Maverick Life

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The singing, dancing, snake-catching speed cop of Calvinia

The singing, dancing, snake-catching speed cop of Calvinia
Calvinia has only one traffic officer – the most musical one in the Karoo. Image: Chris Marais

A Karoo man who writes out speeding fines by day, and hit songs by night.

Boeta Gammie is a bit like that Portuguese white wine everyone used to quaff at summertime lunch tables: singing, dancing, shepherding, guiding, inspiring, snake-catching and traffic-fining – sometimes all at once.

Gammie, aka Akkedissie, aka Jan Isaacs, first caught our eye at the 2010 Williston Winter Festival, when he was featured in a long and illustrious performance bill that included groups like Flying Angels, God’s Beginners, Never Trust Boys, Butterflies, Re-loaded Hip-Hop and the aged but ever-rockin’ Tannie Grietjie, the Grand Dame of Garies.

There was the Coca-Cola truck, flaps down and packed to the gills with sound equipment and a forest of microphone stands. Up stepped a sharp fellow dressed in a silver suit, red satin shirt and the kind of pointy two-tone shoes your mother warned you about. The ensemble was completed by a tipped-down fedora-style hat, shades and a lot of attitude.

The crowd of dancers moved as one mass towards the Coca-Cola truck, drawn by a force we newcomers knew nothing about.

Akkedissie is hier!”, the message flew through the air, and before the man played the opening chord on his acoustic (with pick-up) guitar, feet were already beginning to kick up dust as a prelude to the full-blown Nama Riel.

Tannie Grietjie had just played her gig and was in a car behind the stage about to leave for the coast. But when she heard the opening notes she realised who was performing, so she eased her way out of the vehicle and began to boogie with the crowd. She went from 83 to 38 in 10 seconds flat.

Akkedissie was truly in the house.

A special boy

His songs are catchy tunes in the Nama folk music genre, but his words are all carefully crafted messages. As he played Ant Katriena, Die Honne Byt My (Aunt Katriena, the dogs are biting me), an old Willistonian said to us: “That’s the biggest hit of the Hantam this year.”

When we returned to Calvinia in 2011 to see the spring daisies of the dry country, the dogs of Auntie Katriena’s were still running around biting everyone. 

Boeta Gammie in his shiny suit, among Calvinia’s spring daisies.

Boeta Gammie in his shiny suit, among Calvinia’s spring daisies. Image: Chris Marais

Calvinia is one of our favourite little towns, in part because there seems to be a certain ease between the various groups living in it. We are headed for an address in Calvinia West, and an appointment with Akkedissie. 

Knock on the door. No reply. His neighbour, an elderly guy called Andries de Wee, says Akkedissie has gone to church and we’re welcome to wait for him over here, in his lounge. “I was his principal in Middelpos Primary,” says Mr de Wee. “He was always a special boy.”

Akkedissie pitches up like a dust-devil in a pink shirt. We can see this is not going to be a sit-down-and-chat kind of interview. It’s going to be done on the run.

He leads us in his VW hatchback (with personalised plates) to a little house at the edge of Calvinia West.

“This is where the Akkedissie thing began – at my late father’s house,” he says. “About six years ago, when Dad was still alive, I spotted a fat-bellied skink sunning itself on a stump in the front yard. I wanted to catch it, but it wriggled out of my grasp.”

He was horrified to find the skink’s detached tail twitching in his hand. 

“I thought I’d killed it. Then someone said no, the tail just comes off naturally and it grows another one. So I put out more sunning rocks for the lizard, caught flies for it to eat and set aside a little plate of water in case its throat was ever dry.”

The lizard thrived.

The wonderkroon violin

But let’s roll back the past to when little Jan Isaacs was a farm worker’s son growing up in the Hard Man’s Karoo, where working the land is sometimes classed as an act of insanity. 

“I was born in the Sutherland area and grew up with seven brothers and sisters. My father sold his labour on a lot of farms, and I remember each one: Nuwerus, Jakkalsfontein, Kapgat, Kookfontein, Dwingdrif, Bloemhof, Diepdrif, Vlakfontein and Kreitsberg.”

This child became a cheerful veteran of the local farm school system and, by all accounts, a very chatty and interactive boy. Jan played his first guitar chord at six.

“I was also dead keen on the violin, but I couldn’t lay my hands on one.”

He had his eye on the perfect soundbox though. It was a tin full of Lennon’s Wonderkroon Essence – a popular digestive medication. Little Jan emptied the contents into a large jug and drilled holes in the tin so his dad couldn’t refill it again – then took his hiding like a man.

“I added a stick, fishing gut and some hairs plucked from a horse’s tail. It worked well.”

He stands in the street outside the family home and scratches out a tune on his childhood fiddle, which he’s kept intact all these years.

Boeta Gammie playing a special song on Julienne du Toit’s birthday.

Boeta Gammie playing a special song on author Julienne du Toit’s birthday. Image: Chris Marais

Gammie and the Riel

As a teenager, Jan Isaacs arrived in Calvinia, entered his name in a draw for the first RDP house in town – and won. Now he needed a job. Soon, he was the most cheerful refuse removal man Calvinia had ever seen. Then he became a blockman in a local butchery before becoming a traffic cop, but it was the fat lizard with the detachable tail that launched his music career.

“I wrote a song called Akkedissie. It became a hit. And that was the beginning.”

It was probably the last time he was popularly known as Jan Isaacs. Moonlighting as a DJ on the local Radio Kaboesna late one night, he liked to feature a song by the late Tolla van der Merwe called Boeta Gammie. It became his nickname. And Akkedissie became his performing name.

Now we’re back down the dirt road lanes, heading to the house of Johanna Jooste, whom most folks in Calvinia know as the Queen of the Nama Riel.

Within minutes, the local speed cop is crouched in the road, playing his guitar while a jubilant Tannie Johanna is dancing the Nama Riel on a speed bump in the road outside her house.

Gammie and one of his favourite Riel dancers, Johanna Jooste of the Calvinia Sitstappers.

Gammie and one of his favourite Riel dancers, Johanna Jooste of the Calvinia Sitstappers. Image: Chris Marais

This marvellous dance is deeply entrenched in Nama culture. It forms part of a courting ritual, in which the man entices the girl towards him with his moves and mock-fights with rivals. Somewhere along the way a feathered hat is thrown to the ground. If the girl accepts, she picks it up and places it on her paramour’s head. There may even be a kiss. But throughout this dance “jy moet die stof voor jou inloop” – the dust must rise before you.

Tannie Johanna, who thinks the world of Boeta Gammie, is part of the local Calvinia Sitstappers, and they win dance awards all the time. She is delighted to show us her steps.

A human dynamo

Then we meet Gammie’s lovely wife Audrey and their little boy, AJ Lee. Also, his brace of German Shepherds, Roevis and Mieka. It turns out that in addition to being a radio DJ, choirmaster, traffic cop, singer, player, story-teller, father, husband, lizard wrangler and dog trainer, he’s also the local SPCA man. Gammie also takes tourists on flower excursions through Namaqualand and drives a funeral hearse on weekends when he’s in town.

So when he shows us the award he received back in 2011, a Department of Social Services initiative called Community Builder of the Year, no one in the room raises an eyebrow. It seems the only thing this human dynamo is incapable of doing, is sitting still in one spot for longer than five seconds.

We glimpse Gammie again at the Williston Winterfees of 2018, the ultimate showman and the focus of every eye with his unmistakable hat adorned with a jaunty plume. 

There is hardly standing space left around the arena, thick with the rising dust, hats thrown to the floor among the driving rhythm, the velskoen shoes, the doeks on the heads, the swirling skirts and the smiles. 

 Gammie in the thick of the action, Williston Winterfees 2018.

Gammie in the thick of the action, Williston Winterfees 2018. Image: Chris Marais

Snakes and biscuits

Gammie has taken on another self-appointed job, of town snake-catcher.

“It’s terrible that snakes are being wiped out. We need to save them. They eat mice and rats.”

After seeing a harmless serpent stoned to death, Gammie cut the head off one of his golf sticks, curved the end into a hook and acquired some transparent plastic boxes. He chatted to the local nature conservation officials, read up about snakes and put word out he could be contacted when any reptiles needed to be caught.

“Two weeks ago I caught a snake on a guy’s farm. That geelslang (cobra) had swallowed seven turkey chicks! Then I looked into the matter. What is a suitable habitat for a snake? Where does it live? I found that if a snake is somewhere near water, he will not easily move away. All the snakes we have found, they were looking for water. They didn’t come to cause trouble. But they can be dangerous, particularly the young ones. They really are geniepsig (aggressive). So I went to have a look at our nature reserve, Akkerendam. I found a particular place where people don’t go, it’s remote, and I have released several species there already: skaapstekers, five types of cobras, a puff adder, night adder and a horned adder.

“I caught one in the local Spar. A shelf packer kept hearing a sound: Shhh! Shhh! They called me, and I looked, and there he lay, a geelslang behind the sanitary pads.

“Every snake that I release seems to be grateful. They glide away with a thankful air. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Gammie does not ask for payment but people often give him gifts.

“I don’t really charge, but if someone wants to thank me, I leave it up to them. One tannie was so terribly scared of a skaapsteker, just a small little snake. It’s not even poisonous so I just picked it up and put it in my pocket. Ooh, that tannie screamed! Then she gave me nine packets of biscuits.”

Spread the light

We are invited to Gammie and Audrey’s house that afternoon, for a special performance from their beloved son AJ Lee, now a pre-teen.

Gammie, Audrey and baby AJ Lee, 2011.

Gammie, Audrey and baby AJ Lee, 2011. Image: Chris Marais

Audrey, Gammie and young singer AJ Lee, 2021 at their colourful home in Calvinia West.

Audrey, Gammie and young singer AJ Lee, 2021 at their colourful home in Calvinia West. Image: Chris Marais

The sound system is rigged up. AJ takes the microphone. Neighbours gather at the fence, because they know what’s coming. And then, from the doorway of this compact little house flows a nearly perfect rendition of I Will Always Love You. Dolly Parton and the late Whitney Houston would surely approve. DM/ML

'Karoo Roads' Collection. Image: Chris Marais

‘Karoo Roads’ Collection. Image: Chris Marais

This is an extract from Karoo Roads III – The Journeys Continue, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

In case you missed it, also read Calvinia — A special, all-year long destination

Calvinia — A special, all-year long destination

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