Sarel and Samson
Since 1945 Africa has been embroiled with the politics and aspirations of "emerging nations". Portuguese East Africa or Mocambique, was an old ally and neighbour of South Africa. These two countries PEA and South Africa, had the apartheid type indoctrination, but by 1968 the changes came in avalanches. South Africa had compulsory apartheid in 1949; Mocambique gained its "freedom" in 1968. I was there. A destructive war of attrition had been going on in PEA for more than 20 years; the black liberation fighters, known as Frelimo, opposed the government forces Renama.
Frelimo eventually won the day and Mocambique ousted the white Portuguese regime. South Rhodesia and South Africa were to follow. South Africa was worried about these "freedom fighters" or guerrilla fighters. South Africa called them terrorists. In the bush war that was ongoing, black fought and killed black. Frelimo, a rightist freedom movement, was commanded by white Portuguese-trained officers, backed by South Africa. As in the American Civil War, it was possible that brother could fight against brother, on different sides.
In this epic poem, Sarel, a white and Samson, a black, fought against each other. Samson's grandfather entered SA illegally from Mocambique at the turn of the century, and gained employment on the farm where they had lived ever since. Samson was a third generation Mocambiquean; Sarel was a third generation Calvinistic indoctrinated Afrikaner. He was employed on a farm and received low wages. He could be exploited because he shouldn't have been there in the first place.
Sarel was the farmer's son, the same age as Samson. They kicked footballs together, laughed together; they loved each other as men love each other in battle. They respected each other's customs. One day the law caught up with Samson and he was deported to Lourenco Marques, where he eventually joined a terrorist group intent on toppling the Mocambique Government. A few years later after Sarel left school he was conscripted into the army. A tragic encounter was to follow. Sarel was on patrol looking for the renegade groups operating on the South African border and Samson was in a group being hunted down. The encounter changed their lives and later the countries involved for ever.
OOM is Afrikaans for uncle, an address of respect to an older person.
The WILGE is a river that flows on the border of the two countries.
Sarel and Samson
And the Low-veld sun
Sinks west, west, west
'Midst molecules of purple mist
That 'rose out the awakening vlei.
Nearby tired troopies clanged new tin pans
'til all was hushed
And darkness like a stalking cat
Crept quietly in.
Like churning seas.
Sleep had gone forever now.
He knew across the burning gorge
Crept Samson there,
His tattered uniform in Frelimo green;
His smiling face recalling the cry
"Nkosi, come let us ride,"
Bursting 'midst the echoes faint
Of spring induced young jungle buds.
Into the whispering bush he fled
As if red cork ceilings walled his way,
As he wedged warily to the Wilge's bank,
The mud still soft as silk
Where he had crawled
Much earlier on in the earlier day.
And the latent moon
At bone-plate high,
Sat on a pantry shelf alone
Reflecting foot-pads in the mud,
Where not ten hasty hours before
He had wearily tried to sleep with aid
'neath the moon's wax aperture arch.
And the tents of the troopies
Were still and canvas cold
As concrete flats in Hillbrow ruts,
As he peered back to where
They had yesterday camped
And dragged fresh logs 'long a slippery pass.
Frelimo elected to camp just here
Where water was a deadly guard
And man could never wade far and quiet
Nor creep up on a vigilant foe.
Their camp was there for all to see
As was ours for all to see,
For the fighting during the past few weeks
Was sharp and fierce and going on,
And on and on and on and on
Like virgins in a vestal dance.
The Frelimo chief had felt in fact
That both sides in view so clear
Would respect each's wishes to remain alive;
As birds that sing from tree to tree,
Avoid the webs of natural foes,
Coiled as snakes in a brooding nest.
Sarel was tense
He could not rest.
Had he not glimpsed Samson Khumalo's hypnotic face.
That loving face,
And cheerful head that always smiled?
He Samson stood away
When he first learned grief
When he, Sarel came home late from the lands
So weary his heart could dare to split
And found Samson crying at the house brown door,
Like some poor bird that has lost its brood
And returns to find the branches bare.
And now all gone like migratory friends
Leaving lonely loved ones on the porch.
So was it that day
That Sarel came
Into his home and Samson there.
"Sarel! Sarel! jou Pa is dood!"
And took my hand and led me in
To the sodden lounge where my Mother wept;
And Sarel was brave as Samson stood
So proud and tall and comforting,
Telling him now that he would serve him true
As he had served his father before him then,
And his own father to his own father
And forever under Samson's eye.
Alas! that was years ago.
Since that time
Ten colours of veld
Had seasonally changed,
Turning them both into upright men,
As the wild fig spits forth its elusive seed,
Scattering them in a garden's grove,
To grow yet again and again.
So had Samson left to go,
When Soweto was pillaged and raped,
And died in the dyed western sun.
And yet today's skirmish was so brave.
The enemy had had the chance to end frail songs,
As last man in the wood,
Whistled soft and low,
Half-praying this was not his last.
Had Sarel not seen that broad black man
Slinking thru' the bush at nine?
(And) half wanting to call out his name,
Light up a pipe and have a chat
And talk about domestics down on the farm
When both were boys
And both unchained to Death.
Sarel returned as a camel to camp,
Thirsty, hot and reluctant to think
That yonder in the bush so hot
His old black friend lay waiting there
The bush noises becoming incessant hums
As the camped roused from sleep to greet the day.
The corporal had found Sarel had wandered away
Without his side-arms or his knife to bear,
And guessed that he was all but done,
Had 'roused the Captain, Oom Hennie Smit
Who thought the worst
As a soldier would...
(Abducted in the night and gone to rest.)
"Where the hell have you been this night?
Away from camp, us all at risk.
We could have shot you coming back
And told your Mum that you were lost, Signed, with deep regret.
Don't stray again Old Sarel man,
Stick here and play the lonely game."
The moon leant out to the north-north east
And struck a barren twig in its neurotic beam.
The leaves quivering thru' the jungle haze
And sand ants playing a last retreat.
I hug you man,
I seek you near,
Tell us again about yester-year.
I know your sigh and I know your cry,
As I cry each night for a glimpse of you...
So Sarel thought.
The clearing was as clean as Vim
And the vlei was slaked by beds of mud.
This was the fight,
Where no sport was sport,
As the possum slinks in the cool ripe air.
It was clear, clear, clear
As a simple sky,
As he slid sideways out of bed
And danced with the dawn
To a libidinal African moon.
The clouds blossoming 'cross the ravine gorge,
And tearing the crevices
With frail stained foam,
Heavy with desires of winds unknown,
Sinks slowly where the Wilge wound,
Settling slowly as spectators stunned
Turn watching their own heroes fall,
Not three metres from the ring-side seat.
So it was that troopies grudgingly filed,
Quick and glum into the narrowing gorge,
Hugging the trees that lined the banks.
An orphan branch, long, long dead
Tugged Sarel's tunic, as if to say
"Go out this day and be alert,
For you this is the shortest day."
The gorge was lined by two steep cliffs,
A back-drop to a macabre sad play.
And longingly the river flowed,
Hoping to reach the Indian Sea
Without red blood or human tears.
The river twined and pushed away
As if to escape the penultimate ploy,
Speeding its flow and struggling fast,
To devour the rocks that impeded its path.
On yonder shore the trees bowed low,
Beckoning Sarel to shows of green.
He stared and saw the patterns there,
The same pattern of bush his side
And Samson's patterns too.
The ravine was a bottle-shape,
And a gross monstrosity was unseen.
The shape of the gorge was deformed indeed
Boasting two necks where one should be,
And like a glass mausoleum in between a soldier's tomb.
Samson felt that they knelt there
And stalked and schemed to aid their death.
The troopies went as snails into a spider's web,
Knowing the threads would choke them tight
And no fatal bite would penetrate.
The clouds grew tired, wishing to flee,
But the vulture's child came home to stare
As the patrols faced each other 'cross the gap.
Frelimo guards at the Eastern neck
Made escape that way a hangman's noose.
The troopies plugged the other end,
As now the clouds rose through the day
And showed a board of man and prey.
Oom Hennie Smit looked 'cross the gorge.
Ninety metres spanned the air,
And in the mist, lying unconcerned
The river's pulse
A monster knowing its meandering way.
A sand-bank, brown and white and gold
Looked out to both and churned its sand.
"Let us parley," Oom Hennie shouted loud,
His words as grass hoppers on deadly heat,
Springing away to miss the thrust
Of challenges on a devil's fork,
Landing with clean clear breath
As the vaulter clears the high-hung bar.
"It makes no sense, we're both deployed.
Let us talk and plate this day
With love and longer life."
Silent response met his earnest plea.
And yet again he called out loud.
The rumble-voice echoed through the gorge,
As the Wilge rushed to meet its sea,
Losing balance, and falling three hundred feet
To smash and squirm down far below.
No fish breathed air,
No bird sang loud,
Only the gargling of the hurrying stream.
The heat came up 'tween bush and trees.
Samson thought and gazed quite long
From where the call for peace had come.
He clutched his AyKay with thumb and limb,
'til the pain seared rigid through his brain.
"How do we know you Boers won't shoot?"
Feeling as termites in a trap would feel,
That his trapper would never let him go,
Being food for the final feast at last.
"Send your Captain," came Frelimo's call.
"Send your leader," came the white-man's call.
"Let me go this day," came Sarel's plea.
Birds flew from branches
Scuttling new-born eggs and babes so fresh.
The bush now lives with busy beats
As animals fleeing from a savage fire
That will deep-scald them black,
If they lingered on.
"We send out Leader Samson bold,
We meet you on yon boulders there,
Suckling in the Wilge's wake."
"Go then Sarel son,
I see in your eyes a longing gaze
I do not really understand."
Like the sun does not recognise the dawn
So out went Sarel unarmed
To meet his Samson of old.
THIS IS HOW THE WILGE RIVER TELLS THE TALE:
(Both waded simultaneously, from their respective sides,
Wading in my stream to the meeting point
Samson having got there first
Waited hands on hips
As a mid-wife awaits an impending birth.
He had reached the boulder first.
My brown waters embraced his legs
As he effortlessly clambered up to light.
Sarel trod delicately to the rock's side face
Tearing his nails as he clambered up
To meet his known adversary soon.
Both faced each other as if in trance,
Like a buck wandering into a lioness's feast.
"Samson, dear friend, I greet you this day."
"White-man, you scurrilous cat;
You trick me with my very name.
I do not know you even now."
"It is I Sarel.
I kiss the day."
And the hotness seethed through mangled vines.
The sun so red in the bloodied dawn,
Moving as a cripple over uneven stones.
Now, only silence
As an assegai in an infant's throat.
They waded now through my churning stream,
Each embracing life to their lonely hearts.
Struggling limbs in the death-knell tide.
Wading high, so waist-high too,
Heaving chests pushed to the protruding rocks.
Samson's white athletic vest
Stood out against his silk black shiny skin.
Sarel in the dress of dull khaki youth,
Pushing, pushing towards the rocks
Silently waiting like a shark's sharp fin.
Now sweat was gleaming on Samson's close-shaven head,
And sweat, hot sweat
Seared Sarel's cheeks.
My waters flowed so fast, so fast,
Rearing away and running to leave
This opera scene so damp and cold,
Crying its melancholy chord so late,
A last post in the rocks of the wild,
For forlorn men and sullen birds.
Samson reached the new point first
And hoisted up so easily,
His eyes screwing-up against the growing sun,
And Sarel there in seconds more.
The sun stood still between the cliffs
My waters stopped my flowing heart,
And clocks in mothers' stares stood still.
No helping hand took Sarel up
As slipping and slithering to meet his friend
Lost balance like in a blind man's bluff.
On the black rock ledge
Both stood steadfast as sentinels in a cage.
"Why have you come, young man?
Do you not know that I am Death's new friend?"
"Samson, it is I Sarel!
Do you not recall?"
Birds scattered from the under-brush,
And sad clouds chased the sun again,
And I the river hurried on.
"Samson, it is I Sarel," he said again.
Samson, glazed in ebony , answered low,
His heart choking on a wayward weed.
"Sarel, oh Sarel, go back please,
The harbinger of death is at your height."
"I asked for you my dear black friend."
"I only see you now Sarel seun
When we cried in an apartheid church,
My bare toes on the catholic pews
And tears rolling down your crimson cheeks,
Down the wooden aisles
Onto my feet so bare.
"Sarel, do not touch me.
For a million men behind me stand,
Applauding you as sacrificial lamb."
"And what about kennetjie
In the old church lane?
I hit you, you hit me back?"
"That was time long gone, you really knew.
Do not ply me with emotional things.
No diminutive situation is this now
Egged on by an ailing sickly dwarf.
I say again Sarel,
Do not come near.
Keep distance and a heavy smile.
The plan is this, I am to provoke you here
And like quarreling lovers you lash out,
And when the morning meets the night
I would by then have slinked away
Myself orphaned on this putrid rock;
Your body long long gone
And floating east."
Each stood and stared
As fighting cocks in real dark fright,
Deep into each other's limpid heart.
"How does one put back this drainage time?
And I who nursed you in old Jo'burg days."
The talk ran on
And life played on.
Sarel leant forwards to Samson's ear,
To say "Come back with me, my friend so dear.
Let's try again."
So as the predator tracks his prey's next move,
So did the hidden forces way just beyond
And rapid fire that spat so deep
Made Sarel spin like tops in flight
And with his last fare-well breathed out
"Hold up! Hold up! do not go on."
Samson turned and waved his arms
Like frail branches in a vicious storm
Again raising his arms to the avenging cliffs.
Said "STOP! STOP! I am no hero now."
A wild black doll on a string was seen.
Samson lifted Sarel off the rock
And cradled him to his virgin vest,
Now crimson with his body's tears;
Hugged him, held him,
Then carefully trod
As on chrystal jars so sugar sweet
Powdered to a pastel salve,
Walked 'cross my waters
So near so far,
As had been aeons before,
And entering the adversaries womb.
No man stirred on either side. No life was heard.
In Samson's arms no life was felt,
Only a feather held in a damsel's sigh,
Samson climbed so still ashore,
Met by Oom Hennie engraved in grief.
Samson lurched on like silk sails in flight
And pointed to a baobab nearby so sad,
Showing gnarled knuckles and an obese trunk
Saw the tree beckoning him to come.
"Bury Sarel there" said Samson now,
"In the shade that never changes lives,
And when you have done this sad, sad thing,
Please spill my blood on his new laid mound,
Then telegraph your God, so bold,
And tell Him now, true, loud and clear
To tell everyone, perhaps next week
At the mid-nite mass or anywhere,
To leave this place,
TO ALL GO HOME.)
THE WILGE WILL TELL THIS TALE AGAIN
WHEN OCEANS DRY AND RIVER
BEDS PLAY WITH MEN'S LOST HOPES.