Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lowveld: the dark side

As you may have gathered from my previous post, I had a great deal of liking and respect for the staff of the Lowveld farm, and I think that it was, by and large, reciprocated. There were times, though, when we just didn’t understand each other, and not only because the hundred workers there (with a few exceptions) didn’t speak English.

During the time I worked there, a small child strayed from its mother’s supervision while she was busying herself with housework, fell into the irrigation canal and drowned. A tragedy. Bad enough in itself, but the tragedy was compounded as follows.

There was a widow-woman who lived with her children in the compound, and who worked on the farm. Now, in African tradition, a widow is ‘bad luck’. Then too, this particular woman was… unlikable. Bear with me: her role in this becomes clear as my tale unfolds.

Some of the ladies of the farm requested a ride to see a sangoma (witch doctor or traditional healer) subsequent to the tragedy, and I, like a fool, took them there, blithely thinking that they had a need for comforting and this might do it. They took along a tape-recorder and held some sort of séance, the tail-end of which I witnessed when I went to fetch them.

On the Monday, I found the entire staff waiting outside my office with the following tale: the child had been murdered by the widow and thrown into the canal. How did they know this? The sangoma had told them, and they had a tape-recording to ‘prove’ it. Ninety-nine people waited for me to arrive at work so that they could demand that I dismiss her.

The police had declared the accident to be just that. There had been no marks on the child’s corpse. It was a simple drowning. The accused woman was a good worker, I had no legal cause to dismiss her. I couldn’t. It was as simple as that. I couldn’t fire a woman based on the assertions of a sangoma who had been 100km away at the time of the drowning, nor could the police arrest her.

The demands intensified, it began to become more than a little intimidating. At last, I raised my voice and announced that I was deducting every minute they weren’t at their work stations from their pay and that this was an illegal strike. I threatened that I would dismiss the lot of them if they continued. They melted away, rumbling angrily as they went.

Of course, they got the widow and her children off the farm. If I was frightened, she must have been terrified. I remember angrily asking if the death of one child was, perhaps, not enough of a tragedy for them. Must the widow’s three children starve in order to satisfy them? They shook their heads and said I didn’t understand.

I didn’t. I still don’t. The incident was alienating: me and ‘them’ and neither party understood the other.

In a simlalr vein, there was a belief that Malaria is not caused by Mosquitoes, but by a curse. It didn’t go as far on my farm as on some others. I heard dreadful stories of farm supervisor’s houses getting burned down because workers had become ill, and sometimes, the indunas (supervisors) who worked under me would be very afraid because it had been claimed that they had cursed someone.

It was as if it was impossible to believe that ‘shit happens’. Someone had to be to blame. Sad. Sometimes sick. Shit wold happen, and then it would be compounded: a cesspool of tragedies and misfortunes.

So: are you feeling judgemental? ‘I’m not so superstitious’, you may be saying… and yet… and yet… I know I believe some things that are unprovable: is that not superstition?

Had I been born two hundred years ago (what’s two hundred years in the scheme of things?) I might have held even more dicey beliefs. Some of them may have been ‘antisocial’ by modern standards, but they’d still have been acceptable.

I have the advantage of education to make me skeptical. What if I’d grown up without one? I might have believed that the world was flat and that bad things happened because of curses.

Today's pic: Something wet and sexy.


  1. Malaria a curse? That's silly, and the product of unenlightened minds. It's just a disease that can affect anyone at risk. It's not like AIDS, which is a punishment sent by Jesus to strike down the gays and heroin addicts and the occasional medical worker (who must secretly be a gay heroin user).

  2. Judgmental, no. Those kinds of beliefs exist in every culture. I suspect some of the things we hold to be truth because of our progress will in future years turn out to be completely debunked. Just because we're educated doesn't mean we're correct in our assumptions.
    It's human nature to blame someone, anyone, when tragedy happens. Anger is easier than sorrow.
    A sad post today MM. You handled yourself well under pressure.

  3. Damn it Grant. You're so amazingly clever (not to mention amazingly amazing) that I am utterly in awe!

    Another of my less favorite stories PAMO. I prefer reflecting the positive side, but that's not really balanced is it?

    I'll tell you the truth, I felt very, very judgemental at the time. It took me a long time to reconcile myself with the fact that these were still 'good' people, just good in their own way, and human.

  4. sometimes when people are ignorant of the facts the turn to some that is easy to understand to fill in the gaps, anyway that is a pretty messed up story, I feel bad for the widow... I was just listening to a story on the BBC about soldiers in Western Africa using rape as a weapon & how there is stigma on the victim...

  5. It is messed up, Karl. That woman lost her house because she had to leave the farm. She also lost her job, and if that wasn't bad enough, she had to live with being branded a witch and a murderess. If only everyone thought for themselves and stuck to facts, the world would be a better place.