September 03, 2003

Starlight on the Veld, by Herman Charles Bosman

From 1933 to 1951 Herman Charles Bosman wrote many short stories and essays about life in South Africa, and particularly about life in a region called the Marico Bushveld. Though of English descent, his characters and narrators are staunchly Boer, and though the stories are written in English they are filled with Boer words: veldshoen, voorkamer, predikant, mealies, and many others. This book is a collection of twenty-two of his best stories.

Bosman is pretty well unknown here in the States--at any rate, I'd never heard of him before, and his books certainly aren't in print here--but he's become a classic in South Africa. It so happens that I have a friend in South Africa; he enjoyed Bosman's tales as a kid and enjoys them still as an adult, and thought Jane and I would like them, so he sent us a set of Bosman books: this one, and another containing Bosman's best humourous stories.

After the first two stories, I was both fascinated and somewhat repelled--the first two in the book are both really depressing, though well-written. They were his earliest tales, though, and after that he developed a lighter (thought not necessarily less serious) hand. Bosman was a shrewd observer, and many of the stories are moving and hilarious by turns. I enjoyed them thoroughly over the period of about three weeks.

I think they might be hard-going for the average American reader, as they are set in a time and place very foreign to us: the South African veld. Many are concerned with the Boer War of a hundred years ago, distant now but not so distant then, and of the later veld of the 1930's and '40's. Even though I've read books about South Africa and the Boer war I still found much that was exotic, particularly the words in Afrikaans. On the other hand, there's much that's familiar--it's as though the Wild West had been settled by Dutchmen.

Fortunately, my friend Craig came to the rescue. I'd specifically asked him what "mealies" were. One of Bosman's characters talks about growing them, and the word had popped up in several of the history books I'd read, but I'd never seen a definition. Here's what Craig had to say:

You would call it corn!

While not indigenous to Africa, it has become the staple food of most Africans. Ground to a flour -- mealie-meal is used in most African diets. The Afrikaans for cooked mealie porridge is "pap" (now adopted into most indigenous languages) -- and the phrase "pap en vleis" (porridge and meat) is commonly understood in all South African languages.

Depending on what part of the country you come from, so your preference for how it is prepared differs. I'm from Zululand so we grew up on "krummel pap" (crumbly porridge). Up North I had to get used to "stywe pap" (stiff porridge). Most school hostels serve a runny version of the stuff - which you either love or hate. If eaten for breakfast, you usually add milk and sugar (yuk!), if with the main meal, it's usually eaten with a gravy (African equivalent of Yorkshire pudding, I suppose) -- although also with "morogo" -- a wild leafy vegetable that is boiled (closest equivalent is spinach). If you eat pap as a snack (as I often do - and now am in the mood for some) you make it crumbly with lots of butter and salt added !!!

Mealies are always eaten on the cob. Usually they are roasted over the fire, and then pulled off with the fingers as it is eaten. If you're doing this at a sit-down dinner, then they're usually boiled. Mealies (and pap) are common at a braai (BBQ).

There you go, more information than you ever asked for!!

Crumbly with lots of butter and salt...darn, it does sound good. Craig goes on to define a number of other terms of interest:

voorkamer: (literally, front room). Our equivalent of the sitting room or parlour. By contrast the 'agter-kamer' (back room) is more like the living room (nowadays, the family room) with access to the kitchen and bedrooms. The bathroom (if there is one) and toilet are outside.

The house I currently live didn't have power or running water when built (76 years ago) - the loo used to be in the corner of the garden. Thankfully, all that's changed!

commando: military units of civilian soldiers -- each providing his own horse and gun, and could come and go as he chose. Really came into their own in the Boer Wars - only now being disbanded under the current government. Very controversial.

veldkornet: cavalry officer with the commandos, but also functioned in a 'law and order' capacity -- more like a marshall than a policeman.

dominee or predikant: both refer to a minister of religion; the latter literally means 'preacher'. Usually in reference to ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. There's a lovely story (not sure if you have it) that explores religious bigotry re Reformed and Catholic.

kroes: the curly hair of indigenous African people. With the various liaisons of the early explorers and settlers, etc. attempts at dealing with people of mixed race gave birth to the whole Apartheid classification system -- in which "kroes" hair was a "sure sign" of an ancestor on the wrong side of the sheets (from a white perspective)!! School inspectors used the notorious "pencil test" to determine which school children should be going to. It's only since living in the Cape (where the first settlers settled) that I discover how preoccupied here people were (and are) about this, literally tracing mixed race to the sixteenth degree!! (4 generations). Now that our Apartheid legislation is scrapped, together with the racial clasifications, the new implementation of equity and preferment bills with affirmative action has made racial divisions more bitter than they used to be. It would be quite funny, if it wasn't so sad, how topsy turvy things have become -- especially as people who tried to claim white heritage are now trying to claim black heritage.

I'm holding off on the second Bosman book for a while; his stories are worth reading a little at a time, so as to make them last longer.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 3, 2003 06:25 PM