THE Great Karoo, the vast semi-desert at the heart of South Africa, holds near-mystical potency for South Africans, and tongue-twisting challenges for Anglophone visitors. The prevailing language is Afrikaans, which makes mischief with vowels and consonants. How could I possibly know that Matjiesfontein is pronounced Mikeys-fontayne?
Jimmy Logan got his tongue round it; not the late great comic actor, but an emigrant Scot from the Tweed Valley who bought three local farms when he was district superintendent of railways at nearby Touws River, which the line from Cape Town reached in 1878. He turned the farms into a 100,000 acre estate called Tweedside, and soon became known as ‘the Laird’. Another Scotsman on the make, and one who succumbed to ‘the spell of the limitless Karoo.’ By his early 30s he had made a fortune, transforming a small Khoikhoi settlement into a fashionable health resort, famous for the clear, dry air which fortified his own weak chest. European royalty visited, along with Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling. Matjiesfontein is a relic of Britain’s imperial past.
All this I learn at the Lord Milner Hotel, Logan’s most enduring legacy in the somnolent time warp village, which is now a heritage site. Three hours and a thunderstorm out of Cape Town International, reunited with an old friend, hauling a cargo of books in the boot of her car, we stop overnight at this museum piece on our road to another Karoo curiosity: BoekBeDonnerd, the sixth annual book festival of the little sheep town of Richmond. Loosely translated the Afrikaans means ‘book crazy’, although I’m told that ‘donnerd’ is also a rousing profanity.
There are other book festivals in South Africa but only one Book Town. In fact, Richmond claims to be the only book town in Africa, and its initiator, Darryl David, insists he was inspired not so much by Hay-on-Wye as Wigtown. ‘I’ve never been to either but I read an article about Wigtown which described it as the town that roared. That appealed to me.’ Darryl is an academic and his genealogy could be a paradigm for the Rainbow Nation. Ethnically he is Indian with an English name – ‘I think my antecedents must have been Christian’ – and teaches Afrikaans at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, in faraway Durban and Pietermaritzburg. But like Jimmy Logan he fell under the spell of the limitless Karoo, and bought a Richmond holiday home over the internet without seeing it.
‘The town was dying and property prices were low. By then I was committed to the idea of launching South Africa’s first book town, but I wasted time looking in the wrong places, getting no interest from towns which needed no saving by books. Then I met Peter, and found another enthusiast.’
Peter Baker, a Canadian-born vet from Johannesburg, is the other half of BoekBeDonnerd. He, too, has a holiday home in the little ‘dorp’ (town) and on the back of its new status opened the Supper Club, its best restaurant. Darryl and Peter, both incomers, both activists: a familiar history in communities like Richmond, where the austere landscape of muted colours could be Scottish moorland – until you look more closely at its low-lying shrub succulents. It has some of the same problems of our remote rural extremities, drift to the cities, unemployment. But it has others which can’t compare: grave levels of poverty among its black and mixed race people, who are Khoikhoi and San in provenance, with the slanting features of those whom Europeans called Bushmen. Once they had work on the great, lonely sheep farms of the white farmers, and lived on the land which supported them. But economics, politics and new legislation have made this form of patronage unsustainable, and many have been displaced to wander jobless in the streets of Richmond.
It’s a pretty place. It has its own river, permanent water which makes an oasis in the semi-arid Karoo, and streets leafy with mature trees. It is typical of many of the Karoo dorps, with a graceful white Dutch Reformed church and wide streets lined with the Karoo version of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, the buildings embellished with verandas and arcades. Until the bookshops began to proliferate many were empty, some were rotting; and despite its strategic site off the main highway between Cape Town and Johannesburg, drive-through travellers rarely lingered.
Now there are arts and crafts outlets, internet cafes, guest houses, three restaurants (specialising in herby Karoo lamb) and a pub run by an Irishman who used to be a ship’s chef; not to mention some dozen book shops – antiquarian, second-hand, specialist and generalist – to gratify the appetite of the most eclectic bibliophile. South African colonial history, the second Anglo-Boer War which left its mark on the Karoo in military blockhouses, is well covered, along with the region’s natural sciences. The heads of trophy game line the walls, and in one shop I flinch from the jaws of a stuffed crocodile. Wigtown was never like this.
Richmond was founded in 1847 to meet the religious needs of a growing farming community, and named after a duke of Richmond whose son-in-law was the new governor of the Cape. So there was a nod in the direction of Britain’s Cape Colony. But today it’s first language is Afrikaans and the second is Xhosa, the language of Nelson Mandela. Some 73 per cent of the town’s residents speak Afrikaans, 22 per cent Xhosa, and just over 2 per cent have English as their first language. Many of the 5000-strong population are bilingual and some speak all three.
I see from the programme of BoekBeDonnerd 2013 that there is some parity between Afrikaans and English contributions, but there is no long tradition of written language among the indigenous people of the Karoo. What do Xhosa-speakers get out of Book Town Richmond and its sixth book festival?
Darryl has invited me to speak about my book Looking for Mrs Livingstone on the final afternoon of the three-day fair, which also allows me to do a journey I was unable to make when I was researching the book. It tells the story of Mary Moffat, wife of David Livingstone, through my travels to the key places in South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique where she lived and died, but until now I haven’t had the chance to take ‘the missionary road to the interior’ from Cape Town; an ambition now fulfilled in seven hours thanks to the well-paved highway and driving skills of my good friend Glenda Furst.
In the middle of the nineteenth century things were different. Four hundred miles north of the Cape, Richmond lies on the route trekked by Robert and Mary Moffat, Livingstone’s in-laws, as they travelled by ox wagon across the Karoo to the edge of the Kalahari and the people they called the Bechuana. Livingstone himself followed the same route through Beaufort West, capital of the Karoo, when he first arrived in Africa, and he, too, remarked that much of the scenery looked like Scotland. Ten years later, when his wife and four children had become excess baggage, he made the same journey in reverse when he took them to Cape Town to put them on a ship to Southampton.
‘Why me?’ I ask Darryl, when we finally meet. ‘How did you hear about the book? It’s only just become available in South Africa.’
He smiles knowingly. ‘Richmond is in the Northern Cape. Mary Livingstone was born in the Northern Cape. You talk about the Karoo in your book. When I’m planning the festival programme I like to include new works which involve the Karoo, and I use a search engine which is very good at tracking them down.’
Festival HQ is the public library, and the event expects some 3000 visitors over its three days, many of them regulars from the Western Cape and Johannesburg. Fortunately they don’t attend the 40 writers’ presentations at all once, as the library isn’t large. As with other festivals there are fringe events to distract them, guided walks, art exhibitions, musical evenings, biltong tasting competitions, farmers’ markets and barbecues and, for the local children, the dragkart parade. The creative children of the Khoikhoi and San are expert recyclers, using wire coat hangers and fence wire to make their own versions of traditional Karoo carts – modern motor vehicles.
The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, the organisation informal and a little eccentric. But the most striking eccentricity of Richmond Book Fair is that there is no entrance charge for the book events – unlike every book festival in the UK. How does it fund itself? This may become a problem as support from the Northern Cape’s community development programme dries up. ‘It was always our aim to make the writers’ events available to everyone,’ says Darryl. ‘We don’t offer fees, we provide accommodation, but all the writers pay their own transport costs, apart from overseas guests, like you.’
I’m a bit of a rarity, and BoekBeDonnerd has met me halfway on the cost of my flight from Scotland. The other half is well worth the richness of the experience. I share the final session with two of South Africa’s most vigorous literary activists. Although it isn’t billed as such Darryl has clearly mounted a woman’s event. I’m there to talk about Mary Livingstone, whose history of self-sacrifice has been smothered by her husband’s reputation. Diana Ferrus, performance poet and story-teller, tells us about Sarah Bartmann, ‘the Hottentot Venus’, who was lured from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded as a sexual freak in London and Paris, and give a reading of her famous poem about Bartmann, ‘I Have Come to take You Home’. And Sindiwe Magona talks about her play, Mother to Mother, which has travelled to Edinburgh and London, and the mothers who suffered when a young white American woman, Amy Beale, was murdered in a Cape Town township in 1993.
Diana is mixed race – what South Africans call ‘coloured’. Sindiwe is Xhosa, born into the same township which killed Amy Beale. What am I doing in such heroic company? Among women whose lives, although successful, have endured the long, arduous climb to education and recognition which faced any non-white during the apartheid years? That night, with Glenda, an affluent white South African who could be playing golf but chooses to devote her energy to the orphanage she founded, we sit down to dinner. We are all much the same age. Diana and Sindiwe have arrived by bus from Cape Town in the early hours of the morning. Glenda and I have arrived by Mercedes. Four women with nothing and everything in common, talking up a storm.