The Soothsayer

A kort verhaal in the Klein Karoo
by Alan Engelsman

The year was 1605.  Africa. In the heart of the desert.  32 ° South.

A young couple – according to the legend of the San tribe living on the outskirts of Africa’s southern desert – disappear into the black hole on a dark and moonless night. The tribe searched for days, every grain of sand, for miles in all directions, but the young couple make their leave without trace. Never to be seen by the living… ever again.

Devastated by their family loss, but accepting their fate as the will of the gods, the tribe hold a funeral for the young couple in absentia.

At the funeral, much to every tribe member’s total bewilderment, the San tribe’s outspoken Soothsayer tells the congregated lot that they need not mourn…for the young couple are still alive.

“They have been taken by the gods to a better place“ he told his people.
“A place in the far north where the buck spring high into the sky.
A land of the gods where food and water are plentiful.”

The San tribe listened to their Soothsayer with unquestionable authority. Despite his aging mind and his many years of divine interventions, most of which never ever saw the light of day, the tribe absorbed every word from his lips. They rejoiced in his assurance of the young couple’s safety.

That same night, so the legend continues, the Soothsayer had a vivid dream.
He dreamt the young couple were not only alive and well, but that they had a child together – a young boy. And that this boy would one day return to their San tribe in a time of need. And he would lead them out of the desert to a better place where the buck leap high into the sky, and where food and water are plentiful.

All this is etched in stone. In an ancient San rock painting on the walls of a cave, deep in the desert of the Klein Karoo. The painting, in a mix of rudimentary graphics and icons, tells of the young couple, the black hole, their baby boy, and his return to leadership. And its there, for all eyes to see.

All, that is, that believe in the legend.
The year is now 1985. The country town of Beaufort West. 32 ° South.

It’s a moonless night. A young Afrikaner couple from the local townsfolk get into a car and drive themselves into the dark. Never to be seen again.

The news of their disappearance spreads quickly through the town of Beaufort West. In a flurry of mixed emotions, from rage…given the town’s unsettling crime statistics… to fear … given the local population of coloured peoples outnumbering the whites… to anxiety, simply for the unknown of the dark.

The town, by all accounts, is quite literally torn apart.

The local police are naturally summoned to investigate. A missing persons file is opened, the police take a host of statements, relayed stories of the night in question are collaborated. But despite all the enlightenment, no real progress is made. Unhappy with the outcome, the two families of the missing young couple decide to employ the services of a private investigator, a private eye from Cape Town, to help uncover the mystery of the missing Afrikaner couple.

In the meantime, the missing persons file at the Beaufort West police station is closed. The couple are officially declared deceased and the families hold a public funeral for the missing young couple in absentia. The entire town is cast into a state of mourning and a sense of deep depression fills the streets. The town’s only flagpole on the steps of the stadsaal, flies at half-mast.

Unabated, the private eye from Cape Town continues with his investigations. In his travels he comes across a San tribe living in the desert just 10km outside Beaufort West. There he enquires of the missing young couple that disappeared into the darkness.  A couple, that only a few months ago, were alive and well and living in the nearby town of Beaufort West.

To his astonishment, the San tribe said they were well aware of the missing couple. They tell him eagerly of the rock painting that can be found on the walls of a cave deep into the desert. And that this painting was put there by their ancestors to forewarn them of a missing couple and the black hole.

But that he need not mourn their absence… for they are still alive… and living in a better place. A place where the buck leap high into the sky. A place where food and water are plentiful.

The private eye listened with interest, making mental notes of every word.
More importantly, they continued, this young couple will one day return to Beaufort West. And they will be three… for the young couple will have a boy child who will return with them.

Armed with a bakkie load of new information, and feeling very proud of himself for garnering this priceless information, the private eye from Cape Town returned to the families of Beaufort West. Extracting every ounce of detail from his memory bank, the private eye related the legend of the missing couple… as told to him by the San tribe living in the desert, just 10km away.

“ …and they are still alive” continued the private eye.
“ They are just in a better place. A place where the buck leap high into the sky and….”

“Enough of this kakpraat “ shouted an angry father of the missing young couple. Rising from his riempie stool he ushered the man to the door.

“ We have heard enough… take your good news and pack it into your suitcase… and make sure you take it back with you to Cape Town !!”

And with that, the private investigator was chased out of town. The families of the missing couple were so enraged by the spiritual undertones of the San tribe tales…and the preposterous thought of the young couple still being alive…and living in a better place… that they even refused to pay the man.

And so the young man left, with his head in shame, and he never looked back to Beaufort West as the town faded from the sights of his car rear view mirror.

And so it came to pass. The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, with no more talk of the missing young couple from Beaufort West.
And the painful memory of the private investigator from Cape Town was no longer present as the townsfolk returned to the pace of country life with an inner peace and harmony, with nature… and with one another.

Talk of the missing couple from Beaufort West was all but forgotten.



The year is now 1986.  Beaufort West.

Exactly nine months and13 days since the Afrikaner couple’s disappearance.

Beaufort West gets a visitor from the far north. An old man, with white hair and a walking stick… not a white walking stick… is studying a washed out old poster just barely fixed to a main street pole. It’s a poster of the missing young Afrikaner couple that disappeared from Beaufort West on a moonless night, many many months ago.

The old man smiles… he recognises the faces in the washed out poster. Faces of a young couple that he, per chance, had met in his travels up north.

So the old man walks, with a deliberate limp, into the local police station. There he tells the constable on duty that he has seen the missing couple on the street poster.

“They are alive and well “ explained the old man “ and they live in a better place. A place where people eat and drink and dance in abundance. A place where not even the dogs go hungry.”

“The couple look a little different now “ continued the old man,  “but it is clearly them. If you hold my walking stick, I will swear on the bible to that.

And they have a child … a baby boy.”

The silence that befilled the police station was… well… deafening.

News of the young Afrikaner couple’s sighting up north, spread like wildfire through the town of Beaufort West. Faster than a ball of dry fynbos driven by a strong south-easterly wind. The townsfolk were soon abuzz with speculation about their missing couple being alive and well.

And the news soon reached the ears of the missing young couples family.

At first, understandably, it did not register. But their silence was soon broken with cries of joy, excitement and a burning anxiety for more news. Particularly over the news of the young couples new child … a baby boy.

So the families dropped everything to go meet with the old man and to celebrate with him the happy tidings from the north. But the old man was unable to tell them more, or to join them in their celebrations.

For as fast as he blew into town, the same southerly breeze blew him right out in similar fashion. Not to be seen or heard from in Beaufort West ever again.

And so it came to pass, not long thereafter, a young couple with a baby in their arms, arrived in Beaufort West. It was indeed the town’s long lost missing couple having now returned home to their families. Afraid of retribution from the father of the young girl, the couple left Beaufort West to marry in secrecy.

And to have their love child in a safe haven, for the young girl was already a few months pregnant the day they left.

But not a word was said of their plans.

Reunited with their families, the whole town was overjoyed by their safe return. A grand festival was arranged in the street outside the stadsaal, to celebrate their return. And the people of Beaufort West were at one.

Meanwhile, just 10km out of town, the San tribe living in the desert of the Klein Karoo, get to hear of the celebrations taking place in Beaufort West. The story of the missing couple having been sighted up north, and being alive and well and living in a better place. They hear too, more importantly, of the young couple’s new addition to their family… a healthy young boy child.

News of the sighting of the young Afrikaner couple and their return to Beaufort West gets told to the San tribe’s Soothsayer. Without hesitation, the wisely old Soothsayer summoned two young scouts of the tribe to travel the 10km to Beaufort West. And to do all that they can to verify the young couples return and the birth of their new boy child.

And, true as the dust settles on the voorkamer vrybankie, the two young scouts get to see with their own eyes, the young Afrikaner couple and their new boy child. They immediately set foot on the road back to their tribal village, just 10km towards the desert sands. On their arrival they tell the Soothsayer exactly what they had seen in the main street of the town.

They had seen the boy child … in the flesh, in the town Beaufort West.

The Soothsayer called the tribe together and that evening they too held a rejoicing ceremony. To thank their gods for bringing the young couple safely back from a better place. And for delivering the boy child to the land of the San. A boy child that was destined by the ancestors…to be their new leader.

With the passing of time the normality of country living returned to Beaufort West. The boy child – christened Adam in the local kerksaal – grows up to be a happy kid, and begins his schooling at the Beaufort West Primary. There he befriends another happy chappie, from the San tribe just 10km outside town.

This little coloured kid – Colgate by name, with a mouthful of white teeth and a bright smile to match – came to school on his first day dressed in nothing more than a loin cloth and a riempie to hold it up around his little waist.

The teacher took one look at the little guy with his exposed buttocks and called him Kaalgat. And so his name came about and to his friends, including young Adam, Colgate was forever after called by his new nickname…Kaalgat.

Adam and Kaalgat became the best of friends. At school, in the classroom, as well as on the sports fields and playgrounds after school, Adam and Kaalgat were seen everywhere together. But the other white kids in the small town of did not care for Kaalgat. They often picked a fight with Adam quite simply because of his friendship with Kaalgat. It became a common occurrence to see young Adam and Kaalgat in the centre of a racial brawl, fighting together as one. But these regular brawls only served to strengthen their bond…for many years to follow.

One day, several months later, Kaalgat invited Adam to come spend the day and to meet his family still living with the San tribe, just 10km outside of Beaufort West. Adam accepted the offer and there Adam met Kaalgat’s family and the elders of his tribe. Adam spoke very highly of his friend and the unique bond he shares with Kaalgat…er, Colgate. The elders laughed openly.

Unbeknown to Adam, he was spotted by the Soothsayer, talking freely with the tribe’s elders. The Soothsayer noticed with a keen interest how Adam held the elders in the palm of his hands as they listened to him relating story after story. The words flowing freely from young Adam, the elders sat with him and Kaalgat for hours without interruption. And the Soothsayer instinctively knew he was the chosen one. The one the ancestors had foretold would come in a time of need and lead them to a better place. A place where the buck leap high into the sky. A place where food and water are plentiful.



A decade…or at least, many many years… later. But still in Beaufort West.

And so it came to pass, Adam and Kaalgat finished their schooling and, with his first class exemption matric results, young Adam was sent to the University of the North to further his studies.  Kaalgat, along with Adam’s family, was present at the railway station to say his goodbyes and to wish his friend good luck in his studies up north. Kaalgat, on the other hand, was left behind in Beaufort West, where he took up a post with the local municipality.

For the next five years Adam buried himself in his books. He studied South African history, languages and political science. And he became an active member of the university debating society. Adam became a fine public speaker – a talent for which Adam had shown at an early age – and never failed to use every opportunity that came his way to practise his oral skills.

By the time Adam graduated with a Batchelor of Communications degree, he was already an accomplished speaker, well liked by his peers, and respected by his university professors. And all the while, Adam made regular contact and lengthy correspondence with his friend Kaalgat …back in Beaufort West.

Adam returned to his friend and family from the University of the North to a hero’s welcome. Kaalgat and Adam braced each other like long lost brothers. The family looked on in awe as the two young men shed tears of joy on the station platform – together again as one.

Adam immediately set about furthering his career. He had accepted a position in government in the department of social development and housing. A senior position with good pay, a housing subsidy, plus medical and pension benefits.

Adam was now a maneer. He drove a white government registered motorcar and wore a white collar and tie every day to work…proof of his seniority.

One day, Adam received a visitor to his office. It was Kaalgat and one of the elders of the San tribe, still living in the desert of the Klein Karoo, just 10km outside of Beaufort West. Adam welcomed them in and served the two men with strong coffee and beskuit, which Adam’s wife bakes for him to take to office every so often. The men talked in earnest while Adam listened.

They had come to Adam to seek his help and advice. The recent spell of long droughts without any rains had left the land without mielie crops and the tribe’s water supply from their local watering hole was all but dried up. The elder told Adam his people were going hungry and that many of the older folk, as well as some of the toddlers, were too weak to get out of bed in the morning. The people were worried that without good rains soon, many would die.

The Soothsayer had instructed Kaalgat to appeal to Adam for help. He invited Adam out to the desert to come see for himself the state of the land.

Adam offered more coffee and beskuit. Then he packed the balance of the plate in a serviette and placed it in an office stationery bag. He handed the small parcel to Kaalgat and said…

“This is for you to eat on your journey home. Return to your tribe and tell your people help is on the way. I’ll dra food and water in my own car if I have to.”

True to his word, just a few days later, Adam drove out to visit the San tribe, 10km outside of Beaufort West, to see for himself the state of the land. And in the boot of his car he loaded many a bag of mielie meel and two army issue jerry cans of fresh water. It was his first visit there since he was a young boy, many many years ago.

The tribe welcomed him as they would a member of their own family. Adam was shocked by his findings and what he saw there. The years of poverty and devastation had made their mark…on the land…on the tribe…and in the heart of Adam. He found their dire situation unbearing and broke down and wept.

The Soothsayer stepped forward and took the man by his arm and led him away. They walked for several minutes away from the village and into the desert. Adam’s obvious concern for the people was clearly evident and it pleased the Soothsayer. He led Adam into a cave where, still perfectly preserved from the harsh elements of outside, was this vivid rock painting.

The Soothsayer, pointing with a stick on the walls at the various graphics and icons, told Adam of the legend of the missing couple. Of their disappearance into a black hole…and their return as three…with a boy child. And he went on to explain that this boy child would one day – in a time of need – lead the San people to a better place. A place where the buck leap high into the sky. A place where food and water were plentiful.

When the Soothsayer had said his say he went silent. Adam too, was silent.

No words could describe this moment. His life etched in stone before him. This sense of purpose that overcame him. Adam knew this was his calling.

The two men walked back to the village… no words were necessary…the way Adam walked… with a distinct spring in his step… said everything.

And so it came to pass. In the municipal elections of the following year, Adam was voted ward councillor for the municipality of Beaufort West. He was tasked, as part of his socio-political portfolio, with the responsibility of relocating a San tribe living in the desert, just 10km outside of Beaufort West.

And this he did.

Today, the San peoples have their own state. It’s a small community that live in harmony with other San tribes in a group housing development. A low cost housing development located just off the banks of the Orange River.

The land is very good. For both agricultural farming and irrigation. Water is plentiful and easily accessible from the river estuaries. And the San people are very happy with their new homes. Kaalgat…or Colgate to his people…is the development projects manager. He himself now an elder in his tribe.

And the tribe’s Soothsayer, although much older now, has recently been awarded by the University of the North with a social doctorate. An honour bestowed upon him for his role in uplifting his people…well, that is, according to the words printed on his university certificate.

But truth be told, what the San people believe, the real reason the university called him to a ceremony one day, was because of the Soothsayer’s uncanny ability to read a rock painting. A rudimentary illustration that is etched in stone on the walls of a cave…deep in the desert of the Klein Karoo.

A painting placed there by the San tribe’s ancestors… many many years ago.

It tells of a missing couple, a black hole, their safe return as three…and their boy child. A child that would one day lead the people to a better place.

A place where the buck leap high into the sky.

A place where food and water are plentiful

A place where the people will find happiness.

And, according to the San legend, this rock painting can still be found there today for all to see.

In a cave, deep in the desert, in the heart of the Klein Karoo.

Just 10 km outside Beaufort West. Africa. 32° South.

All that is, who believe in the legend.

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