Unto Dust – Pre-Intermediate Level
I have noticed that when a young man or woman dies, people act as if there is something special about it. And that it is different on the death of an old person. The idea, say, of a girl of twenty being lowered into a grave, brings out a sweet thoughts. It makes people say all kinds of nice things about her. She died too young. She was pretty and so full of life. She was a flower that dried up and died before it bloomed. It all seems so beautiful and correct. So it is no wonder that people get angry when the police start asking questions about whether she might have killed herself.
But when you have grown old, nobody is interested in the way you die. Nobody except you, that is. And your past life has got a lot to do with the way you feel. I remember Andries Wessels when he was lying on his bed close to death. He kept on telling us how he had lived the good life from his earliest years. It was because of this, he said, that he could rest calmly as the time came for him to die. And I certainly never saw a man die more peacefully. Right up to the end he kept on talking softly to us. He told us how happy he was. He told us how he could hear angels singing all around him.
Just before he died, he told us that he could even see the angels. They were the same size as us, he said. But he said they had horns and carried long forks. We could see that Andries Wessels’s ideas were getting a bit mixed up by then. But all the same I never saw a man die in a more peaceful way.
Once, shortly after the rainy season, I became very sick. I was so sick that I thought I might die. During the sickness I had this bad dream. It seemed that the whole world was a big cemetery. It wasn’t just those little fenced-in bits of land with headstones you see on farms here and there. I thought it was the earth itself that was a cemetery. This dream worried me a lot, and I was very happy when I got better. It was good to think that our people had special places on our farms for white people to be buried in the correct Christian way. This was much better than being put in the ground along with a dead wild cat, maybe, or a Bushman with all his things.
When I talked about this with my friend, Stoffel Oosthuizen, he totally agreed with me. There were people who spoke fine words about death being the great leveller, he said. They believed that death showed that everyone was a member of the same family. He told me that he would like to see this proved. After all, that was one of the reasons our people came to the Transvaal, he said. It was to get away from the British who wanted to give the vote to coloured people.
He told me he knew something was wrong the first time he heard that talk about us all being the same in death. It sounded like the sort of thing one of those politicians who want to change things would say, he added.
There was something in his words that made me feel better.
Then, to explain his point, Stoffel told me a story. It was about something that happened in one of the Transvaal Kafir wars. I don’t know whether he told the story incorrectly, or whether it was just that kind of story. Anyway, by the time he had finished, I found that I still wasn’t sure about it all.
“You can stop at the Welman farm and see Hans Welman’s grave any time you are passing,” he said. “It all happened a long time ago, so the headstone is weathered. But you can still read what is written on it.”
“I was with Hans on the morning he was killed. Our men had been attacked by a large group of kafirs hiding in some trees. We were trying to get away. When I looked around, I saw a tall kafir standing above Hans and pushing a spear into his body. I could do nothing for him. Shortly afterwards I saw the kafir taking off Hans’s clothes. A yellow kafir dog was jumping excitedly around his black owner. I was in great danger myself. Thirty or forty other kafirs were coming straight towards me on foot through the bush. However, I was so angry at what that tall kafir was doing that I stopped my horse for a moment. I fired a quick shot, and my luck was in. The kafir fell beside the Hans’s naked body. The closest of the other kafirs was almost upon me, so I kicked my horse and raced away. The last I saw was the yellow dog running up to the kafir. I had killed him, as we were to learn later.
“As you know, that kafir war lasted a long time. But there weren’t many large battles. It was mostly small fights in the bush, like the one in which Hans lost his life.
“After about six months, quiet of a sort returned to our part of the Transvaal. Soon after this I went out with some other men to bring back Hans Welman’s remains. His wife asked us to do it so that he could be given a Christian burial in the little cemetery on their farm. We took a coffin with us on a farm cart.
“Hans had been killed not very far from his farm. His family, along with others from the area, had to leave their farms during the trouble with the kafirs. We easily found the trees that the kafirs had attacked us from. We drove up to the place I had seen Hans lying dead on the ground, with the tall kafir next to him. From a distance I again saw that yellow dog. He ran away into the bush as we came closer. I couldn’t help admiring the animal’s loyalty. Even if it was to a dead kafir.
“We now found ourselves with an unusual problem. All that was left of Hans and the kafir were pieces of sun-dried skin and bones. The sun and wild animals and birds had done their work. There were bones and leathery pieces of blackened skin everywhere. But we could not tell which was the white man and which the kafir. To make it more difficult, many bones were missing. They must have been taken away by wild animals. Another thing was that Hans and that kafir had been just about the same size.”
Stoffel stopped speaking for a moment. I thought about what it must have been like to be there. I knew just how those men would have felt. They wanted to bring the remains of a Transvaal farmer home to his wife for Christian burial. But what if there were some kafir bones mixed up with him? They would have to lay together in the same grave for the rest of time.
“I remember one of the men saying that this was the worst thing about these kafir wars,” Stoffel continued. “If it had been a war against the English, it would not have been so bad. It wouldn’t have mattered if part of a dead Englishman was put into the coffin by accident,” he said.
It seemed to me that this was the kind of story you would only find in Africa. They spent the whole afternoon trying to get the remains of the white man sorted out from the kafir. By evening, they had laid all they could find of what seemed like Hans Welman’s bones in the coffin. They buried the rest of the remains where they found them.
Stoffel added that it did not matter what the colour of their skin had originally been. It was impossible to say that the kafir’s bones were less white than Hans Welman’s. It was also impossible to say that the kafir’s sun-dried skin was any blacker than the white man’s. Living, you couldn’t go wrong in telling the difference between a white man and a kafir. Dead, you had great difficulty in telling one from the other.
“Naturally, we all felt very unhappy,” Stoffel said. “But our growing anger was something that we couldn’t quite explain. Afterwards, several other men who were there that day told me that they had the same feelings. They wanted somebody – just once – to say something such as ‘they were together in death’. Then you would have seen some strong words and possibly even fighting. Nobody did say anything like that, however. We all knew better. Two days later, Hans was buried on the Welman farm. Shortly afterwards the headstone was added that you can still see there.”
That was the story Stoffel Oosthuizen told me after I told him about my dream. It was the kind of story, as I have said, that you would only find in Africa. But it brought me no peace in my thoughts. Especially when Stoffel spoke of how one night he ridden past that quiet cemetery on the Welman farm. It was a clear night and the stars were shining. Something jumped up from the ground beside the headstone. It gave him quite a fright, he said. For the third time – and in that way – he again came across that yellow kafir dog.