Burning the Grass
A pale autumn sun had risen over the town and the surrounding veld.
Easter Saturday was dawning, a time of sorrow and uncertainty. The smoke from burning grass, which had clouded the horizon for the past week, had come closer during the night. Driven by the east wind, it had crept up from the farms across the Skoonspruit River, to the very edge of town. It prompted anxiety, as well as thoughts of punishment, remorse, and paybacks yet to be identified.
First to awake, as ever, was Tshing, the black township adjoining white Ventersdorp. It got up as the first rays of sunlight were starting to dispel the darkness and chill of night. As the rooftops gradually loomed out of the dawn mist, smoke from the hearths rose above them, to the sound of hens clucking, gates creaking and then crashing shut.
The streets slowly began to fill with people. Men in navy-blue overalls carefully locked their front doors and gates behind them, then came out onto the road to join others, heading on foot to the white town over the hill.
Black town councilor Tommy Lerefolo, still half asleep, could imagine the scene taking place around him on all the nearby streets; it was the invariable morning stirring of the black township, heading for the white districts.
Tommy, however, had no plans to get up. On Saturdays the town hall was closed. As he lay in bed, basking in the luxurious thought of a day off work, Tommy kept delaying the moment when he’d get up, putting off all the pleasures that lay ahead of him that day. He had decided to wash his car that morning, his white Nissan SUV, and that evening he was going to watch a soccer match on television.
Raymond Boardman had also got up early, and reached town too early, long before the bank opened.
He left his car downtown, then glancing at his watch and calculating how much time he had, he automatically set off along the road, slowly being flooded with cold morning sunlight, that ran towards the black ghetto.
It was so early that he met Tswana women on their way to clean, launder and iron at the houses in Ventersdorp. He also passed black men in heavy cotton overalls heading for the white town. Some of them were standing at the town limits, near the Caltex gas station to wait for the farmers who would come here in search of laborers to work on their farms, and would choose the strongest, fittest, and best – the rare few.
As a boy, Raymond had often come here with his father to see if there was a lack of hands to do the work on their farm or something had to be done that none of their workers could manage. “We need more blacks,” his father would then say. “Time to make a trip to the Caltex.”
Every time he passed the Caltex gas station in his car, Raymond was reminded of this process of selecting people from among others, all alike, in the same navy-blue or gray overalls and rubber shoes. And the eager way they clambered into the back of the truck. They seemed already on the move before his father had pointed a finger to say you, you and you. They were in such a state of readiness that they seemed to sense his decision a split second before he did, or perhaps they were trying to force him to make the right choice. Raymond felt relief at the thought that he hadn’t had to do that for a long time now. His own blacks were enough for the work on his farm; sometimes there was even a lack of jobs for them to do, and then they were forced to look for work in town.
At the Caltex gas station he stopped and turned back towards the white town. Now he was walking along with the men who hadn’t stopped at the gas station. They had jobs in the white houses, and were so intent as they walked ahead that they seemed to be trying to anticipate the white housewives’ wishes to do with watering and cutting their lawns, weeding their flowerbeds, and fixing their fences, driveways and roofs.
There still wasn’t a living soul downtown, though usually by this time of day there was plenty of traffic about. In the silence and emptiness, Raymond found a shady bench on a square outside the new town hall, by the triumphal arch. There he sat until late morning, bank opening time, gazing at the wall of the courthouse. In the night, or maybe at dawn, someone had painted some black sevens on it, joined to form a swastika – the emblem of the white brotherhood, a symbol of purity and good, of the never-ending war against the Anti-Christ.
Ten o’clock had struck when a red delivery truck stopped outside the Blue Crane Tavern, located on the town line. Henk Malan, owner of the bar, watched through the window as the driver got out of his vehicle and walked across the parking lot, nervously looking around him.
“A stranger,” thought Henk. He knew why the man had got out of his car. As he unhurriedly dried his hands on a towel, he took a good look at him. “I bet he’s not a customer,” he decided. Whites only ever dropped in at the Blue Crane to ask the way – how to get to the highway to Coligny without going through the black township. The locals almost never looked in here. They called the Blue Crane a shebeen, a black drinking den, as if it were a disreputable dive, and not a decent bar.
“They avoid me like the plague,” thought Henk angrily.
The whites didn’t want the blacks to have their own bar in Ventersdorp. They were afraid that by opening a bar on the edge of town Henk would lure them out of the ghetto. And in this town the blacks were meant to stay in their place.
“You’re opening a bar for blacks,” his mother had said when Henk took her to the Blue Crane for the first time. And it was the last time too, because she’d never set foot there again. “A bar for blacks,” she’d kept saying in painful disbelief, as he drove her back to her small cottage under a eucalyptus tree. She thought her son had no idea what he was doing, and that someone had given him bad advice. “Don’t you know where we live?” she’d asked, as if he really might not know that. “Don’t you know what sort of a place this is?”
But he knew very well what sort of a place it was. And he had a bar for blacks, exactly the kind he wanted.
He thought of his mother as he gazed at the white truck driver, nervously looking around the empty street.
“By now he’s probably sorry he got out, or that he stopped here at all. Damn this town,” muttered Henk under his breath. “They fear us like the devil fears holy water.”
And that had been the case for as long as he could remember. Visitors were just as rare as the rain here. They avoided the town, not only because it was a long way from the main roads, but also because of the sense of threat it inspired in strangers. The young people in town took it worse than the older ones. Henk’s stepson Frank, who had spent the morning painting a new signboard in a corner of the bar, cursed out loud at the memory of the previous day, when he’d made a trip to Potchefstroom, a sizeable city not far from here, famous for its university.
“You can’t even drive anywhere anymore!” he spat in anger. “A guy lets slip that he’s from Ventersdorp, and at once they stare at him as if he’s a beast! Maybe we should think about changing the name of this town?”
The white driver from the red pick-up got into his vehicle and turned back onto the N14 national road, along which he’d come.
Even more annoyed by this than usual, Henk went outside. Frank set up a ladder and nailed the new sign above the entrance; it had a crane painted in gold, just like the one on the five-cent coins.
“It’s crooked! Can’t you bloody well see it’s crooked?” barked Henk, lighting a cigarette.
Standing in the now deserted street, he gazed at the smoke coming from the veld all the way to the river. That day they had gone outside every hour, to stand in a group with the neighbors, staring at the veld. But this time they were in the street alone, as if everyone else had left.
“It feels deserted,” said Frank from the ladder.
The Blue Crane stood in a row of buildings bordering some meadows and the river. Beyond lay the veld, from where the smoke from the burning grassland was drifting towards town. Sometimes it grew thinner and paler, almost disappearing, blending in with the silvery, livid blue sky, and then it seemed to be off, dispelled by the wind. But now it looked to Malan even closer, denser, almost navy blue, like the storm clouds settled on the far bank of the river.
The blacks had been setting the grass alight for months, sometimes in several places at once, so the town was surrounded by smoke. The whites in Ventersdorp said they were doing it on purpose, so nobody could tell where it came from. Was it just workmen burning the roadside verges, or were they sending another white farm up in smoke? Now the smoke had come so close that it seemed set to engulf the town, lay siege to it, and finally launch the ultimate storm.
“Is that OK?” called Frank from the ladder.
Henk turned his gaze from the smoke on the veld and reluctantly inspected the new sign. To his mind, whatever he painted on it and however much effort he made, there was no way to beat the recession or avert disaster.
“What is there to say?” he muttered. “It’s all because of Eugène! Maybe if he weren’t here…”
But actually Henk wanted Eugène Terre’Blanche in this town.
In Gulu the day was ending.
The town was hurriedly preparing for sleep, as usual in the rainy season, trying to get everything done in time before the storm erupted, which had been gathering in the darkening sky in swollen, angry clouds, only waiting for dusk to release all the rage accumulated during the scorching day.
Blazing hot, the town was dropping, starting to cool down and go quiet. Now with no regret the weary storekeepers were putting away the goods they hadn’t managed to sell in the course of the day. Grimy hired hands from the vulcanization workshop were swearing as they struggled to roll some gigantic tires the size of mill wheels back indoors.
Set out on the sidewalk, they blocked the way, forcing passers-by to slow down and stop for at least a moment, long enough to plant the seed of temptation to buy some new car wheels.
In the downtown area the offices were closing up. With a rattle and a bang, one after another the shutters were coming down on the stalls and workshops, hidden in the deep shade of arcades running the length of the low-rise buildings on the main street. The innkeepers were starting up their electricity generators, and the noise of them could be heard from all directions.
The imminent cloudburst was already palpable. It was as if heavy drops of warm rain were hanging in the air, ready to fall at any moment onto the dusty red earth and change it into slippery mud the color of
blood. The sky was thundering louder and louder, bolder and nearer, and short, bright streaks of lightning were cutting across the clouds as they closed in on the town.
The citizens were vacating the downtown area to get home before the storm and the night. During storms the power supply was usually disconnected. Also, the troops stationed in the town preferred people not to hang around after dusk for no reason. It was easy to mistake them for guerrillas, who on dark, cloudy nights in the rainy season sometimes ventured out of their hiding places in the bush and came all the way into Gulu.
Jackson was waiting for me, as usual, at Franklin’s Inn on the main street. There he sat, perfectly still, leaning against a stone column. He was a journalist from the local radio station, King FM. Its office was
located opposite the Acholi Inn where I was staying. In the afternoons, when he finished work we would meet at this place. I would order the beer, and Jackson would tell me things—about the wars, about kings
past and present, good and bad, and about sorcerers and the spirits that interfered in people’s lives and influenced their fate. On Saturdays and Sundays we used to come to Franklin’s to watch soccer matches from the British league on a large television screen hung from the ceiling in the crowded, smoky bar.
Jackson didn’t move an inch, not even when I came up to his table. He looked tired and was plainly in no mood for talk. The storm was circling above the town now, waiting for the right time and place to lunge and stun it with thunderclaps, lightning, and lashings of rain. The town was frozen still, as if afraid of being too distracted by the usual hustle and bustle to notice the tempest’s first strike. Crushed
by its own weight, the sky was sinking lower and lower, as if trying to touch the ground.
Suddenly the wind, which was tugging at the palm trees just in sight beyond town, blew sand along the main street. Abruptly animated, shreds of old newspaper, bits of colored plastic, and yellowed grass
went whirling across the cracked asphalt. Jackson remained motionless, like a predatory animal holding its breath.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“But he flew past just over your head.”
The first raindrops fell, spattering noisily on the roofs and the ground.