At 11am on Tuesday morning October 1, the Gift of the Givers convoy pulls up on the side of the road to Graaff-Reinet.
Project manager Ali Sablay lines them up. An interlink truck with bottled water and two water tankers bringing water from the borehole his organisation sunk in February. Motorists hoot and wave as they pass by.
The town is on its knees.
The main supply dam for the town, the Nqweba Dam, is empty. All that’s in the dam are hundreds of dead fish rotting in the Karoo sun and even more flies buzzing around.
On the side of the N2 there is nothing left but a fence and dust. At the fence line, the skeletons of two lambs lie in the sun.
A white bakkie pulls up. A tall man with a battered leather hat gets out. He walks fast. Shake hands. He spent his 64th birthday driving to Graaff-Reinet.
In the past nine months, he has driven 114,000km finding water for communities ravaged by drought.
“Gideon Groenewald,” he introduces himself. “You can call me Oom Gideon.”
What Oom Gideon doesn’t say is that he is a doctor, three times, qualified in palaeontology, hydrology and geology.
“You can’t buy the title of Oom, but you can work for a doctorate,” he says.
Groenewald’s remarkable journey with Gift of the Givers started in April 2015 when his wife suddenly died. At the time he lived in Clarens in the Free State, where he was working as a palaeontologist. “I find dinosaur bones in drought.”
Before that, he had spent 11 years walking the Karoo to understand the drought and flood.
He gestures to the mountains around Graaff-Reinet:
“I measured these mountains in 10cm intervals to understand drought.”
“I understand the drought cycles but I am not a waterwyser (a water diviner, someone with the gift to find underground water sources).
“Between one and four at night, I will look at the area where there is a water problem with a satellite that is 78km up in the atmosphere. I pray. God shows me the lines, I make a GPS point where a road will cross this line. I will go walk that road in the day and do magnetic surveys for every metre.
“Petrus Mofokeng is the one who finds the water. I will tell him, ‘Drill here.’ He will drill for five metres. Then he phones me. ‘Nthati,’ he will say. ‘The stone you are looking for isn’t here. I am moving the drill.’
“Me, Petrus and Oom Tienie Landmann have been working together for the past 40 years.
“In 2015, my wife suddenly died. We had been married for 29 years. I walked 40,000km through the Karoo with her. Four days before her death a Sesotho prophet told me: ‘Your wife will leave you, but a small group of people will start working with you and you will find water for children.’”
Four days later, Emily Thomas from Gift of the Givers phoned and asked him: “Are you Oom Gideon Waterman?”
“I said no, I am Oom Gideon Groenewald. She said: ‘But that is the same person.’ She said: ‘Will you come help us?’”
Groenewald rubs his face. In the past 300 days he and Petrus have found water 600 times.
“The important thing is that no person can be blamed for the dam drying up. Nobody can be blamed for that. Drought is part of God’s creation. It is a way to reduce the numbers. The fastest way to do this is to remove water. This is a very dramatic statement. Especially if we are referring to people. That is why I am part of Gift of the Givers. We want to prevent humans from being part of this tragedy.
“In Sutherland alone, the number of sheep have been reduced from 450,000 to 30,000. The drought has killed 420,000 sheep. Those are only the sheep. I can’t even begin to talk about the number of frogs, and insects and bigger animals. Aardvark, porcupine, meerkat are all dying.
“It is a global Earth warming. Over the next 10 years we will likely see the mass extinction of animals on Earth.
“It is tough on everybody. South Africans specifically like to play the blame game. We want to blame a person for our suffering. As a person of faith I understand that I can’t blame anybody for my condition. I am not blaming anybody for my wife’s death. I am also not blaming God. He ordained it before I was born. I can’t blame God for the plans that He has for me.
“Yesterday morning I was in Pretoria. I drove through the night to get here. I could have hit an animal. I could have had a flat. God wants me to be here. He decided this before I was born.
“South Africans must realise that all that is happening is in the plan of God. Don’t blame people. If you can’t understand why this is happening, pray and accept. For months, people of all faiths were praying for God to help Graaff-Reinet.
“What Gift of the Givers is doing is to respond to the call of God. Not of people. We don’t get involved with infrastructure problems. We want to help the elderly and the children. Our mission is to provide every person in this town with a bottle of water in their hands. Every day. If a human has to spend 24 hours without water they die. There is no yes or no about it. You will die without it. That is our reality.
“[Gift of the Givers head] Dr Imtiaz Sooliman and I pray every day for guidance about where we must help next. I am on my way to Harrismith, 11 hours away. I have a team at Lusikisiki. It is 14 hours away. I have a team in Sutherland and one in the Cape. We don’t say no to God’s orders.
“This drought is similar to one 252 million years ago. In modern history, my information shows that we are having the driest year in 1,000 years. The Tugela is standing, the Vaal River, the Orange River, the only one that is running is the Berg River, but it won’t be for long.
“And then we have these enormous local floods like at Hartenbos this week. It is typical of these serious droughts. The water takes everything away and a kilometre further people are dying of thirst.
“This cycle repeats itself every 220 years. You can’t ask today and receive and not say thank you. My team on the drill and I ask every day but we also say thank you. It is sad for me when we find water and we see there is no gratitude.
“I am a Christian. Dr Sooliman is Muslim. We don’t differ one bit in our faith in God Almighty. We understand the lesson. It is: Love your neighbour.”
The drilling teams arrive. Heinrich Erasmus gets out. He wipes his face. “The men are hungry,” he says. “We were battling to find food in the little towns. People say there is no water.”
Groenewald goes to talk to his team.
Behind one truck is an old caravan with torn curtains where the team sleeps when they are out drilling.
As the convoy drives through town people cheer. The Caltex filling station comes to a standstill as the petrol attendants dance on the pavement.
“The water is here,” people shout. “The water is here.”
At Angel Park, Groenewald addresses the crowd.
“I cannot see water. In the name of Jesus I can find the cracks. God will send the water. The work is hard and dangerous.
“Please stop praying for rain. God sent the drought to bring people together.
“We are not here to fix infrastructure. We are the ambulance stabilising the patient.”
There is not a municipal official in sight,
Groenewald said he didn’t plan to come to Graaff-Reinet.
“Dr Sooliman told the rigs to come. He said when the rigs are on their way he will ask me.”
At 2.30 on Tuesday morning, Oom Gideon said, while he was praying and looking at a satellite of Graaff-Reinet he found the site for a borehole at Spandau Secondary School.
“Petrus will find the water for us.”
Petrus Mofokeng receives cheers and applause. He smiles shyly. “I will find the water,” he says softly.
Later, Oom sits down at the KFC in town. He is waiting for food for his team.
“It is something to see when Petrus finds water,” he says. “We will stand there and there will be dust everywhere. Suddenly Petrus will start stamping his feet. He will smile and look 40 years younger. He will throw his hands in the air. He will dance around that borehole and then you know the water is coming. He is never wrong. We just see the dust, but Petrus can see the water.”
He gets up to leave. “I must take a nap now because by 1am I need to look for water for this town.”
On Wednesday morning the news come through early. Diesel, batteries and a special drilling hammer were stolen from the drilling site.
Sablay’s phone is glued to his ear as call after call comes through. The community is outraged. They look for the thieves. Farmers and business people offer up their yards to provide a safe place for the rigs to park at night.
“People are phoning to apologise,” Sablay said. “Oom says they must just let it be. God will provide. The community is stressed.”
Heinrich Erasmus, who oversees the rig, promises that they will be up and running soon. By lunchtime, he phones to say they are up and running.
“Heinrich did a MacGyver,” Sablay told the team. “Drilling can start again.”
By the evening they had found good water. First at 69m and on Thursday a strong current at 2,000 litres per hour.
Sablay’s phone started ringing again. People from all over South Africa phoned to congratulate them on finding water.
“People of all cultures and faiths are standing together to try and fight this mighty drought,” Groenewald said. What he saw in Graaff-Reinet made him worried. “I will be back,” he said. “This is the worst I have seen. It is a complete disaster.
“All I want to say is stop praying for rain. Pray for wisdom to get through the drought. Scientifically, if there are no clouds, it won’t rain. God has showed me very clearly every 220 years there are 10 dry years. It is his creation. We must ask for mercy and pray for knowledge.
“We must thank the Lord for the drought as it teaches your neighbours to bring you water.”
At the Wimpy in Makhanda where he is having a lime milkshake Dr Imtiaz Sooliman’s face softens when he talks about the friendship between him and “Oom”.
“When I met him I had a feeling. He came to my office in Johannesburg. I knew from the time I saw him that this was an honest man.
“People thought he was talking nonsense. They laughed at him. I understood his deep insight. When he said, Groenewald finds the rocks but God gives the water, I said: ‘Groenewald you and I are one.’ His scientific knowledge is incredible. People listen when he speaks.
“He is a man of the soil. He knows about the land and water and soil and farming. I know how to make things happen. We make a beautiful combination.
“He thanks God for the drought because it is bringing people together.”
By Thursday afternoon Groenewald had found five boreholes and Sooliman said they had secured 102,000 litres of water for the town. He said they had also found water in a sixth borehole and would sink two more.
“Groenewald and I have also had a talk to the municipality and we will be working together from now on,” he said. “We will do many more, depending on funding.”
Municipal spokesman Edwardine Abader has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Maverick Citizen will publish more stories on the drought in the next few days. MC