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The Sultana of Ou Man

Mo & Jay soaked up the sun on the stoep on Hanglip. Sannaskop brooded over them to the east.

Jay recalled an embroidery in a relative’s house. She lived in Himeville with a grand viwe of the Southern Drakensberg. The words

I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence comes my strength

“Me too” said Jay.

“What?” asked Mo.

“What?” asked Jay.

“No, man! you said ‘me too’. What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, … ok, that” said Jay. “No, well, maybe … ok”. And he told Mo about the embroidery.

Mo thought. Gazed at Sannaskop. Thought some more. “Well. I wish it could bring me an idea to make some money” he said. “Jan Taks is looming large”.

Jay thought. Sannaskop shimmmered in the heat. Eventually he said “I have an ou man story, if you like”

“On man about ou manne” said Mo. He plunged the coffee, and passed the rusks. “Buttermilk” he said. “And raisins. Or Sultanas, Not Sure. Like Ouma made them”. They sipped and munched. Sannaskop shimmered. A shadow began to shorten as the sun moved. Jay felt this was a cue. It went like this:

It was next to Zuurbekom Station, in my chicken farming days, that I stopped for a chat with an old man. He was working in a fenced plot. I was sweaty, early for my train, and curious. He was a tall, spare old guy. I was then in my mid-fifties. He must have been seventy, if not older. I greeted him in Afrikaaans but he ignored me. Or so I thought, After a heavy pause he said “You can talk to me in English, or in Sepedi.I am Michael”.

He was watering mielie plants, with a watering can. The plants were young, not yet knee high. The entire plot was planted with maize, right up to the mesh fence. The rows were set closer than I was accustomed to seeing them. “Lots of mielies. You are watering them by hand” I said, “a big job”.

Well, we bought here” he said. “It’s one hectare, all we could afford”. Before I could ask, he said “A friend, my age. We live there”. He pointed to an mkhukhu in the corner. It was tiny, but I didn’t say so. “We bought the land and moved in here last year. The fencing was the attraction. There were lots of plots here, all much the same price, but this high mesh fence is what we wanted. He is in town this morning”, again, before I had a chance to ask.

Mo poured another coffee. I was still busy with mine, but grabbed a rusk and dunked.

“I know nothing about mielies, but these are more densely planted than usual” I said. “Yes, we don’t need to fit a tractor between rows, We have a nice narrow, deep wheelbarrow”. The whole stand of mielies was completely weed-free. “Looks great. Not a weed in sight” I pointed out. “We get in at dawn with a hoe, before the sun gets up. He starts at that corner, and I start here at this one. We meet somewhere in the middle there”

“How long to hoe it all?” I asked. He thought. “A whole morning, maybe a bit more when it is really hot. Then we finish late afternoon when it starts cooling down”. “Wow” I said. “You must be pretty tired when you are finished with hoeing”. He pointed to the shack. “No power”, he said. “No TV. Nothing else to do but sleep!”. There was a water tap near the shack. Like so many people in Africa, they must surely wash in the open, standing next to a bucket.

My train was due in about ten minutes. We said our goodbyes, and I made for the station across the road. The train came from Westonaria, and terminated somewhere in the East Rand. I would get off at Park Station. I was to repeat this same trip a few times, whenever the chicken farm bakkie was in use, or in for repairs. Every time I did the trip, I found that old man working the plot, sometimes both of the old men. They were sometimes too deep in the mielies for a chat. I always waved, and both of them always waved back, but they never ceased working. They were slow, and steady, working as though to a rhythm. In a few months the mielies were taller than them. In time, I noticed they had a system in place for watering. One would fill two 20 litre plastic containers with water, and trundle them in a wheelbarrow, placing them near where the other was watering with a can. He would then take over filling the watering can and the erstwhile waterer would switch to wheelbarrow duty. Turn and turn about.

The last time I saw them they were harvesting. “Hired” said one, pointing at a bakkie. “Green mielies in townships”. This was very early in the morning. They must have started at dawn. Through those few months, and chatting with them, it turned out that the younger members of their respective families were all deceased. This was a bad time in the AIDS pandemic, but nobody said that. The two men had no family to rely on. “We needed money, more than this state pension thing” was their explanation.

Jay said “On the train, I had a lot of time to figure out their business plan. A hectare is 100m squared. They had planted at 1 metre row spacing, and the rows were spaced 1 metre apart. Their wheelbarrow was narrow enough to get down the rows. So, at the planting rate, they had 100 mielie plants per row, in 100 rows, for ten thousand mielie plants. Each plant produces three cobs on average. In today’s money, that is 30 thousand cobs at R5 per cob, for R150 thousand. Bakkie hire per day, five loads to five townships, nowadays, even at R1 thousand per load, leaves them with R145 thousand. That’s R72.5k each, or roughly R6k per month, to add to today’s pension of R 2100. Not bad”.

“Our labour is free. We do it all ourselves” said Michael. The tax man is not involved. We pay ourselves wages, on paper, and those and the cost of seed with the wages brings us below the tax threshold. And, there is no such thing as a green mielie that goes unsold”

Sometimes I wish MBA holders could see how the real world can work. It has long been known that machinery is not cheaper than manual labour. It is just quicker, and with 300 hectares, that is important, to catch the rains. But for this small plot, Michael and his partner had no need for machinery. Simple gardening implements, a small outlay.

Mo and Jay looked at Sannaskop, then dropped their gaze to the ‘ou lande’ below.

“Two people per hectare, 30 hectares, and R150k per hectare is R450k before the bakkie hire” he said. “Phillipolis, Gariep, Hanover, Noupoort, even Richmond, and sometimes I need to go to de Aar or Middelburg. All hungry dorps. Hmmm”.

The sun had climbed high enough to no longer warm us on the stoep. Mo gathered the tray, loaded the plunger, rusks and crockery. At the front door, he stopped, cast another glance at Sannaskop, and his eyes slid down to the ‘ou lande’.

“Hmmmm” he said. “Hmmmm”. He picked up a sultana from the tray. It must have dislodged itself from a rusk.

“The sultana of Ou Man” he said, popped it in his mouth, and ducked into the house. No need to duck. Jay had nothing to throw at him.