By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
From the shimmer of the Karoo emerges an extraordinary debut novel by Carol Campbell, writes Michele Magwood.
Driving on the N1 from Joburg to Cape Town, when the dun, scraped countryside has scoured your eyes and the spavined windmills rasp listlessly in the haze and you’re thinking that yes, this is truly what Godforsaken means, the hamlet of Leeu-Gamka appears in the shimmer. This is light-abraded land, to borrow the poet Stephen Watson’s phrase: land with no fat in it.
Leeu-Gamka was once known as Bitter Water, because of the brackish water travellers found when they outspanned there. Now the Shell Ultra City snares the trucks that thunder by. This place is the fulcrum for Carol Campbell’s remarkable debut novel My Children Have Faces.
This is a story of karretjiemense, the dirt-poor nomads descended from the Khoisan who roam the Karoo in their donkey carts finding what work they can on farms. They are liminal folk, sickly and always moving, surviving on roadkill and precious handfuls of flour. In South Africa, where so many have so little, the karretjiemense have the least of all.
Some years ago Campbell and her husband, Colin, were living in Prince Albert and farming nearby. One Christmas morning they came across a pair of donkeys running loose in the street. “They were in a terrible state,” she says, “so we put them behind our house and looked after them for a few weeks.” They were eventually claimed by a karretjie family who had turned them out onto the veld while they celebrated Christmas in town. Now they were looking for work, and as the Campbells needed the fences mended on their farm the family moved in. Over the next two years, Campbell got to know Saul, Elizabeth and their four children.
“We gradually built up a relationship of trust over an extended period of time. Elizabeth was very introverted but one day she asked me to help them get their IDs.” Born as they are in the bush and moddergats, karretjie people have no birth certificates. They are illiterate, have no idea of their birthdays and no access to schooling. They truly are invisible people.
And so, as Campbell began the grinding process of getting the family registered, the story of My Children Have Faces began to form.
The narrative centres on a small, ragged family – a composite, Campbell says, of the karretjie people she has come to know in the area. Kapok is the father, a champion sheep shearer until he injured his leg; Klein Muis is his woman, tiny and thin; and there are three children, the feral, jackal-like Fansie, the baby Sponsie who mews constantly from hunger, and Witpop, a girl who dreams of sanitary pads, of “a waslappie and a pink roll-on”.
Witpop has briefly tasted the delights of a cousin’s TV and a Pep Store and wants only to go to school and to wear white ribbons in her hair. But with no IDs, they do not exist. With no IDs they cannot access social benefits, or “All Pay”, to buy her those things. And so she stuffs clumps of Die Son in her broek and trails the dirt roads with her family, looking for work on the vast farms.
Fifteen years before, they had been forced to flee Leeu-Gamka, lashing their donkey cart away from the murderer and rapist Miskiet. Now Kapok has been offered work there and they have no choice but to return and face the evil that awaits them. “Ya, Klein Muisie,” says Miskiet. “I have been waiting for you to come back. You must be a dried-out old whore now. Running and hiding up and down the sand roads of the Great Karoo will suck the life out of a person. It was a hard life you chose, Klein Muisie, so you are coming back here, thinking I will have forgotten.”
Once again Miskiet tries to kill her, and once again they bolt, but this time Muis has a plan. She is determined to get “faces” for her family. “If you have an identity the police know when you are killed. They ask questions like: ‘Here is an identity but where is the person?’ If you have no identity then they don’t know you are gone and they don’t look for you.”
The suspense builds acutely as they make for Home Affairs in faraway Oudtshoorn with Miskiet in menacing pursuit. The landscape becomes a character in itself, and Campbell hints at how climate change has affected the region.
“Saul used to point out places where they once outspanned but the waterholes aren’t there any longer, or the beehives where they used to get honey.” She was aware, she says, of the old veld knowledge dying out, of the old language being lost. “When he dies it will all be gone. All his kids want is 7de Laan and sweets.”
She captures, too, the passive pragmatism of the people, the sense that tomorrow will come in its own time, but she doesn’t romanticise that existence. Alcoholism is endemic. When Kapok and Muis get their hands on a papsak, the children creep away to sleep in the stony veld, hiding the tools that Kapok will otherwise sell for more dop. There is violence and neglect, thieving and cruelty, but the story is told with such humanity that we root for this wild, abject family. The dÃ©nouement is unforgettable.
Bearing witness is normally the remit of non-fiction, but the best fiction witnesses, too, and in My Children Have Faces Campbell has coaxed an ignored, abandoned people from the arid shadows.
The Campbells have left the scoured surrounds of the Karoo, settling in the more forgiving hills of KwaZulu-Natal, where Carol is working as a journalist, searching, she says, for another story to tell.
What became of Saul and Elizabeth? “After a couple of years, I got a call one day from the farm,” she says. “It was Saul and he just said: ‘Dis net tyd. Ons moet nou trek.’ And they were gone.”
- Also published in Afrikaans as Karretjiemense
- My Children Have Faces and Karretjiemense are published by Umuzi