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Lost in the Karoo as ‘Die Boekklub’ takes us into the heart of platteland South Africa

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The characters in ‘Die Boekklub’ lose themselves in fiction and travel the world through their books, whether it be while baking cake for the next church fair or while the sheep are being vaccinated. But the most important lesson we learnt was that communicating one’s feelings are paramount.

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, these last few weeks I have been bonding with my wife, Nicky, in front of the television, getting completely lost in a small Karoo town called Merweville. Thanks to Quenton Krog and Louis Pretorius, we were able to stop over at Bettie se Gastehuis and decided to stay a few nights. 

Unlike Nicky, my English-speaking wife with Scottish blood, who grew up in Johannesburg and whom I met there in 1995, I was very comfortable here, with Afrikaans being my mother tongue. I was reminded of the soft-spoken and beautiful vocabulary of the Afrikaans language, its idioms and poetry, and how it can simply slide off your tongue effortlessly. Such a beautiful language.

The hospitality of Sofia and Tom Niemandt was par excellence, but what struck me the most about the quiet little dorp was the fact that they have a Boekklub, a tradition they had been enjoying for 25 years, thanks to the late Bettie, or Beth, as she preferred to be called. Their collective love for books and reading brings together such a wonderful story, filled with everyday sagas and adventures. They read widely, whether it be Ingrid Winterbach, JK Rowling or Jane Austen.

Nicky and I were gripped from day one. We soon discovered that there’s so much going on in this small dorpie. The farmer, Herman, “coming out” and accepting his homosexuality and all that goes with such. From his father disowning him at first, to his discovery of true love in the form of Altus, vannie Kaap. Their frightening and at times courageous journey together in wanting to adopt a child and become parents.

Lillie who came to seek some refuge from the harsh reality of men who are trash, and wanting to blame herself for what had happened in Rome after a night that went awry and ended in some predator taking advantage of her. The healing she underwent by spending time with her grandparents, Anna and Jan, as well as the caring and loving attitudes she got from the people of this small town. Both Nicky and I were happy to see that she is yet again spreading her wings in faraway countries, having found her innocence again.

I’m gonna miss Merweville and die Boekklub members. It is certainly a dorpie with its own pace and rules. But one thing is for sure, I’m glad we took that wrong turn in the Karoo and spent some time in a small town called Merweville. It is apparent to me that people will come and go, but the 25-year-old Boekklub will remain.

When I spoke to Anna, she struck me as a very complex person. A herbalist and local white sangoma type to many, but more importantly a solid rock for this group of people. She was Bettie’s best friend. And in her being a foundation to all, she finds her comfort in her soulmate and husband, Jan. A loving husband who gives her the space to dream, garden and smoke her dagga, but when she lost him to the heavens, her world collapsed. She ran away and for the next three months she was searching for Jan, at all their favourite places over the years, but to no avail. When she returned, the Boekklub members were at peace again, the matriarch had returned and all will be well again.

The times I had to push back a tear while observing Nicky sobbing away, were innumerate. Damn, Quinton and Louis just know how to direct and produce this marvellous series, “Die Boekklub”.

Bettie’s ghost occasionally appeared in the garden of the gastehuis, simply to welcome me and Nicky to Merweville and to wish us Godspeed on our travels. I couldn’t help but appreciate Gerwin, the local school principal on the other side of the railway line, and her passion for wanting to ensure that the poor children of this dorp dream big and make something of themselves. Such dedication is rarely seen in our teachers and school administrators these days. Her compassion also led her to adopt precocious little André, (a white boy who came from a battered past), an abusive father and a mother now in jail. Gerwin spoke so fondly of her love for her new son. At first, he did not want anyone to touch him because of the abuse of his father, but over time, with him receiving so much love from his new coloured mother, they hug and even kiss at times, which I can observe André appreciates.

And just when you think you’ve seen it all in Merweville, Kara, a young beautiful first-year university student and daughter of Hanli, attempts suicide. It came as such a shock to us all. Fortunately, the local detective, Lourens (the only one in die streek), equally had a brush with wanting to end his life a few years earlier, and comes to Kara’s rescue in a very big way, and makes her understand that we all run from our shadows and sometimes they catch up with some of us. She finds solace in his words and advice, and voila, they find true love and marry each other. Tears roll again uncontrollably.

Another glass of wine, dear? I inquire as we acquiesce to another episode before calling it a night.

Tom Niemandt, a central figure in this high-minded affair, is perhaps one of my favourite characters. Maybe it’s because I too see myself as a prospective author, or perhaps it’s because as we converse late into the evenings, his intellect is refreshing and surprisingly satisfactory to me. We also reminisce of our times spent in England, at different times, of course. Our love for books of such varied genres are also a source of endless entertainment. Nicky and I love books and so too do our twins, and a variety of genres go a long way in shaping one’s imagination, travelling to distant worlds and encountering so many different peoples. Reading is a must. At least that’s what I loved about Merweville and its quaint Boekklub. As for Tom, I guess we will keep contact after this encounter. And I can but hope that he finds true love in Pretoria with Isabel, the doctor. All the best with that Tom, and your next book, pal.

Now, imagine a small, relatively conservative group of people, set in their various ways and God-fearing, of course, though there is a healthy dose of my atheist types too, when Tom introduces the book, Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m sure he simply wanted to throw a cat among the pigeons and boy, did he? Well, I tell you, it had me and Nicky in stitches to see how different people in the Boekklub dealt with its overtly sexual content. After all, sadomasochism is not everybody’s cup of tea and certainly not in Merweville. It certainly ignited Sofia’s love life with her husband, Tobias. Who every now and again encouraged her to read another chapter before the evening sets in.

I have been travelling with my family every year-end by road to both Knysna and Cape Town to visit the families and enjoy a well-deserved rest. Every year, when we get to Laingsburg or Beaufort West, I cannot wait to buy some skaapstertjies at the local butchery. I share this story with the local butcher in Merweville, Gert, who lost his wife to cancer a year prior, but is now experiencing love again with the local nurse, Petro. He insists that his skaapstertjies are far better than the ones I have been purchasing over the years. I inform him that Woolworths also now have them on offer and they’re not too bad, actually. He looks at me with some suspicion.

I loved my time in Merweville, though it was far too short. Nicky and I don’t really know what we will do now, but hopefully Quinton and Louis might take us on another journey soon.

Merweville, a microcosm of South African life. They speak fondly of the day Mandela was released; how they as different race groups have coexisted so beautifully and how farmers passionately boer, to provide the nation with skaapvleis, mielies for maize and so much more. In effect, feeding us as a people. They do it selflessly and with great assiduousness. They lose themselves in fiction and travel the world through their books, whether it be while baking cake for the next church fair or while the sheep are being vaccinated. But the most important lesson my wife and I learned was that communicating one’s feelings are paramount. Talk to each other and a father will realise that he loves his gay son; that a misunderstanding between mother and daughter is why they have not been talking for years; and that you can rediscover lost family you never knew you had.

I’m gonna miss Merweville and die Boekklub members. It is certainly a dorpie with its own pace and rules. But one thing is for sure, I’m glad we took that wrong turn in the Karoo and spent some time in a small town called Merweville. It is apparent to me that people will come and go, but the 25-year-old Boekklub will remain.

As they say in Afrikaans, wederom tot wedersiens – till later and until we see you again. DM

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