The scorching sun tore through his bare back as he traversed the veld looking for the oxen. The air was engulfed by the stench of death. Hunger and thirst had devastated the area leading to thousands of animals perishing. He could not imagine life without ploughing and yet the very source of draught power was dwindling daily. The animals were too frail and thin to plough. So affected they were that you could literally count their ribs from a distance. Now and then a vulture took to flight as he approached, perching provocatively in a nearby tree only to resume devouring the carcass once he had passed. Under a leafless ‘mophane’ tree he spotted one of his own. It could only roll its eyes sideways upon recognising him. Tears came rolling down his cheeks. Quickly he wiped them off, his eyes darting left then right, probably checking if anyone had noticed he was crying. He could not afford exposing such a vulnerability about himself. In his book, men never cried. Kneeling down, he touched and rubbed the animal’s back. How cruel could this drought be? A couple of months ago this was the pride and joy of the Mmelesi kraal. He had named the animal "Barclays" after it had given birth to twins twice in a row. He adored this animal as he did the rest of them. He had trained them and trained them well. Whenever we had visitors, he would demonstrate the unique nature of his animals. Upon approaching the kraal, he would scream "Barclays" and in response the animal would let out a loud mooo! Man and animal would then answer each other that way as the onlookers gasped in shock and awe.
Now his Barclays was dying and he could do nothing about it. More tears flowed down his cheeks but this time he did not care to hide them. Lowering his voice, he whispered “Go well Barclays, you have played your part. We shall cherish the many years in which you decorated our kraal.” Strange as it was he spoke to his animals. He spoke to them when he wanted to sell them and when he milked them! It was not enough that he could only find five oxen, but he called off the search and drove the five home. He needed to start ploughing. He had three huge fields to plough and time was running out. He could therefore not afford to let a day pass on account of not finding enough oxen. He was not about to fail his family, not now, not ever! The famine was worsening. There was no hope that the fields will yield any harvest this time around. Would all that embarrassment be in vain? He wondered. It was almost a month since it happened and yet everyone in the village still spoke about it as if it happened only yesterday. He had on a number of occasions walked on to men talking contemptuously about him. What was he thinking? How could anyone even think the way he did. He had prayed he would be vindicated by a bumper harvest. Now he was ashamed to even walk around the village, let alone join men to enjoy a calabash of “mokuru”.
Having failed to find the sixth ox, he had used a cow to plough. No one in the village had ever done such a thing. His own father had taught him never ever to ill-treat a cow. They are to be revered, he had said very emphatically. He could almost hear his father’s voice admonishing him bitterly. The thought killed him, especially now that it was abundantly clear that his efforts were in vain. He had broken a tradition, a culture that had existed for ever and was now being touted even by village idiots who drank mokuru all day long. Ploughing with uncle Galeboe was a dangerous adventure. We never ever looked forward to it. He had a very weird way of finding fun in inflicting pain and misery on us. His sadistic escapades were well documented. Whenever he ploughed for my mother I was assigned to be his assistant. My role was simple or so I thought! When the ploughing started I had to tie “kgole” around my waist and walk in a very straight line ahead of the animals. This was such that we could demarcate the exact portion that was to be ploughed on the day. One had to do a few such rounds until the animals could not only walk in a straight manner, but also know when to turn around. His role in the entire process was to praise the animals and occasionally use his long whip to bring the wayward ones back on track.
He was an expert at using the whip. He could curl it artistically then bring it down suddenly to cause a thunderous noise as it landed on the animals’ skin. Without fail, the whip had landed on my barely dressed back so many times. I had lost count. In all the instances he would offer a feeble apology and then look the other way and smiled. I hated him passionately for this and though I thought he knew he did not care. I therefore could not help but enjoy his misery. I could tell he was hurting badly and when he left one morning in the direction of the graveyard, I followed him at a safe distance. I knew the danger I was putting myself in should he discover I was behind him. He had of late been behaving strangely. He snapped easily and screamed at everybody for no apparent reason. Only yesterday he kicked a cat so hard it landed across on our neighbor’s yard, almost falling into a pot of boiling water! He kept looking back as if he was checking if anyone followed him. Every time he did that I dived into the bushes and hid behind the leafless mophane trees. I enjoyed the drill while being awake to the thorough beating I will be subjected to should I be caught.
Reaching my grandfather’s grave, he suddenly broke into uncontrollable weeping. I edged closer. Never before have I seen an elderly person cry, let alone my very own uncle. I watched in pleasant horror! Here was a man who missed no opportunity to remind me how weak I was every time I cried. Here he was crying like a baby and in a grave yard of all places. I crept closer trying desperately not to laugh. I was beginning to get bored when he cleared his throat, and knelt down. I moved even closer. Speaking very softly he started talking to his dead father. “Ke nna Galeboe,” he stammered. “I failed you, I failed the entire family,” he continued. His voice shaking terribly, he then broke down and cried again. At that very point, I could not contain myself any longer. I cared less about what he would do to me afterwards. I laughed so loud my eyes started tearing. I laughed. I laughed myself hoarse. He turned around and faced me. He tried to speak but his lips just moved. He looked terrible. His eyes were sunken and teary; his trousers almost at his knees and he made no attempt to pick them up.
His worn out shirt was soaking wet and he looked a thousand years old. He made no attempt to hide his tears and I made no attempt to hide my smile. Our eyes met and I almost felt sorry for him but quickly reminded myself of the many times I have cried due to his beatings. I turned my back and left, still laughing. In the distance vultures took to flight, perhaps disturbed by either his crying or my laughter. Still there was no sign of the rain and the drought continued in its ravage.