Monday, February 06, 2017

Racheltjie and Wolraad

For a long time, I thought I was a descendant of Racheltjie De Beer. Well, a descendant of her parents. Her legacy wasn't through children. The legend goes that Racheltjie gave her life to save that of her brother. They were lost in a snow storm. She hid her brother in an anthill, and lay in the opening to prevent the cold from getting to him. When they were discovered, he had survived, but she had not. Part of my family legend was that we wouldn't be around if that boy had not made it. Turns out the story originates as a mirror of that of Hazel Miner - an American heroine.


Story or not, it typified the values that were entrenched in the Afrikaans culture. Another story was that of Wolraad Woltemade. In 1773, a sailing ship was driven onto a sand bar in Table Bay near Cape Town. The southern tip of Africa is known as the Cape of Good Hope. The first Portuguese explorers had originally known it as the Cape of Storms. Woltemade rode his horse into the sea 7 times saving 14 men, before both he and his horse drowned. Of 191 on board only 53 survived.


It doesn't surprise me that some of the origin stories of the Afrikaners in South Africa resonate with American heroines. Many of the Europeans fled the wars between two of the Abrahamic religions - Protestants and Catholics. The historical equivalent of our modern difficulties. Some to the new world, some to the very south of the old world. A core underlying value is sacrifice and contribution. Hard work. The idea that no one owes you anything, and you owe your community everything. Including your life.

Despite most recently being part of the English community in South Africa, my family comes from a hodge-podge of European refugees, immigrants, colonists, criminals, explorers, soldiers and farmers. A common denominator would have been a trial and error attempt to find a place in the world. To build stories together. To fight. To reconcile. To hold grudges. To find common ground. Afrikaans comes from the term Afrikaans-Hollands meaning African Dutch. In the early days it was derogatorily called Kitchen Dutch because it arose as a working language. It is now the first language of most of the people of multi-racial decent in South Africa. Like isiXhosa, there are many borrowed words from other cultures. It only became a tool of white supremacy. It started in quite the opposite way, and I suspect could develop as a tool of reconciliation if it gets back to the kitchen.

Like the stories linking Racheltjie and Hazel, the Afrikaners and the isiZulu people also share several cultural links. Both groups are proud community driven people with a farming background. People of the earth. There are no doubt tales told by grandparents that translate and travel. Human stories aren't constrained by borders. 

Figuring out who we are, and who we want to be, will always be about finding stories that resonate.

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