The pastor’s house, the fort, the mission church,
plastered white, the police station grey stone:
women in bright doeks, swaying in the sun,
singing ‘With one consent let all the earth’:
the kaptein’s goats, a hundred head or more,
boerbokke, red and white, bearded, lob-eared,
a commando on the march, a high herd,
drumming around him, as if off to war.
The magistrate, the captain of police,
the bank manager, are here to celebrate
the oldest brick-built structure in the state,
all giving thanks, praying for rain and peace.
Above the cemetery of stones in lines,
hear the old whining of the DH9s.
The pelts of new-born lambs were karakul,
Swakara, Persian Lamb or Astrakhan:
at three days old, barely able to stand,
put to the knife, saving the tight, bright wool.
I never saw an unborn lamb harvested,
from an older ewe – bearer of many –
through miscarriage, early delivery
or killing the mother for an aborted
foetus, but I saw foot-long carcasses
thrown to the dogs, and sometimes we took home
for the dinner table, a leg of lamb,
the pelts already stretched on canvasses.
Our friend the farmer was a mensch, devout:
eyes on the market and the threat of drought.
On some long summer afternoons, Wednesday
when the bank closed early, or Saturday,
we’d drive in Dad’s late model Chevrolet
to where the Reichsoldaten used to play.
A simple barn-like building with a long
deep stoep, shaded to keep the adults cool
while children swam in a blue spring-fed pool:
bomb-drops and conversation made a song.
The brave green beds of the Truppengarten
sent their fresh produce to the barracks table:
still from a half-bowl nest against the gable
comes the twittered tune of the rock martin.
A slow drive took us west again, all one
bright train of starlight following the sun.
Still early, half-dark, dusted with the light,
we’ve crossed the railway line, and the dry drift:
the Rhenish Church is looming on our left
the Schutzenhaus in shadow on our right.
We’re heading for a farm, I don’t know whose –
that’s my Dad’s secret – when we leave the town
the road we choose will tell me where we’re bound:
in hope I’ve combed my hair and shined my shoes.
Past Glikman’s Algemene Handelaar,
the lawyers’ office and the big garage,
NGK, Police Station – the mirage
of a sky shared by sun and morning star.
Turn east at the hospital? Now I know
we’re on our way to Ditsem! And I glow.
Through mountains, pans and dunes this road of sand
runs to the border post at Rietfontein:
soon we’ll turn south across a tough terrain
which made one man the richest in the land.
Before the War he lived on Paradys
with Náos and Mackay. Soldiered, then flew
for three green years into the bright and blue
between the Little and the Great Karas,
with a dog trained to hunt dassies: hedgehog
fell to Nama horsehair gins, quick Bushmen
traps of stick and stone. Six shots, six lion!
Once he killed a trapped leopard with a rock.
Hero of Ditsem and – I hold my breath –
he is the father of Elisabeth.
The farm is quiet and the folk at work,
the day still cool. The scattering of green
protects the white Meierhof like a screen:
beyond, the pens and workers’ houses lurk.
The farmer greets my father as we park
and soon banker and client sit to share
their Koffiehuis and kondensmelk, a pair
whose intimate aroma strikes a spark.
Drifting out to the garden and the pool
I hear the conversation on the stoep –
‘The children are all home from school’ – I swoop,
but learn too soon that I have been a fool:
she is a dream, a fairy-tale, a queen,
but I am twelve and she is seventeen.
5 Kokerboomwoud on Gariganus
Each upright aloe-tree maintains its distance:
knowing that its kind’s continuation
relies upon respect and moderation,
guarantees of fruitful co-existence.
In July the leaves break out in yellow
and pink, the pollinating birds return –
sunbirds and starlings and bulbuls – to burn
their nectar into orbits of bargello.
The farmer and his wife bless us with torte,
memories of Frankfurt and deportation,
to internment: soon the conversation
turns to the price of pelts, to toil and water.
The forest echoes ‘friend’: the quiver-trees,
parading in a desert, stand at ease.
6 The Union Hotel
The bar? For ‘men only’. The verandah
for the rest of us, but Sunday dinner
in the dining room, was a real winner:
order both puddings, there’s no treat grander.
On New Year’s Eve the pub let down its hair
to dine and dance, and belt out ‘Auld Lang Syne’
to Alf Stein’s concertina, on champagne:
a one and only once-a-year affair.
The hotel yard was fringed with dusty green,
and gave on to a line of lonely suites
let to commercial travellers, in sheets
and suits, and every product in between.
The travellers move on, the actors bow:
The old hotel’s a shopping-centre now.
Every few weeks the dentist came to town,
bearing a treadle-powered drill, a mean
and magically articulate machine,
worked by the fierce footpower, up and down,
of Ernst the bank-messenger, moonlighting,
I imagined, as dental hygienist
and pedal-pushing magical machinist.
So as I took the chair, I was fighting
the urge to yell when I saw the fly-wheel
start to turn and the axle gave its force
to crank and belt and pulley as work-horse
Ernst spun the dentist’s torture-drill of steel.
If, in that recess of the old hotel,
I cried, Ernst kept my shameful secret well.
7 The Railway Institute
Lionel Bowman played Beethoven’s Thirty-two
Variations on a Theme in C minor
in the school hall, on the school piano –
he came from Cape Town – but in the Railway
Institute, every Saturday, with luck –
the pictures! With my Mom! ‘Anchors Aweigh’:
‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’
or ‘Die Kaskenades van Dokter Kwak’.
There was a swimming pool, a tennis court,
and, off the bar, forbidden territory,
the billiard room, through whose window I see
my father playing snooker, which he taught
me. Now, I take his cue and see him wink:
he’s in my sights with every ball I sink.
‘Hast du das Schloss gesehen?’ Red Namib stone
worked by Italian masons to a square,
still haunted by Hans Heinrich and the fair
Jayta, walking their battlements alone.
Yankee heiress and Saxon man-at-arms.
they conjured up a medieval fort,
now a welcoming holiday resort,
the courtyard green with makalami palms.
En route to Europe to buy thoroughbreds
a war detoured their liner to the west.
Jayta left her castle dispossessed:
her Baron had rejoined the Bundeswehr.
In 1916, on the Somme, he died:
my Dad was fighting, on the other side.
They did not know, neither how, nor what for,
that in this wilderness so harsh and blind,
their bones might bleach, leaving no seed behind.
Were some designed for distance, come from far,
by sea or by conscription: others bred
to the race-track: others to shunt and draw
the carts and cannon to the fields of war?
Can Cape Boer, Hackney, Trakhener, be read
in their descent? Now fused into one class,
they bear like Arabs, settled on this station,
saved by surrender, peace and abdication.
Prey to hyenas, fed on desert grass,
the Namib horses: drinking from the rains
saved in the miners’ tanks that slaked the trains.
The southbound mail train, running on the dot,
passed through the station before morning light,
all seasons of the year: and late at night,
the northbound reached the junction time forgot.
So Seeheim was a mystery. However,
if you travelled from the border on the mixed
goods, a haphazard train that kept no fixed
timetable, you could stop there forever,
waiting for coaches from the diamond beach,
getting to know the settlement so well –
the station, NordSeeheim, the cool hotel –
the wait would grant you easy time to reach,
if there’d been rain, the pools, sudden and sweet,
down where the Skaap and the Fish Rivers meet.
Here, in a town of ruin, sand and gem
as if the sands of all the seas were pearl,
wrecked upon shifting sand, every next curl
of the tide turning sands to diadem,
the rising slopes of sand fill every flight
to a tall sand-glass measuring the time:
in slow false stairs of sand the rises climb:
silent, ingenuous sand, moves day and night.
On the old sand arose a skittle alley,
gymnasium, casino. The sands expand
to library, school and hospital, on sand
between low hills that line the sandy valley.
Diamonds had slipped like disappearing sand
from Zacharias’ open-hearted hand.
A day’s train from Keetmanshoop, through Seeheim
and Aus and Kolmanskop, Luderitz was high
holidays and sunshine, an azure sky:
in memory, a free and friendly time.
Sometimes we would fish from a lonely quay
near the cannery on the ocean coast,
the cold Atlantic stretching to the west,
our lines lazily reaching for the sea.
A fish, or change of bait, and we would twitch
our lines up and over into the crate
behind us. There a Nama boy would wait,
unhook the prize, bait up, and make the switch.
Our best catch and return was a small shark,
the kind we called Ovambo, dapper and dark.
Shark Island took the lives of Herero
and Nama in their thousands. In our day
we saw the Krankenhaus across the bay.
We had no past, started out from zero.
Water, so they said, cost more than lager
and sea-mist was the nearest thing to rain:
our rooms behind the bank were spare and plain,
but every new day promised us a saga.
In a squat dinghy rowing from the pier,
camping out in a hulk up on the sand,
we suffered sunburn well before we tanned:
Kapp’s Kino or the cake shop made us cheer.
From Bismarck Street, the heartbeat of the town,
We never saw that summer’s sun go down.
Tony Voss was born in Swakopmund, in what is now Namibia, but was then known as South-West Africa, in 1935. He grew up in Karasburg and Keetmanshoop in the south of the country and went to boarding school in Cape Town, at St. George’s Grammar School. He studied further at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and the University of Washington, Seattle. After a career teaching English literature in universities in Africa, he retired in 1995 and he and his wife Carol now live in Sydney, Australia, where two of their children also live. Their other three children live in South Africa. Tony Voss’s first book of poems, The Mushroom Summer of Skipper Darling, was published in 2019 (London/Cape Town: Crane River).
Cover photo credit: HiltonT