Journey with the Karretjie People

ROOTS AND ROUTES: Karretjie People of the Great Karoo. Reviewed by Guy Rogers

DESPITE being the descendents of the earliest inhabitants of South Africa, the Karretjie People own no land and are increasingly divorced from it. The poorest of the poor, they are likewise among the most marginalised of our people in every sense of the word.

That’s the tragic irony at the heart of this wonderful book Roots and Routes, Karretjie People of the Great Karoo, by former University of Port Elizabeth anthropologist Michael de Jongh.

De Jongh’s work has been closely followed by many of his former UPE students and they were among the audience which warmly welcomed the book when it was launched recently at Bayworld.

De Jongh started his research for the book in 1991 when he was driving through the Karoo with a foreign fellow-anthropologist and his guest asked him who the people were who they saw riding in the middle of nowhere on their donkey carts. He gave half a reply, he recalls, “but I did not really know.”

Determined to rectify his lack of knowledge on the matter, he began investigating and his quest drew him into an intermittent and intense relationship with these people. The years came and went, the New South Africa, the new millenium and globalisation dawned until he decided, with their approval, that “their story should now be told.”

De Jongh starts his book with the death of Meitjies Verrooi, who he has known since the start of his research and who passed away “lying down in her shack of scrap corrugated iron, wood and fertiliser bags”. As her family tells him, sy gegaan het van oudtheid (she went because of oldness).

“I cried for her, and with them…. The Karretjie People, much like the Karoo scrublands where their early ancestors the /Xam (Bushmen) first roamed, subtly but incrementally draw your attention, then capture your respect, and eventually your heart – and never let go.”

Set in the vast arid world that straddles the northern, western and eastern Cape, this is a book filled with indomitable Karretjie characters with great names. There is Peppie and Plaatjie Januarie, Booy “Cream” Jacobs, Mapson and Vroue Boschof, Tiekie Sors, Ringie Rotman, Babatjie Verrooi, Danster Lou, Ragel and Boetie Was, Danster Slingerse, Koot Arnoster…. and many more.

De Jongh examines the environment, history and politics which frame the existence of the Karretjie People. He considers their nomadic existence and their chief skill, sheep shearing, which propels them in an unending cycle from farm to farm where they are employed or where they hope to be employed. He examines the little carts or karretjies which transport them, and which become part of their shacks when they stop.

He follows their routes to their principle outspans, meeting points at Seekoei River Bridge, Garings, Lowryville; pinpricks in the middle of nowhere to us but key points of reference to the Karretjie People.

He examines the phenomenon of the “stranger status” of these folk. “Near but far, integral but peripheral”, familiar to many – from tourists driving through to townsfolk, farmers and farm labourers of the Great Karoo – they remain a mystery to nearly all.

Food, water, cooking fuel, education and recreation are some of the other issues explored. One of the most vivid photographs shows “Outjies and Rokkies Jakobs and their play-world at the Seekoei River bridge outspan”, two little kids crouched next to a doll’s house of cloth and tin, built against a barbed wire fence, with the desolate scrubland stretching beyond.

In academic terms, this is a rigorous, structured and detailed study. The author at times uses anthropological terms which may not be immediately or completely understood by the layman reader.

But De Jongh’s eloquence allows us to skim over these parts, to understand the amazing subject that is being revealed here, and the great humanity at its heart.

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