The Healing Land
The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desertby Rupert Isaacson
“A more clear-sighted view [of the Bushmen] is long overdue–which makes Rupert Isaacson’s book most welcome.” –The Economist
Although brought up in “grey, drearily ordinary” London, Rupert Isaacson’s links to Africa were strong. Polly, his mother, was a South African and his father was raised in what is now Zimbabwe. Polly kept her memories of Africa alive and handed them on to her children via remembrances of her early life there. Thus, from an early age, Isaacson was fascinated: “Long before I ever went to southern Africa, its names and regions had been described to me so many times that I could picture them in my mind’s eye.”
After growing up with these tales and myths–mostly of the Kalahari Bushmen–Isaacson journeys to the dry vast grassland, which stretches across South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, to discover the truth behind these childhood stories. Deep in the Kalahari, Isaacson meets the last group of Bushmen still living the traditional way, caught between their ancient culture and the growing need to protect and reclaim their dwindling hunting grounds. Dawid Kruiper, leader of these Xhomani Bushmen, allows Isaacson to observe their daily life, and he begins to understand the extent of their disenfranchisement. They have not only decreased in number, but have been literally reduced to beggars, having lost their land and their means of subsistence, and with that their identity as a people has been profoundly threatened.
Throughout his travels and interactions with the Bushmen, Isaacson’s narrative displays an unusual sense of humanity, warmth, and openness. It’s precisely these qualities that make The Healing Land so distinctive and allow Isaacson to bring out the truly extraordinary spiritual legacy of the
Bushman, which in spite of the ongoing oppression remains at the very center of their identity. He bears witness to some remarkable displays of the Bushman healing techniques–episodes of what appear to be genuine magic. There are shamans who turn themselves into lions, who conjure leopards from the landscape with sacred songs. Isaacson attends trance-inducing dances and witnesses incredible healings. But he also sees the heart-wrenching social problems of a dispossessed people. Then, Dawid, the Bushman leader, demands that Isaacson bring his mother–the original storyteller–out to the Kalahari. What follows is an adventure of an intensity he could never have predicted.
The Healing Land records Isaacson’s personal transformation amid these extraordinary people and his passionate contribution to their political struggle. It captures his enchantment with the character, kindness, and confusion of a place that has wrenched itself from the Stone Age into the new millennium.
“Isaacson’s sensible writing about the Bushmen’s drunken, violent life in exile from their lands is hugely enriched by his sense of what it might mean when healers talk to lions or men become leopards in a trance. The survival of the Bushmen is tangled up with the story of Isaacson’s own family’s longing for the Africa they once knew, as irrational and exasperating and sometimes as lovely as a dream.” –Michael Pye, The New York Times Book Review
“Isaacson provides a welcome update to the old nobel-savages sterotypse with his unflinching portrait of a people riven by government relocation, alcoholism, and domestic violence.” –Outside Magazine
“Alternately distressing, uplifting and tragic”. The Healing Land is both a love song and a long, mournful cry for remembrance” Isaacson recounts the plight of the Bushmen of the Kalahari and their vanishing culture without rancor, yet his plea splinters the heart.” –Retha Oliver, San Antonio Express-News
“A moving account of a remarkable personal journey through the Kalahari desert. Part travel writing, part history of the Bushmen, part personal quest, [The Healing Land] records what author Rupert Isaacson finds in the silent, empty desert spaces.” –The Portland Skanner
“[Isaacson] delivers a worthwhile account of the few remaining nomadic Bushmen in southern Africa. . . . [The Healing Land ] is more than just a travel memoir; it’s a powerful sociopolitical study and a tribute to the marginalized indigenous peoples of the Kalahari Desert.” –Katie Millbauer, Seattle Weekly
“Readers come away with respect for the struggles of all indigenous people, coupled with an awareness that they may not live particularly pretty lives themselves.” –Publishers Weekly
“Isaacson writes simply and well. . . . His images are sometimes as exotic as those conjured by his relatives, but his story is warmer and more empathetic. Though history, adventure, and social commentary intermingle with the mysticism of legendary healers and trance dances, the book remains a journalistic report on a clash of civilizations and a microcosmic portrayal of a continent’s evolution.” –Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, Library Journal
“This heart-wrenching story has connections worldwide with indigenous peoples’ struggle for survival and identity. Isaacson’s personal journey with the Bushmen of southern Africa brings you up close to the urgency of their present displacement, even as he connects it with their long heritage of ‘death, disaster, and despair.’” –Hazel Rochman, Booklist
“[This] story . . . has never been told . . . by a narrator so openhearted, optimistic, and vulnerable to enchantment. . . . Full of mystery, magic and strange coincidence. Highly recommended.” –Rian Malan
“The Kalahari is a place, says the dynamic young author of this book, where the skin between this world and the other–the world of power–is exceedingly thin. The multiple crossings of this membrane . . . structure a page-turning non-fiction account, one which many readers have found unable to put down.” –Dr. Megan Biesele, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas
“A more clear-sighted view [of the Bushmen] is long overdue–which makes Rupert Isaacson’s book most welcome.” –The Economist
“A beautifully written account that simultaneously intrigues, educates, and fascinates.” –Marie Claire
“This is a traveller’s book as well as a memoir, with a skein of mysticism running through it. It is well written, engaging, and enlightening. Isaacson lets the people he meets speak for themselves . . . and through his work, in quite a strange way, the Kalahari too. All the reader needs to do is hear it.” –Johannesburg Citizen
“A dark delight of a Kalahari feast.” –Cape Argus
PART ONE: ANCESTRAL VOICES
1 – Stories and Myths
In the beginning, so my mother told me, were the Bushmen – peaceful, golden-skinned hunters whom people also called KhoiSan or San. They had lived in Africa longer than anyone else. Africa was also where we were from; my South African mother and Rhodesian father were always clear on that. Though we lived in London, my sister Hannah and I inhabited a childhood world filled with images and objects from the vast southern sub-continent. Little Bushman hand-axes adorned our walls; skin blankets, called karosses and made from the pelts of rock hyraxes,* hung over the sofa; Bushman thumb pianos, made from soft, incense-scented wood, with metal keys that went “plink” when you pressed down and then released them, sat on the bookshelves next to my mother’s endless volumes of Africana. There were paintings by my maternal grandmother Barbara: South African village scenes of round thatched huts where black men robed in blankets stood about like Greek heroes.
Next to them hung pictures by my own mother, of black children playing in dusty mission schoolyards, of yellow grass and thorn trees. In my earliest memory, these objects and my mother’s stories forged a strong connection in my mind between our London family and the immense African landscapes the family had left behind.
I remember my mother playing an ancient, cracked recording of a Zulu massed choir and trying to show me how they danced. “Like this, Rupert,” she said, lifting one leg in the air and stamping it on the floor several times in quick succession. “They spin as they
*Also known as rock rabbits, they are small creatures similar in appearance to the guinea pig. Curiously, their closest known relative is the elephant.
jump, so it looks as if they’re hanging in the air for a second before they come down, like this, watch.” She and I would stamp, wheel and jump, a small blonde woman and a smaller blond boy trying to imitate the lithe warriors of her memory.
When I was about five or six years old, my cousin Harold, a tall, bearded, Namibian-born contemporary of my father’s who had settled in London as a doctor, gave me a small grey stone scraper – a sharply whittled tool that sat comfortably in my child’s hand. It had been found in a cave in the Namib Desert. “This’, he told me, ‘might have been made thousands of years ago. But it could also be just a few hundred years old, or perhaps even more recent than that; there are Stone Age people living in Africa right now who still use tools like this.” I closed my hand around the scraper, marvelling at its smooth, cool surface. “Is it worth a lot of money?” I asked. The big man laughed. “Perhaps,” he said, “but maybe it’s more valuable even than money.”
He showed me a glossy coffee-table book, illustrated with colour photographs of Bushmen. They were small and slender, naked but for skin loincloths, and carried bows, chasing antelope and giraffes across a flat landscape covered with waist-high grass. They had slanted, Oriental-looking eyes, and whip-thin bodies the colour of ochre. The women, bare-breasted, wore bright, beaded headbands and necklaces of intricate geometric patterns. According to my cousin, they were a people who lived at peace with nature and each other, whose hunting and tracking skills were legendary and who survived in the driest parts of the desert.
I put the scraper among my treasures – a fox’s skull, a dried lizard, the companies of little lead soldiers, a display of pinned butterflies. Occasionally, in quiet moments, I would take it out, hold it and imagine scraping the fat from a newly flayed animal skin.
I remember, too, my mother reciting this hymn, written down in the nineteenth century, recorded from Bushmen on the banks of South Africa’s Orange River. “Xkoagu”, my mother read, pronouncing the “Xk” as a soft click:
Xkoagu, hunting star,
Blind with your light the springbok’s eyes Give me your right arm and take my arm from me The arm that does not kill I am hungry
My mother knew the power of language and made sure that, though we lived in England and knew and loved its knights and castles, green woods and Robin Hoods, we also felt her birthplace moving in us just as she did.
Around this time another cousin came to stay, Frank Taylor, a childhood playmate of my mother’s. He lived, she told us, on the edge of the great Kalahari, where the Bushmen lived. He had brought a small bow and arrow, which I was encouraged to try. I set one of the pointed shafts to the taut sinew of the bowstring and, at a nod from the grown-ups, let fly at the stairs. The arrow stuck, quivering in the wood. With my head full of longbows and Agincourts, I was impressed by its potentially lethal power. But this bow and arrow, said my mother, was not a weapon of war. It was for hunting the great herds of antelope that thronged the Kalahari grasslands.
Kalahari – what a beautiful word. It rolled off the tongue with satisfying ease, seeming to imply distance. A great wilderness of waving grasses, humming with grasshopper song under a hot wind and a sky of vibrant blue.
My father was less reverent about Africa than my mother. Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he had been an asthmatic Jewish intellectual growing up among tough, bellicose Anglo and Afrikaans boys. He had been bullied right through his childhood, and had quit Africa for Europe at the first opportunity. He would imitate, for our amusement, the buttock-swinging swagger of his old school’s rugby First Fifteen as they marched out onto the field, arranging his moustachioed, black-eyebrows-and-spectacles face into a parody of their arrogant insouciance. All his stories tended to the ridiculous. There was the MaShona foreman of the night-soil collectors, who came round each day on a horse and cart to empty the thunder-boxes of the wealthy whites and called himself “Boss Boy Shit”; the adolescent house-boy whose balls and penis used to hang, fruit-like, from a hole in his ragged shorts and who, when asked by my father what the fruit was for, demonstrated by upending the bemused house cat and attempting to jam his penis into its impossibly small anus. The cat had twisted and sunk in its claws: deep, causing the house-boy to run off howling.
My father’s tales, like my mother’s myths, contrasted tantalisingly with the overwhelming ordinariness of our London life. My sister and I, avid listeners, tried to learn the Afrikaans rugger songs like “Bobbejaan klim die Berg” (“The Baboon climbed up the mountain”), which we quickly corrupted into “Old baba kindi bear”. The song’s chorus – “Want die Stellenbos se boois kom weer” (“the boys of Stellenbosch will come back again” – a reference to the Boer War) became “for the smelly, bossy boys, come here”. Who, we wondered, were these smelly, bossy boys? What was a kindi bear? How strange and mysterious was this land that our parents came from.
At Christmas my father’s father, Robbie, would visit from Rhodesia where he ranched cattle and farmed tobacco – a feudal baron in a still feudal world. He brought us small gifts – leopards and spiral-horned kudus carved from red African hardwoods. My grandfather presented Africa as somewhere real, a place where actual lives were lived. I would listen to him and my parents argue across the dinner table, bringing the continent into sharper focus. The talk, back then, was mostly of the war of independence then raging in Rhodesia; my grandfather told how the Munts* had attacked his farm and shot his farm manager, burning crops, rustling cattle into the night. When he spoke, Africa came across as a hard, violent place and, with his stern voice, lined face and disapproving stare, he seemed to carry something of this with him as he moved about our London house.
An endless succession of white Africans passed through our lives. They talked incessantly of the land of their birth. There were stories
*A corruption of the Shona word muntu, meaning “people”.
about the barren, blasted Karoo, where only dry shrubs grew, stunted by summer drought and bone-cracking winter frost. And the jungly, mosquito-ridden forests of the Zambezi River where lions and buffaloes, hippos and elephants, crocodiles and poisonous snakes lurked around every corner. Up in the high, cold mountains of Lesotho, the landscape resembled Scotland and was inhabited by proud people who wore conical straw hats, robed themselves in bright, patterned blankets and rode horses between their stony, cliff-top villages. I learned of the rolling grasslands around Johannesburg, known as the “highveld”, which stretched to a sudden escarpment that fell away to the game-rich thorn-scrub, the “lowveld” or “bushveld”. Long before I ever went to southern Africa, its names and regions had been described to me so many times that I could picture them in my mind’s eye, the landscapes flowing one into the other across the great sub-continent, each more beautiful than the last.
I later came to realise that these eulogies to Africa’s natural beauty arose partly from guilt: the speakers came from families whose forebears had, almost without exception, carved out their wealth in blood. Many of these educated descendants of the colonial pioneers were haunted by the feeling that their ancestors should somehow have known better. Yet they also feared the black peoples whose freedom they so longed for, whose oppression by their own kind caused them such shame. They knew that black resentment of white drew little distinction. They were all too familiar with the violent warrior traditions endemic to most black African cultures, and lived in terror of the great uprisings that must one day inevitably come. For them, the myth of a pure, uncomplicated Africa contrasted favourably with the Africa they actually knew. It was a sense of this that they, no doubt unconsciously, imparted to us as wide-eyed London children, and which resonated deeply in my magic-starved mind. Only years later did I realise that, with the exception of cousin Frank, most of these white African visitors knew little or nothing of the bush, let alone the Bushmen. For the most part, they were urbanites much more at home in European cities than out on the dry, primordial veld.
* * *
When I was eight and Hannah eleven, our parents took us to Rhodesia to visit my grandfather Robbie. From the moment we stepped off the plane I found the place as seductively, intensely exciting as all the stories had led me to expect. “Take off your shoes,” my mother said, as we pulled up at Robbie’s house, set in a landscaped garden in a white suburb of the capital Salisbury (now Harare). “You’re in Africa now and kids go barefoot.” Hannah and I did as she bid, despite a dubious look at the green, irrigated lawn, which was crawling with insect life. When my grandfather’s manservant, Lucius, opened the front door, a small, cream-coloured scorpion dropped from the lintel. Lucius whipped off his shoe and killed it, then presented me with the corpse as a trophy. I was thrilled. That night the chorus of frogs in the garden was deafening. My father took us out into the darkness with a torch and at the edge of one of my grandfather’s ornamental ponds showed us frogs the size of kittens.
The war for independence was still being fought at that time. Out at Robbie’s farm a high-security fence ran all the way around the homestead, and the white men carried handguns on their hips (things were later to get so bad that my grandfather hired AK-47-wielding guards and an armoured car to patrol his vast territory). We saw his herds of black Brangus cattle, his tobacco fields and drying houses. At night the drums in the farmworkers’ compound thundered till dawn, while my sister and I lay in our beds and tried not to think about the big spiders that sat on the walls above our sleepless heads.
On a bright, hot morning, after a particularly loud night of drumming, two ingangas (witch doctors) performed a ceremony in the compound. Despite having been born in Africa, none of my family could tell us quite what was going on, but there was frightening power in the singing of the assembled black crowd, in the maniacal dancing of the ingangas, whose faces were hidden by fearsome, nightmare masks. It made me shiver.
At a game reserve near the ruins of Great Zimbabwe,* we visited
*A walled city, dating from the thirteenth century, founded by the ancestors of today’s MaShona people.
a friend of the family, a zoologist studying crocodiles in the Kyle River. He had caught four big specimens – between twelve and fifteen feet long – and had penned them in a special enclosure built out into the muddy river. Having asked if we’d like to see them, he guided us into the pen, telling us to stay close to the fence and not approach the great, murderous lizards where they lay half in, half out of the shallows.
For some reason I did not listen and, as the man was explaining something about crocodile behaviour to my parents, I walked towards the beasts for a closer look. There was a quick, low movement from the water and suddenly I was being dragged backwards by my shirt collar, loud shouting all around. “He almost got you!” panted the zoologist, who had saved me by a whisker. Forever afterwards, my mother would tell the story of how she almost lost her son to a crocodile.
Sometime towards the end of that month-long trip, we went to look at a cave whose walls were painted with faded animals and men – exquisitely executed in red, cream and ochre-coloured silhouettes. The animal forms were instantly recognisable, perfectly representing the creatures we had just seen in great numbers in the game reserves. Standing there in the cool gloom, I picked out lyre-horned impala, jumping high in front of little stickmen with bows and arrows, kudu with great spiralled horns and striped flanks, giraffes cantering on legs so long they had seemed – when we had seen them in real life – to gallop in slow motion. Paintings like these, my mother told us, could be found in caves all over southern Africa. Some were tens of thousands years old. Others were painted as recently as a hundred years ago. But no one, she said, painted any more.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because the people were all killed,” answered my mother. “And those not killed fled into the Kalahari Desert.”
She told us how, sometime in the middle of the last century, a party of white farmers in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa had gone to hunt down the last group of Bushmen living in their area. Having seen all the game on which they had traditionally relied shot out, the Bushmen had resorted to hunting cattle and the farmers had organised a commando, or punitive raid against them. After the inevitable massacre up in the high passes, a body was found with several hollowed-out springbok horns full of pigment strapped to a belt around his waist. “He was the last Bushman painter,” said my mother.
Laurens van der Post, whose writings in the 1950s established him as a Bushman guru, included this poignant story in his Lost World of the Kalahari. In his version it is one of his own forebears who went out on a similar raid, sometime in the late nineteenth century, in the “hills of the Great River”. Someone in his own grandfather’s family (van der Post’s words), having taken part in the massacre, discovers the body of the dead artist. Over the years I have encountered this story again and again, from the mouths of liberal-minded whites and in books, each time with a different location and twist. Perhaps all of them are true. Like so much that concerns the Bushmen and the great, wide land that used to be theirs, the story has become myth – intangible, impossible to pin down. Irresistible to a small boy of eight.
Back in the grey, drearily ordinary city of my birth, I found that the bright continent had worked its magic on me. I became more curious about our origins, about the dynastic lines going down the generations, and began to quiz my parents on more detail.
Though from vastly different origins and cultures, both sides of the family had gone at the great continent like terriers; yapping, biting and worrying away at it until they had established themselves and become white Africans. On my father’s side were the Isaacsons and Schapiros, poverty-stricken Lithuanian Jews who had emigrated from the small villages of Pojnewitz and Dochschitz (pronounced Dog-Shits) in the early 1900s. They had gone first to Germany, then to the emerging colony of German Southwest Africa, now Namibia, where my grandfather Robbie had been born in 1908. He grew up poor; his father worked at a low-paying job as a fitter on the railways while his mother kept a boarding house in the small capital Windhoek (though one family rumour has it that she was sometimes a little more than a landlady to her male guests).
The German colony was too rigidly anti-Semitic to allow Jews to make easy fortunes. So, on reaching his twenties, my grandfather crossed the great Kalahari, travelling through British Bechuanaland (now Botswana) to Rhodesia, where, after a brief spell selling shoes, he managed to land a job as a trainee auctioneer in a firm owned by another Litvak Jew – one Herschel (known as Harry) Schapiro. There followed a Machiavellian rise to fortune: my grandfather courted and married Freda, daughter of this man Schapiro, became head auctioneer, began slowly buying up farms that came to the company cheap and, eventually, took over the firm.
Harry Schapiro himself had a more romantic story. While still a young man in Lithuania he had abandoned his wife Minnie (a notoriously difficult woman, according to my father) and set off into the world to make his fortune. He took a ship to England, intending to go from there to America, but – owing to his lack of English – got on the wrong boat and ended up in Port Elizabeth, just as the Boer War broke out.* With characteristic opportunism, he enlisted in the Johannesburg Mounted Infantry believing that once the war was over they would be demobbed in the Transvaal – where the gold mines were. Harry spent three years tramping up and down central South Africa without seeing a shot fired. Then, when the Armistice came, the regiment was demobbed not in the mine fields as promised, but back in Port Elizabeth where Harry had started from.
Undaunted, he set out for the Transvaal anyway, only to end up, not a mining magnate as he had hoped, but a butcher in the mine kitchens, where his wife Minnie managed to track him down, having travelled all the way from Lithuania to do so. Harry stayed with her just long enough to sire Freda (Robbie’s wife and my father’s mother, who died from Alzheimer’s while my sister and I were still small), before running away again, this time to Rhodesia, where he graduated from butcher to cattle trader to wealthy owner of a livestock auctioneering house. Minnie, no less resourceful, tracked him down
*The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) resulted in the British annexation of the whole of South Africa outside the Cape colony. The first war, won by the Boers, was in 1880.
a second time, whereupon he capitulated, though she of course never forgave him.
My father remembered Minnie – by then an old woman – drinking champagne by the gallon and forcing Harry to buy her a neverending stream of expensive gifts – Persian rugs, Chinese vases and the like – which she would then sell, banking the money. Because, she claimed, she never knew when her husband might take it into his head to disappear again. During these latter years she developed delusions of grandeur and used to tell my father that she had married beneath her, having spent her girlhood in a Lithuanian palace. “Rubbish, Minnie,” Harry would harrumph from his armchair, “you were born in a hovel.”
My father’s side was successful financially, my mother’s side less so. But the Loxtons were made of epic stuff. My mother’s father Allen, for example, after spending an idyllic boyhood riding his horse Starlight across the rolling green hills of Natal, became a journalist, then a tank soldier in the 8th Army during the war in North Africa. He escaped his burning tank at Tobruk and jumped onto an abandoned motorbike just as the Afrika Korps came running over the dunes. On his return from the war, Allen resumed his career as a journalist, roving all over southern Africa as a feature writer for the Sunday Times and Johannesburg Star. My mother showed us great fat binders full of his cuttings – stories of travels with crocodile hunters, with witch doctors, with Bushmen; the black and white pictures and Boys’ Own language (at which he excelled) conjuring a world of adventure that stood out in stark contrast to the world I knew in London.
No less intrepid, his wife – my grandmother Barbara – also went to the war, putting my mother (then aged six) and aunt (aged eight) into a children’s home and roaming the Western Front as a freelance war artist for the South African papers. As with Allen’s cuttings, my mother would show us Barbara’s paintings, which were kept in a big leather trunk in our sitting room. Barbara had painted everything she saw: London families sleeping in the Underground during the Blitz; the Battle of the Bulge, with the American dead lying in the snow of the Ardennes, cut down like wheat by the German Tiger tanks; the blood-spattered agony of the military hospitals; civilians starving on the streets of the Hague. Shortly after Berlin fell, she and a group of other journalists were allowed into Hitler’s eyrie, high in the Bavarian Alps, literally days after the great dictator and his mistress Eva Braun had committed suicide. Barbara rifled the desk drawers and brought back a few of Hitler’s personal effects – minor things like photographs, an Iron Cross or two, and some official documents – to pass on to the children. My sister and I felt proud that my mother’s parents had taken part in this great story.
But the Loxtons paid for their adventurous spirit by being heavy drinkers, prone to irrational rages, and subsequent wallowing remorse. Allen was no exception, and drove Barbara to leave him a few years after their return from the war. The effect on my mother and her sister Lindsay was far-reaching. Once she left Allen, Barbara (who seems to have been kind, but emotionally cool) never had her children to live with her again. Having been put into boarding schools as near infants while their parents went adventuring, they experienced but a brief couple of years of family life before being shunted off once more, to grow up in institutions until they reached university age.
My petite, blonde, bespectacled mother grew up a true Loxton, becoming involved, while at university, in anti-apartheid campaigns. Her old photograph albums show pictures of the time: my mother (a platinum perm atop a Jane Mansfield bust) and a black male student symbolically burning the government’s separate education bill; my mother speaking on podiums; brawls between Afrikaans students loyal to the system and my mother’s leftist crowd; pictures of more serious attacks by policemen. One in particular stands out: a march by black domestic maids, protesting for better working conditions, charged with batons and dogs. In the foreground, a woman is on the ground, a police-dog savaging her abdomen, the handler’s truncheon raised high, about to deliver a skull-cracking blow to the woman’s head.
By this time Barbara had remarried, and she and her new husband (a politically active, left-wing lawyer named George Findlay) decided it would be best if my mother left the country before the inevitable arrest that must follow such activities. She was glad to get out and go adventuring in the world as her parents had and took the boat to England along with her sister, Lindsay. In England my mother flirted with the ANC, but became diverted – by art school, by meeting my father, himself an African e’migre” – and settled down to produce my sister and I while embarking on a career as a sculptor and artist. But when I was eighteen months old, and my sister four, my mother took us back to Africa and presented us to Barbara and Allen (who, though as much of an alcoholic as ever, had moved to Johannesburg and started another family).
A year later, both Allen and Barbara were dead. And in a sad postscript to their failed relationship, though they lived at opposite ends of the country they died within hours of each other. One day while at work in the Sunday Times office, Allen collapsed from emphysema (he had been a heavy smoker), and never regained consciousness. A telegram was sent to Barbara. According to her husband, she went quiet, and retired to have a think and be alone with her memories. When he knocked at the door a short time later to see if she was all right, there was no response. He opened the door and found her lying dead from a stroke.
My mother went almost mad with grief. She had at last begun to know her parents, and now suddenly they had been snatched away. Throughout our childhood, she would be prone to periodic depressions, and the sense of being an exile never left her. Unlike my father, who fitted happily into London (he later told me that even in his Rhodesian childhood he had longed for cities: “The first time I went to Johannesburg and smelled the car fumes and saw all that concrete around me, I felt an almost sensual thrill of excitement and pleasure”), my mother missed Africa keenly. She expressed it in her sculpture, her painting, almost all of which featured African people, African scenes.
It was perhaps to make up for the loss of her parents, and of all that she had hoped we children would have learned from them, that she became such a willing story-teller. She told us of the four Loxton brothers – Jesse, Samuel, Jasper and Henry – who in 1830 had come to South Africa from the Somerset village of Loxton and immediately dispersed into the wide spaces of the dry north, the area known as the Great Karoo.
Like all the other early Karoo settlers, the Loxtons lived, at first, by pastoral nomadism learned from the Khoi, a people who looked like Bushmen and spoke a similar clicking language, but who lived by herding rather than hunting. Having shown the whites how to follow the rains and where to find water in this unendingly arid land, the Khoi soon found themselves dispossessed, along with the local Bushman clans. By the time the Loxton brothers arrived, the Khoi had been reduced to working for the whites, and the last remaining Karoo Bushman had retreated to mountain strongholds, from where they watched the white men carve out farms by the land’s few natural springs and kill off the game.
For the whites, it was a slow, monotonous existence, enlivened only by hunting, mostly for wild animals, but sometimes also for Bushmen, who would, as their situation became more and more desperate, occasionally materialise from nowhere to raid livestock. For many Karoo settlers, hunting Bushmen became a well-known, if little talked about, sport. I can only speculate that my family must have done as others did.
Eventually, the Loxton brothers bought land and settled down. Henry, the youngest (my great-great-grandfather) trekked over the Drakensberg mountains into Natal – Zulu Country – where he ended up a wagon-maker, wedded to an Afrikaner woman named Agathe-Celeste (my great-great-grandmother), who had been abandoned as an infant in the court of the Zulu king Mpande by her ivory-hunting father. She had spent her girlhood there, re-entering white society only when she became a young woman and married my great-great-grandfather.
There are many stories about Agathe-Celeste. The best was included in a book of African reminiscences (Thirty Years in Africa), written by a bluff old Africa hand called Major Tudor Trevor, who knew my great-great-grandparents well. It concerned her two pet lions – Saul and Deborah. According to the major, these two lions, which Henry Loxton had given to his wife as cubs, had a game. They would wait at the garden hedge, which ran along the pavement and around the street corner, until someone came walking by. When the walker was halfway along the hedge, one of the cubs would slip through the foliage, drop onto the pavement and silently trail the unwitting pedestrian until he or she turned the corner. There the other cub, who had previously slipped through the hedge on that side, would be waiting. It would let out a kittenish roar in the face of the astonished walker, who would then turn and find the other cub behind, roaring too. While the cubs were still small, and could be run off with a shout, the burghers of the town tolerated their game as a charming, harmless local eccentricity.
Around the time that Saul and Deborah were half-grown (“as big as mastiffs’, wrote Trevor Tudor), a new predikant, or Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, arrived in town. One Sunday after church, while sitting on the porch with the Loxtons, the major saw this new priest coming up the road, formally turned out in frock coat, black topper and gloves, with a Bible under his arm. “At that moment,” he wrote, “out from behind sprang Deborah. She crouched low. The parson heard the thud of her landing and turned round as if to greet a parishioner . . . then we heard a kind of drawn out sob, his hat fell off, his Bible dropped, and in a flash he turned and ran off down the street.
Deborah caught up with him in a few easy bounds and, first with one swipe, then another, ripped off his flying coat tails. The predikant put on a spurt, rounded the corner at a gallop, whereupon out jumped Saul, roaring. With a squeal like the air being squeezed from a bagpipe, the predikant crumpled to the ground. Saul climbed onto his chest and began licking his face, intermittently snarling at Deborah to leave off what he considered his kill. The major, meanwhile, was running to the rescue. Coming up on Saul where he lay, pinning the priest to the road, he fetched the half-grown lion a vicious kick in the ribs. But instead of backing off as expected, Saul turned, slashed at the major’s leg and made ready to spring. It was my great-great-grandmother who saved the day, arriving seconds later with a heavy sjambok (giraffe- or hippo-hide whip), “at the first stroke of which”, wrote Trevor Tudor, “and a stream of abuse in Dutch, the cubs went flying.” The major remained, ever after, in awe of my great-great-grandmother, referring to her always as “that magnificent woman”.
But Henry Loxton could match his wife’s legendary feats. Fording the Komaati River on his horse one night (the river lies at the southern end of what is now the Kruger National Park), he was attacked by a large crocodile but, so the story goes, managed to beat it off with his stirrup iron. Arriving at the little town on the other side, he stamped angrily into the bar of its one, small hotel, and demanded to know what the devil they meant by allowing such a dangerous beast to infest the ford. For answer the barman told him, apologetically, that nobody in town had a rifle of sufficient calibre to tackle the croc. The only big gun was owned by a German tailor who was short-sighted, could barely shoot, and was holding the weapon as a debt for unpaid services. Hearing this, Henry Loxton rushed over to the tailor’s house and demanded that he accompany him to the river.
Once at the ford, Henry got straight down to business: “I’ll go and stand in the middle, and when the croc comes I want you to shoot it.”
“But I can’t shoot,” protested the unfortunate tailor. “What if I hit you? What if I miss?”
Henry considered a moment, then took the man by the shoulders and frog-marched him into the water. ‘stay there,” he said menacingly: “If you move before the croc comes I’ll shoot you.” So the tailor waited, trembling, until sure enough, the croc came gliding silently out from the shore. The gun went off, the croc reared up, then collapsed back into the water with an almighty splash, and the tailor sprinted, howling, for the bank. The great reptile was dead. Thanking his reluctant assistant, Henry Loxton gave him back the rifle and continued on his way. Legend has it that, next morning, the tailor’s hair turned white.
Henry and Agathe-Celeste had four sons, all of whom grew up to fight on opposite sides of the Anglo-Boer War (one of them even mustered his own irregular cavalry unit, known as Loxton’s Horse). And it was into this line that Allen, my mother’s father, was born in 1906.
Before the war however, Jesse, one of Henry and Agathe-Celeste’s elder sons, had gone back to the Karoo and founded a small, dusty town which, predictably, he had named Loxton. He married and had a son, Frederick, who, being a chip off the old block, resolved to mark out a private domain for himself, just as his father had done. Frederick set off first for the Eastern Cape, where he married, had children, and tried to settle. But the lure of the wild, empty north where he had been born proved too strong. Soon enough, he abandoned his young family and rode away to the Orange River country, southernmost border of the Kalahari, then the absolute frontier of civilisation.
But even then, in the 1880s, this part of South Africa (still known today as Bushmanland) was fast being tamed, not by whites but by people of mixed white and Khoi blood – the Griqua, Koranna and Baster* – who had trekked away from their white masters some decades earlier. Skilled riders and marksmen, these coloured pioneers had claimed the river’s fertile flood-plain, a corridor of green winding through the vast dryness on either side, making fortresses of the many river islands, from which they raided each other’s camps and enslaved the local Bushmen, occasionally attacking the Dutch and British settlements to the south. By the time Frederick Loxton arrived mission stations had been set up and the old raiding culture was giving way to a more settled farm life. But for a white man with a little money, a good horse and a repeating rifle, there remained a free, frontier possibility to the Orange River country. Ignoring the fact that he already had a family back in the Cape, he met and fell in love with Anna Booysens, the striking daughter of one of the Baster kapteins (leaders). When, some years later, news came of the first wife’s death, Frederick married this woman, and was given a dowry of flood-plain land near the present-day town of Keimoes.
On his death in 1894, Frederick left his farms to his three Baster children and they, when they died, left them to theirs. “We have coloured cousins?” I remembered asking my mother. Indeed we did. But where they were now no one in the family knew. Through the decades that preceded and paved the way for apartheid, the white and the coloured Loxtons had drifted irrevocably apart. Cousins
*”Baster” means “bastard” literally; a term used for people of mixed race.
with KhoiSan blood. Almost Bushmen. I pictured them as lean, wild-looking people in a barren landscape of red and brown rock cut through by an immense, muddy river.
As childhood turned to adolescence, it became less comfortable to be caught between cultures, to be part English, part African. The stories, artifacts, white African friends and relatives that constituted my life at home began to clash more and more with the reality of living and going to school in England. I didn’t fit in. Was our family English or African, I would be asked? Neither and both, it seemed.
I was restless in London, and began to long for the open air. We had a great-aunt with a farm in Leicestershire, a horsewoman, who spotted the horse gene in me and taught me to hunt and ride across the Midlands turf on an old thoroughbred that she let me keep there.
Though I made friends with some of the other Pony Club children, I continued to feel like an outsider. Still, it was oddly consoling to think of that great network of ancestors and relatives. Somehow the Kalahari, the dry heart of the sub-continent, seemed central to that inheritance and identity that I was – however unconsciously – trying to find.
So, when I was nineteen, I told my grandfather Robbie over Christmas lunch that I wanted to go to Africa again. The following summer, he sent me a plane ticket.
© 2001 by Rupert Isaacson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.