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.


Top 5 farm things I try to avoid

As much as I try to help on the farm, learn the five separate languages I might encounter, what this switch operates and what that button does, what each of the 13-letter-name medicines in the fridge’s butter cubby are for, and what to do when an angsty rabid kudu comes to the front gate, there are some things that I just do not gel with.  Here’s the top 5 I’ve determined that are best left to the professionals.

1. Genny the generator

Genny is, no doubt, an important part of the farm.  Since Nampower, Namibia’s state-run (and only) electricity supplier, decided our farm was too far out to hook up to the grid (even though all our neighbors are), this lady provides a lot of our power.  While we are trying to move more towards solar, she still carries a chunk of the load.  But to get her going, it takes a good couple swings of the crank, and take my word, the crank is, proportionally, just as big.  It ain’t for woosies, or otherwise meager-armed folks such as myself.  I’ve certainly tried, sweat and swear words flowing, but she just groans a little and lays back down, like my cats when I disturb them at nap time.  My main job in regards to Genny, therefore, is to turn her off when the batteries are charged and that’s no easy task either.  Just take a look at the accompanying circuit box:Indeed, to stop her thunderous revolutions, I first must enter the room and remind myself that she will not tear herself free of the concrete floor and chew me to pulp.  If I keep all extremities clear of her moving parts, I should remain whole.  (To this day, I have only injured myself once with this intimidating piece of machinery, and that was when my knee came to rest on a metal tube which I quickly learned was the exhaust pipe).  After that, I need only flip four switches, push a button, pull a thingy down until she stops her sputtering, and then disconnect her battery.  I believe that is as intimate as I shall ever be with the giant engine and her labyrinthine electrical box.  Any more than that and one of us will no longer work properly.

2.  Keys

A single key is harmless enough, but when they congregate, I prefer not to be present.

I know it’s a farm and all, we have doors and gates and things with locks, but I do not believe we have so many of them.  This isn’t even the only key bundle nor are bundles the only place in which keys are kept.  So, to avoid acute key anxiety, I do as I do with Genny, keep it simple.  I know the keys to the rooms which hold things important to the continuation of my life, and the rest I have absolutely no idea what they do or to what treasures they have access and I’d like to keep it that way.

3.  The slaughter shed

This is where animals go once they’ve been shot.  Normally, they are shot to feed the farm staff to prevent poaching.  Sometimes, hunters shoot them so they can put the heads on their walls.  Regardless, here, they are strung up by their hind legs, gradually reduced to pieces which includes the use of that handsaw on the back wall, and their blood and other excrement drains into the large hole in the floor.  I have actually helped in this process before, really only because there was no one else to do it.  And while the biologist inside me was sort of interested in this massive science project, it’s not something I look forward to.

4.  Water intersections

This is another one that seems innocent.

But one must know that water pipelines run throughout the farm, each one connected to the next.  If I close or open just one pipe, the water is going to go somewhere else and I never quite know where that is.  For example, if we pump water to the house, it can either go to the garden and water the orange trees, it can go to our reservoir so that we can shower off the cow poop at the end of the day, or it can bypass us and fill the workers’ water tank.  For each of those things, the pattern of open and closed valves must be just right or I’ll end up watering an oasis somewhere in the Namib desert. To make things more complicated, sometimes water is pumped to the house using the engine at the windmill down by the main road and sometimes it falls on Genny’s shoulders.  Sometimes they are both running and I don’t know who is doing it.  But if our reservoir is full and begins to overflow, I need to stop it.  Do I stop Genny or the engine at the windmill?  Do I need to open or close the valves at the house or the valves at the main road?  Do the workers need water?  Or do I need to fill the big reservoir that feeds the rest of the farm?  Answer quickly now, the water is a-wasting.  And these intersections are all over the farm. If any of the miles of underground pipe breaks then the water must be closed at one or more of them and who knows which one that might be.

5.  Saws

This last one is probably the most important for me to avoid for genetic reasons; I’ve inherited a calamitous gene which earned me my nickname “Disasterpants”, one that has caused countless injuries to me and my family for many years now.  As such, I stay as far away from this thing as possible:

This saw cuts our wood, wood that we use to heat our water, post our fences, or to otherwise build or burn, but why must it be so big?  Namibia is not known for its gigantic trees and even if it was, I would rather chop all my wood by hand than to have to come within slicing distance of Spikey here (although I may do just as much damage to myself with an axe).  If I have to gather some logs for the fire, even when it is not connected to a single watt of electricity,  I move quickly, deliberately, and then get the hell out of there.  I can feel it watching me.

Same goes for the handheld spinning blade, known as a grinder (enough reason to leave it alone):

And ditto for the meat saw:

This blade moves up and down very quickly and very loudly.  Some people on the farm saw their meat just fine with this thing; fast and smooth, no worries, no problem.  And that is why I call them the professionals and let them saw or slaughter or lock and unlock whatever they want and I go feed the baby chickens.

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.

I blame England

I sweat.  I sit up straight.  I focus so intently my eyeballs dry out.  I scan the 2-foot-high grass, lining each side of the road-with-no-shoulder, for the wildlife-with-no-sense-of-timing.  I remember the man we gave a ride to last year after a kudu kamikazied his semi-truck.

Am I on the right side of the road?

I check the engine temperature.  I turn off the radio because I think I hear something dragging under the car.  I move into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the jalopy going 40 km/h on the 2 lane, 120 km/h road.  I think of the near-weekly newspaper headline: Family killed in head-on collision.

Should the tires be wobbling so much? 

It begins to rain.  I turn on the blinker.

Dammit blinker!

I turn off the blinker, and turn on the wipers.

Am I driving too fast?  Is the parking brake still on?

It begins to pour.  I turn on the super-speed wipers.  I slow down.  I peer through the river cascading down the windshield.  Suddenly, a warthog darts across the road followed by four wartlets.  I brake with as much force as possible without sending the car careening through the bush.

Dammit warthog!

I return to bolt-upright position, eyes wide, and continue on.

Ten minutes later, the rain has stopped, I’m in town and wondering that I make it anywhere at all navigating the most dangerous part of all Namibia: the roads.

Namibian road signs

First off, whoever’s idea it was to have different countries drive on different sides of the road should be excommunicated from Earth.  They can take the person who made different outlets for every continent with them.  This was a terribly stupid, not to mention dangerous, idea.  Tourism is big in Namibia, and as there are no passenger trains, all of those tourists drive.  So, unless those tourists are from the UK, or a country that the UK managed to convince of their left-side driving idea, they are solid contenders for driving on the wrong side of the road and creating havoc.

I’ve done it, and it was rather terrifying.  I fumbled frantically with the stick shift, also new to me, trying to reverse and/or get myself out of the path of the oncoming, honking car.  (I believe that he felt the honking was necessary to inform me of my mistake that I hadn’t noticed, and to help keep everyone calm.)  Then, after acclimation to left-side driving, I returned to the States, and terrified everyone over there.  To offset these grievances, I consistently amuse folks in both countries when I attempt to get in on the wrong side of the car, regardless of whether I’m passenger or driver.  I do it all the time, to this very day.  There’s really no playing it off.

Drive on the left...avoid the oblivious people...ignore the billboard suggesting a drink...

These days, although I have not what one would call “mastered” the stick, or the driving side, I at least appear to be someone who has (until I try to get in on the passenger side again).  And so, I earned myself a simple assignment: follow Jay into town in the car as he drives a friend’s car so the friend can pick it up.

Simple; and yet not ten minutes into the expedition, I drive full on into a ditch.  Actually three ditches.  That sounds like a hard thing to do but, to my credit, the ditches were not always there.  See, around here we have these seasonal rivers created by the torrential rains mentioned earlier.  The purebred Namibian driver, i.e. Jay, can drive full speed down a dirt road and somehow always know where those rivers have flowed and thus, avoid their subsequent trenches.  The falsely confident imported driver, i.e. me, turns a corner by the first neighbor’s house and hits three of them consecutively.

I managed not to flatten the tires but I bent something called the tire rod.  This left me with an upside-down steering wheel, even less steering on a car with no power steering, and a constant, horrendous squealing for the next hour into town.  No matter how many times I got out of the car to look, I could not see what was causing the squealing.  But I did entertain (or worry, I couldn’t tell) the many road construction workers.  I waved as if all was well while praying the tires would not explode and that Jay would, one day, trust me again with his car. 

Of course, he did, this past Monday, granting me the solo adventure with the dry eyeballs, the downpour, and the wartlets.  I made it to my destination and back without breaking anything, hitting anyone, or forgetting the parking brake.  Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to do it without the anxiety, too.  And without running a circle around the car, looking for the driver’s side.