THE FREEDOM OF THE COUNTRY

When Mariana Esterhuizen and her husband left the city, the dorp they moved to was a choice of the heart.

In 1983 my husband, Peter, and I decided 10 exchange our lifestyle from a city-bound existence for life in a country village. We spent many pleasant weekends visiting villages in search of the perfect place. We looked at the architecture and infrastructure of several dorpies, we compared the affordability of property in a number of them, we paid attention to how we could earn a living in a particular area, but it all became too confusing. In the end we abandoned this practical approach for a choice from the heart. «How do you feel about this place on a Sunday afternoon at six o’clock when the wind blows?» became our mantra.

In the winter of 1986. we finally left Cape Town for Stanford. As 1 greeted family, the greengrocer in Long Street, friends and colleagues. I was often asked how I planned to make a living in this unknown dorpie in the Western Cape. I was following my heart in a scary, hippie-like way after 10 years of formal employment. I had no real answer for myself or for those who saw me leaving a secure job with a steady income. My stock answer to myself and concerned friends and family was that I planned to have two dogs and a vegetable garden.

A friend. Zelda, visited us soon after we moved to Stanford and gave me a copy of Two Dogs and freedom, a compilation of township children’s views of their world, published by Ravan Press. While our country was in pain and children were suffering, one eight-year-old child had the vision to write: «When I am old I would like to have a wife and two children -a boy and a girl — and a big house and two dogs and freedom…»

Like that child, I approached my new life in a country village with optimism and a vision for the future. Soon enough 1 found out that I was called an inkommer (foreigner) by some of the locals. Where I hoped to find an older generation of gardeners with the knowledge to grow food crops in a traditional organic way, a lot of the neat lush vegetable gardens were nuked to within an inch of their shiny green leaves with poison potions, some legal, some outlawed, but still lurking on the back shelf of a cupboard in a dark outbuilding.

We started ridding our garden of 20 years’ worth of weeds. As 1 dug out the rain-sodden weeds one by one. I hung on to the child’s positive outlook. I was at least assured that nobody had used any of those outlawed chemicals in my garden for many years, so the soil was clean to plant an organic food garden.

I bought a sack of seed potatoes. Peter dug the holes and I planted a seed potato in each hole and covered it up in persistent, dripping late-winter rain. The potato planters in Jean-Francois Millet’s painting looked like they were having a party compared to our muddied soaked selves. Miraculously the potatoes thrived in the sodden earth and when I lifted that first precious crop I fell in love with my garden.

On my early morning walks with our two pups. Jofes and Lolla, I followed the course of the lelwatersfote (irrigation furrows) that carry the lifeblood of our gardens. Form follows function in the lei water system, which free flows from Die Oog, the original water source of the village. The main artery for the supply of water is controlled by a set of sluices on the markplein (village square).

And the markpiein is where I lost my heart to Stanford. A few weeks after we arrived, a notice appeared on a shop window inviting everybody to clear their lofts and barns of unwanted goods to be auctioned off on the markpiein. On the Saturday morning of the auction I saw. for the first time, the whole community gathered there. The air was dense with the cinnamon-sugar smell of syrupy pancakes, Andriesde Villiers was braaiing lamb chops. and the markplein was littered with the most diverse collection of goods you could imagine to be auctioned off. I met Oom Flippie Franken there; he introduced me to the finest honey I have ever tasted, ghwarrie honey harvested from the dunes.

A small grey-haired woman, upright with a straw hat and walking stick, asked after the almond trees in our garden that she remembered from her childhood. The trees were long gone. I’ve since planted new almond trees and, every year when I harvest almonds, I remember the late Tant Batie Cellie with her sensible shoes and straw hat adorned with faded cloth flowers.

Today, I still have two dogs and some freedom, but I have found the place where it doesn’t matter whether the wind blows at six o’clock on a Sunday afternoon.

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