That’s one way to learn

Sitting down for my daily dose of language study (it was an Afrikaans day, the day before was German), I wanted something more than the basics: Piet will die boek koop, Hy kan nie die boek koop nie.  I didn’t care if Piet wanted to buy the book, or if he could buy the book, or anything at all about Piet and the stupid book.  I wanted something more complex, sentences with conjunctions, things that real people say.

And just as I was searching for the “intermediate” Afrikaans lessons, I heard a car coming down our dirt road.  Since it was moving at a healthy pace, I figured it was just a neighbor cruising by.  But then the motor slowed and the wheels bounced over the cattle grid at the entrance to our farm.

Could it be Jay?, I wondered.  That was a fast trip to town, it’s not even noon yet.  But soon I saw it was not Jay; it was his right-hand man, Zacka, in the old rattlebox farm pick-up back from checking if any of the pregnant cattle had given birth.  A minute later he was at my door.

I came outside.  “Alles OK?”, I asked.

This was a stupid question; he only comes to get me if he needs something or something is wrong.  But it was the question that launched my Afrikaans lesson of the day from easy, right past intermediate, straight into holy shit.

Zacka proceeded to inform me in far too many words that one of our cows had died while giving birth.  At least I caught the main part and responded with the appropriate shocked facial expression and repeated the crucial word back to him.

“Dood?” Um, that’s not good.  What do I do now?

“Ja, dood.  Kan jy Jay bel?

Yes, call Jay.  Good idea.  Let’s do that.

Naturally, when I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do and need some input from the guy who does all the cow stuff, the guy has his cell phone turned off.  All that crap about “Call me if you need anything.  Let me know if there’s any problems, etc. etc.”, only applies when everything is running smoothly.  After the third try, I swore at the automated “this number cannot be reached” woman and slammed the phone down.  Zacka and I were on our own.

He asked me if we should just leave the cow where she was.

“Miskien”, I replied.  Maybe was a safe answer while I searched my brain for a solution.

What would Jay do?

But then Zacka went into a ramble how the vultures were coming and vultures were bad, though I couldn’t understand why.

Should we bring it in to the vulture restaurant then? (The clearing by our house where all the leftovers from slaughtering go).  Or are those vultures bad too?

Then I realized there was a smarter option.

“Kan ons die vleis verkoop?”, I asked, using the Piet-and-his-book sentence structure.  If we could sell the meat, the death of a calf-producing cow and her (female, Zacka told me) calf would not be a total loss.

That is what Jay would do.

“Ja”, Zacka said, but not very confidently.

Well, we’ll see how good the meat is when they bring it in.  At least we have a plan.

Zacka then asked if I would come with.


“Ek kan”, I said, more like a question than an answer.  I had hoped my role in the ordeal was over, but Zacka was already suggesting we take the other pick-up along so that we could load the cow onto it.  Then, he said, I could bring it back home and the other farm guy could slaughter it while he continued the search for newborn calves.  Admittedly, this sounded like the best way to go about it, so as soon as I pulled the word for ‘shoes’ out of my head, I ran to get them and a hat and off we went, Zacka leading the way.

At least I don’t have to make small talk in Afrikaans (a task I prefer not to do in any language).  But why are we in such a hurry?  It’s already dead.  Oh, there’s the cattle guy.  Wave!  Maybe he’s worried the vultures will start in on the carcass.  Great, now he’s stopping to wait for my pokey ass to catch up.  What is this, normally Africans don’t move so fast.  Oooh, baby warthogs!

When we got to the camp where the pregnant cattle roamed, a glance around revealed no dead animals.  Zacka casually opened the gate and puttered forth, so I, now confused, followed as he drove deeper and deeper into the bush.  Finally, he got out of the truck, and just as I went to do the same, he climbed onto the roof.

Oh good, he’s lost the cow.

I climbed up there with him while he muttered something about how he just needed to find the other guy who was standing with the body, but we saw nothing and hollering his name only scared a few birds out of the bushes.  So, bumbling over my words, I offered to come with him; I’d ride on the back for a better chance at finding the missing cow and her human guardian.  And once more, we were off through the bush, bouncing in and out of warthog holes, sun pouring down.

This is not what I thought I’d be doing today.

Eventually, a man appeared through the herds of acacias and I leaned around to Zacka’s window and directed him “links”, left.  Once through another few craters, we turned around and backed into the small clearing where the cow had taken shelter.  I immediately felt sorry for her.  She had died under a tree, all alone, and probably in a lot of pain.  The calf’s head was out and partially eaten by something, along with its two front legs.

Well, you suck at languages, but at least you aren’t suffering in the bush by yourself.  Note to self: It could always be worse. 

Yet, it would be another Afrikaans-filled hour until we had her loaded.

We hauled out the winches, plural, two, because she was so big, and had the extra weight of a calf inside of her.  I tried to help where I could but it’s a man’s world in Namibia.  I realized I didn’t know how to use the idiosyncratic winches, because the men always do it and even when I could do something, like hoist the cow by her leg up onto the metal ramp we’d brought along, the guy who’d been standing guard grabbed the leg a little higher up, effectively pushing me out of the way.  This is a very common occurrence on the farm.  I don’t know if it is because they think I can’t do it, or that I shouldn’t be doing it, or if their manliness is challenged and they have to do it.  Regardless, I didn’t want to argue, I just wanted to get the cow on the truck.  I moved to the other side and hauled her up by the tail.

Luckily, with this sort of work, there was no need for conversation; we knew what needed to be done.  The winching, however, wasn’t working, the truck was too high and the cow too heavy.  Zacka offered a new plan.

Ok, gathering by his hand gestures, he wants to move one of the winches to the front of her body and flip her up and over.  That’s…um…not going to work.

But I couldn’t get words out fast enough to say that, nor did I have a better idea.  So twenty minutes later she was still on the ground, clasped tightly to the bed of the truck via her head and hind legs.

Zacka already had a new plan; something about driving her like this back to my truck still waiting on the road and we could then use both trucks to lift her up.  I didn’t understand how we would do this, but at least I knew the other truck was lower to the ground.  So Zacka motored off in that direction while the other guy and I walked behind, watching cow and calf bounce through every hole.

As the process unfolded, I realized Zacka was going to use his truck to pull her onto mine, forgetting the winches altogether.  I felt bad that I hadn’t been contributing to the plan-making lately, though winching and flipping cows onto trucks was not yet part of my Afrikaans vocabulary, and I scoured my brain again for anything that might help us succeed this time.

What would Jay do?  Well, there was that time last year…with those huge oil drums…and no winch…

It took time for me to find the words but Zacka nodded his head and made affirmative vocalizations.  If we backed my truck into one of those many warthog holes, its bed would be tilted low to the ground, making it much easier to load our heavy girl.  But, seemingly having understood nothing of my idea, he dropped the cow right there onto the road.

Wait…we have to…a hole…

Then with a pick ax from the back of the truck, he started chopping up the dirt road.

Well, he understood something.  Maybe this is just how he prefers it. 

So I grabbed a shovel, which was promptly taken from me by the other guy, then grabbed another one, and scooped out what had been chopped.  After a couple of tries the holes were big enough to get the two rear wheels into and the bed of the truck was only about a foot off the ground.  With a rope as thick as a cucumber around the two hind legs, strung up over the roof of my truck and tied to the hitch of Zacka’s, we slowly inched the cow onto the bed.  Although, I could not get out of the way fast enough and ended up with a bloody carcass smeared across my legs and feet, she was on the truck.

Thank god. 

I made sure Zacka was good to continue on with his original job and thanked him. “Baie dankie vir jou help.  Sien jou by die huis”.  I’m going home now.

In the end, the cow was slaughtered and the meat sold.  Jay turned his phone on again (he’d been in a meeting) and thanked us for our efforts.  We had done the right thing.  And I had survived the best and worst language lesson, sunburned and covered in dead cow blood, ever.  It was certainly better than the last fiasco.  Maybe, some far away day, I’ll actually get the hang of these tortuous languages.


Afrikaans and I

The day was going smoothly (always a bad sign) and I just had one more errand to do before hitting the road for home – fill those two diesel barrels on the back of the pick-up.  Not a complicated task.

It was off to a bad start when I pulled up to the front gate and it was locked.  Yet, I noticed the jockeys were filling up barrels on two other trucks.  I caught one man’s eye and gave him a look like “what’s the story?” with an upturned palm of my hand for emphasis.  He motioned to come around the side. Of course! The side door! The secret side door that they never use except when I am sent to get the diesel!  Yes, I’ll be right there.  Thank you, sir.

Once through the secret side door, I pulled the pick-up around to the only open spot at the pump and stepped out of the car to greet a short, old, black man in a red and yellow Shell Oil T-shirt.  Although it was not his, nor my, first language, Afrikaans is what we spoke to each other.  It is the language most of Namibia speaks to each other, unfortunately, it is the second, and therefore more neglected, language I have learned here.

Then the nice fuel station man asked me what I wanted.  I pointed to the two barrels on the back and said “diesel, asseblief”.  (Luckily, diesel is ‘diesel’ in Afrikaans.  ‘Asseblief’ is ‘please’.)  The man then informed me in a slew of non-understood words that I needed to move the car forward.  His arm gestures plus the fact that I caught the word for ‘forward’ helped me figure out his message.

After that task, I climbed out of the car to help unscrew the barrel caps.  They were well-tightened so the man went off in search of a tool to loosen them.  I grabbed the pliers out of the front seat and quickly twisted the first one off.  He came back with a big smile and said something in a tone like ‘very clever’.  I smiled in response.

As the barrels filled, I watched the other men waiting and how they joked and chatted with their diesel guys.  I envied their ability to do so.  It is times like that that I remember when I return to the States and start chatting with every cashier I get; enjoying conversations I previously had taken for granted.

Soon, my guy came over and handed me a little slip of paper detailing my purchase.  He pointed to the office.

“Mevrou”, he started.

Miss, yep, got that part.

“Mumble mumble mumble toe, mumble mumble mumble ander kant”, he said.

Ok, the office is closed, I have to pay on the other side.  “By Caltex?”, I asked, pointing to the Caltex station around the corner. (‘By’ is also an Afrikaans word though pronounced ‘bay’).

“Ja,” he nodded.

“Ok, dankie”, I said, my confidence in communication growing.

A little bit later the drums were full and he poked his head around to the front seat where I was sitting. “Tank, asseblief”, he said, and pointed toward the floor of the car, toward the lever to pop the gas tank.

Tank? Why the tank?  I guess I get a free fill-up with my diesel.  Cool, dude, thanks!  And so, I popped the tank.

He repeated himself, “tank, asseblief”.  So, I pulled the lever again, twice, just to be sure.

“Tank”, he said, thrusting his finger toward the floor.  “Die tank!”

Yes, the tank is open!  Fill ‘er up, man!, thought my frustrated brain, pulling repeatedly at the lever.

Meanwhile, my logical brain ruminated over what else this poor man might be trying to tell me.  Tank……. tank…….tang!  Die tang!  He wants the pliers!  There, on the floor next to the gas tank lever, was the pair of pliers I had used earlier to open the diesel drums.  He now wanted to close them.

I damn near threw the pliers at him in my anxiousness to let him know I finally understood and smiled and chuckled a little bit.  He did not.  Then I walked around the other side of the car and closed the wide-open door to the gas tank.

A short minute after that, I was pulling out of the secret side door again.  The diesel man was surely glad to see me leave.

Telling the story to Jay later that evening, at least I could laugh about it.  I only worry that the people in our small town will begin to recognize me as that girl who says ‘3’ when they ask what day it is or hands them an apple when they inquire about the dog’s name.  Everyone will warn their friends not to speak to me.

And then I’ll never learn Afrikaans.

Stupid pliers.