or disappear behind a boulder or thick shrub and perhaps circle round to take me in the rear. However, he walked very deliberately up the hill, and did not dodge behind trees or rocks as an experienced Veld man would, nor did he look back to see what I was doing.

When he reached the top of the kopje, he stood for some moments, silhouetted against the sky, and waved his gun. Challenging me to shoot? When he disappeared over the top, I quickly shifted to another position, a couple of hundred yards away, so that if he crawled round to the side of the kopje, I would be ready for him. By sunup nothing had happened, so I decided that he was on his way to find his band. He would probably keep the field dressing I had put on his arm and pretend that he had shot a South African soldier.

I found my chaps easily enough—I told them I could have shot three or four of them if I had been a guerrilla— and sent them to see what they could find on the Swapies I had shot; even those fellows sometimes have letters or helpful papers.

You would think a man’s second-in-command would want to say a warm word about the marksmanship. The blackies were impressed, but Johan said, “You shouldn’t have shot to kill, Sarge. We’re not in the humane hunting business, you know. A dead Swapie is NAFI, isn’t he?”

He liked showing off his Intelligence jargon, like using NAFI to mean “not available for interrogation.”

1 shut up about Adoons. My blackies might have been able to pick up his trail and perhaps find him before he rejoined his lot, especially if his wound started bleeding again. Then, if they roughed him up a bit, he could hardly avoid giving the whole story away, and that would mean a court-martial for me, wouldn’t it?

We eventually caught a few Swapies. I did not like Johan’s attitude, but he was right—a dead prisoner is NAFI —so I shot for the leg and told the men to do the same. I stood by with a submachine gun at the ready during the interrogations, in case any of the prisoners knew about me and Adoons. Fortunately, none did.

WHEN I FINISHED MY ARMY, I TOOK MY DISCHARGE there in South West and went to have a look at the Platherg area, and especially Raraba.

It is nice country, if you like desert, and a man could pick up a thousand hectares cheap from fellows who are getting cold feet about the UN. Also, the market for Persian lamb—that’s karakul—is looking up again, now that Greenpeace has stopped women from buying baby seal. Some sheep ranchers say they would send Greenpeace a donation if it were not for the currency restrictions.

I followed the Boa River up to Platherg. The river runs against the mountain cliffs, so no space is left in between for a farm. I thought I must have misunderstood Adoons.

That evening a drunk was lying asleep in the gutter outside the hotel. The doorman laughed when I bent down to shake the man.

“Leave him, Mister,” he said. “He’s happier in Raraba.”

That, I discovered, is what the Hottentots around there call a lullaby, a dreamland that is too nice to be real. At first I was disappointed. Then I thought, just as well. Suppose a man had a nice sheep ranch, and then one day a bloody old yellow Hottentot pitched up and said, “Martinus, old friend, do you remember your Baas, Mister Adoons? I’ve brought a bottle of Kiipdrif brandy. That’s the kind you like, isn’t it? Let us sit and drink and talk pals’ talk.”

That would be embarrassing.