Maverick Life

KAROO JOURNEY

When the singer met the veld shaman – healing with herbs, song and blessings

When the singer met the veld shaman – healing with herbs, song and blessings
The famous duo on a veld ramble, foraging for ingredients. Image: Chris Marais

When well-known actress and singer Antoinette Pienaar arrived on Theefontein farm in 2001, gravely ill with cerebral malaria, Oom Johannes had been waiting for her for decades – ever since his vision about 40 years before.

We meet up with Antoinette Pienaar and Oom Johannes Willemse in a church hall in Loxton, Northern Cape, on a Saturday morning in 2010.

It’s a fundraiser for a local charity, and Antoinette’s first performance in a long time. She has already spent several years as an apprentice to renowned Griqua herb doctor and jackal hunter Oom Johannes Willemse. He’s sitting in the front row, both hands restful on his walking stick.

Swooping about like a sunburnt angel in an altar-dress white robe, with Morné Serfontein accompanying her on piano and accordion, Antoinette transforms the village kerksaal (church hall) into a New Orleans basement club. One where they sing in Afrikaans.

She sings in praise of windmills, love, yearning and the open skies of the Karoo, filling the hall with her unmistakable voice and huge personality. The after-show treats – baked by Loxton farmers’ wives – are memorable.

Turning the Loxton church hall into a New Orleans blues room: Antoinette Pienaar in full song. Image: Chris Marais

Turning the Loxton church hall into a New Orleans blues room: Antoinette Pienaar in full song. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette Pienaar ends her performance at the Loxton kerksaal, with Oom Johannes Willemse in attendance. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette Pienaar ends her performance at the Loxton kerksaal, with Oom Johannes Willemse in attendance. Image: Chris Marais

Oom Johannes Willemse: a multi-skilled Karoo man with second sight. Image: Chris Marais

Oom Johannes Willemse: a multi-skilled Karoo man with second sight. Image: Chris Marais

Sleepover at Theefontein

Two years later, we overnight with Antoinette and Oom Johannes, near Beaufort West on Theefontein farm, a place only found via an intricate set of directions involving small dirt roads with middelmannetjies (the humps between wheel ruts on a dirt road) and a few cattle grids.

You know you’re close when you see a cluster of white buildings resting in the lap of two converging mountains. But first there is a long approach via a rising road. At the top of it, you are greeted with ferocious barking from greyhounds and Italian whippets in large enclosures.

The biggest dog is Danster. He looks as if he could murder any strangers entering the farmyard. Antoinette, dressed in a pink shift and flip-flops, with her hair in two plaits like a schoolgirl, sings out: “Danster, stil. Ja ons hoor jou. Ja.” (“Danster, quiet. Yes we hear you. Yes.”)

Then she welcomes us and shows us where we will sleep. It is a typical Karoo labourer’s cottage, just like the others. No one stays in the grand old farmhouse. Only ghosts live there, she tells us.

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Our cottage has two rooms, divided by a central one, which has a huge hearth. On the wall of our little bedroom – with two venerable hospital beds – someone has painted two angels blessing two people. One of the curtains is a rolled-up Montego dog-food bag.

Heading out to Theefontein Farm, not far from Beaufort West. Image: Chris Marais

Heading out to Theefontein Farm, not far from Beaufort West. Image: Chris Marais

Oom Johannes Willemse is the first friend face we see at Theefontein Farm. Image: Chris Marais

Oom Johannes Willemse is the first friend face we see at Theefontein Farm. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette Pienaar and her offgrid farm cottage. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette Pienaar and her offgrid farm cottage. Image: Chris Marais

Oom Johannes in front of his neat cottage at Theefontein. Image: Chris Marais

Oom Johannes in front of his neat cottage at Theefontein. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette’s cosy den

The first thing you see on entering Antoinette’s cottage is the view through the unadorned window, which gazes all the way across the vast Karoo to the distant Swartberg.

A candelabra full of half-burnt candles hangs at head height beside her chair, next to the fire. There is a small table with knitting on it, and a leaking castor oil bottle that she uses to dab on a wound inflicted by a thorn tree. Also a tin full of pencils. Antoinette favours green 6Bs, sharpened with a knife. She wrote her first book, Kruidjie Roer My (The Griqua’s Apprentice is the English translation), by hand in pencil, sitting next to this fireplace.


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Tikkie Tong-Tong the African grey parrot sometimes sits atop his cage and sometimes goes inside. It is his murmurings one occasionally hears during her Friday broadcasts of Kruie Kraai Koning on Radio Sonder Grense.

Healing with herbs

The conversation slips to Karoo plants after Oom Johannes walks in. Oom Johannes says he believes Karoo herbs have an answer for depression, Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit disorder, ailing kidneys, skin diseases and more.

Oom Johannes and Antoinette often have people seeking healing who come and stay for weeks at a time. While we are there, we meet one of them. By taking the strengthening herbs Oom Johannes prescribes, Paulus van der Merwe says he had managed to postpone a heart-valve transplant until the technology had improved.

Some of the healing herbs Antoinette and Oom Johannes hunt for in the veld. Image: Chris Marais

Some of the healing herbs Antoinette and Oom Johannes hunt for in the veld. Image: Chris Marais

“Making wood” – cutting branches to feed into the Story Fire at night. Image: Chris Marais

“Making wood” – cutting branches to feed into the Story Fire at night. Image: Chris Marais

Dog walk at sundown

In the last light, we all go for a walk with Danster and his tribe. They preen, sniff about, pee and smile. All except Danster, who holds his pose as lord of the pack.

Night comes. By candlelight, Antoinette serves up the most deliciously tender roast lamb, with gem squash, rice and potato.

Paulus, Oom Johannes, Antoinette, photojournalist Chris Marais and I crowd into her living room before the fire. After eating, everyone thanks everyone else because, as Oom Johannes explains, you eat better and enjoy a meal more when you are with others.

What follows, at the fireside, is a night of storytelling. Oom Johannes tells us how he’d dreamed of meeting “Juffrou Antoinette”.

Antoinette crafting her stories by the fireside – her favourite creative space. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette crafting her stories by the fireside – her favourite creative space. Image: Chris Marais

The customary evening dog walk through the veld. Image: Chris Marais

The customary evening dog walk through the veld. Image: Chris Marais

The after-dinner story session that holds us spellbound. Image: Chris Marais

The after-dinner story session that holds us spellbound. Image: Chris Marais

An impromptu Karoo soiree with oboe, monochord and singing chants. Image: Chris Marais

An impromptu Karoo soiree with oboe, monochord and singing chants. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette being love-mugged by her pack of hounds as Oom Johannes looks on, bemused. Image: Chris Marais

Antoinette being love-mugged by her pack of hounds as Oom Johannes looks on, bemused. Image: Chris Marais

Malaria from Mali

Johannes had inherited the second sight from his grandfather Oom Hansie and had long foreseen that one day a woman would arrive, ready to learn the art of healing with Karoo herbs from him.

In 2000, Antoinette went on an extended one-woman ramble through Mali, where she marvelled at the hardy spirits of the people who live in desert lands along the Niger River. But on this journey, she also picked up cerebral malaria (what was once called blackwater fever) and had to be swiftly flown back to South Africa for emergency medical treatment. Her liver was badly damaged and for nearly two months she could hardly move about.

Healed by an old shepherd

“I needed help, and it was clear to me that it would not come from conventional medicine,” she says. “If there was anything that could make me well again, it was the healing herbs of the Karoo,” said Antoinette.

Born in the dusty Northern Cape village of Carnarvon, Antoinette had also long harboured a desire to know more about the healing properties of the vast Karoo scrublands around her. She recalls that when, as a child, she was asked what she would like to do with her adult life, she would reply:

“One day I am going to stay in the veld with an old shepherd and learn everything about the plants from him.” Her words caused a certain amount of consternation within the family.

And so Antoinette finally headed for Theefontein, one of the Pienaar clan farms, where Oom Johannes plied his double trade as jackal hunter and healer. She knew of him, but had never met him. When she finally pulled up on the farm in her red bakkie, weak from the fever, he exclaimed:

“So you have arrived here at last, juffrou [miss]. And you still look so bruised.”

The veld shaman

She recounts in her book:

“In a flood of words, I told him about my malaria experience. And I was still telling him when, to my surprise, he disappeared into his kitchen. I could hear him busy doing something in there, and then he re-emerged with a mugful of dried herbs. He made a fire in the grate, boiled the water and brewed me my first infusion of herbs.”

Thus began both her healing and learning journeys with the old man.

Oom Johannes also recalls how he’d been “called” for healing. It was a dramatic thing that happened when he was barely a teenager. His sister had fallen sick, was given medicine and had died shortly thereafter. Now his mother was stricken, unable to move. They were told that she wouldn’t last.

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The doctor had brought medicines. But young Johannes distrusted them. He had been praying for a remedy and it had come to him in a kind of vision. Instead of giving the doctor’s medicine to her, he gave his mother the tea made from steenbokbossie (Felicia filifolia).

“My mother responded immediately – she just stood up.”

It was then that he knew the healing power of nature flowed through him.

Oom Johannes’s parents were itinerant pieceworkers, and he was born at Breekkierie farm near Kenhardt, just south of Upington. Oom Johannes never went to school. He grew up learning about the veld, and how to work on a farm. He herded sheep in the days when there were few fences, and any ploughing was done with the help of oxen or donkeys. He spanned fences, trained horses, built kraals, and learnt how to fix windmills.

The author, asleep under the weeping angels of Theefontein Farm. Image: Chris Marais

The author, asleep under the weeping angels of Theefontein Farm. Image: Chris Marais

Morning monochord

It is the morning, and Paulus brings in a strange stringed instrument that stands foursquare on the floor – it is a monochord, and offers a sweetly plaintive sound.

Antoinette checks its tuning, and suddenly begins to sing out a chant:

“Bless Theefontein, bless Chris, Bless Julie, Bless Oom Johannes, bless Paulus, bless us all.”

Thus blessed, we take our leave, hugged by everyone. The dogs bark a farewell. DM/ ML

For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of tales of the Karoo with monochrome images, 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].

 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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