Life among the Namaqua
Sample PassageIn the days that followed, the explorers began to feel stronger and well fed. As guests to the kraal, they did no work, and so they spent their days sitting in the sun outside their huts, watching the activity going on around them. They slept much of the time, for they were still tired from their journey, and the luxury of having nothing to do soon encouraged laziness. It became common practice that some of the senior men of the tribe would come and join the men outside their huts to partake in tobacco and brandy. The explorers had not forgotten their search for the wealthy Monomotapa, and so they continuously asked the Namaqua elders the origin of their ‘‡ei’ (copper) and ‘/urib’ (iron). These questions the Namaqua pretended not to understand, or answered evasively. Van Meerman and his men determined that it would take some time to win the tribe’s complete trust.
A week after their arrival at the kraal, van Meerman caught a Namaqua man in his hut, trying to steal the last of their Spanish wine. Furious, he took the man to the chief, who reprimanded the man soundly and told van Meerman, ‘Khoikhoi tamab, Sab ke’ (He is no Khoikhoi, he is Sa). This is as much as saying, ‘He is no gentleman [Khoikhoi meaning men of men], he is of low extraction or a rascal.’ Akembie said that he had had much trouble with this man, named !Guŋbee, for he did not wish to do any work and was insubordinate. However, not wanting to cause trouble, van Meerman requested that the man go unpunished, and that he be given another chance. Akembie agreed to this, saying that van Meerman had the makings of a great chief, for the worst thing a chief could be was ‘gei-//are’ (greatly left-handed or stingy).
After this, !Guŋbee became devoted to van Meerman. He followed the Dutch man wherever he went, and began sitting at the edge of the circle of elders which formed around van Meerman each day. With time it appears that the two men became friends, and van Meerman found !Guŋbee to be a bright and entertaining man. !Guŋbee was soon able to converse in broken Dutch, and explained to van Meerman that he was looked down upon by his fellow tribesmen because he had no cattle. The Dutchman replied that he understood well what !Guŋbee’s situation was, for he himself had come from a place where he was looked down upon for having little.
The two men sat together most days, talking and waiting for the women to bring them food. Mostly the women brought ‘χurina’ which is the collective word for roots, berries, honey and bulbs gathered in the veld. Van Meerman developed a taste for the ‘!naras’ fruit, a type of melon the size of a newborn baby’s head. The custom was to eat the flesh raw and then keep the seeds to be eaten in the dry season. He ate these seeds by the handful, claiming that they tasted much like almonds. Steadily, van Meerman and his men could feel their stomachs expanding and their bodies filling out.
Among the women who brought the travellers food every day was a girl named !Urisis. Van Meerman was utterly spellbound by this girl with her nut-brown skin, round breasts and dark eyes which she lowered every time she came before him. He began concocting errands she could run for him, merely to spend some time in the happy anticipation of her company. He would ask her to take gifts of tobacco and beads to the chief and she would always reply, ‘Goreb !na ta ni tani’ (I will carry it in the palm of my hand). His agitation whenever !Urisis came to his hut was evident, and the old Namaqua men would laugh at him, for they knew the signs of love, which were the same in all men no matter what their colour. Van Meerman asked !Guŋbee about the girl and was told that she was the daughter of Akembie’s son, !Urisib, who had died in a battle with the Numaqua a number of years before. The old men, sitting nearby, teased van Meerman and asked him why he was so curious about this girl, and he replied that there was no reason. ‘Heitse!’ they warned him. ‘She may have a body like a cow’s body now [that is, a beautiful, fine, fat body], but look out because a woman cannot be quiet for as long as it takes sweet milk to turn sour! And once you’re married, Heitse!, you get scolded all day long. You can’t even put your hand in the food pot without getting shouted at!’
It seems that after some time, at van Meerman’s request, !Guŋbee approached Akembie and asked what van Meerman should do in order to be granted !Urisis’s hand in marriage. Akembie’s reply was that she was ‘Gei khoits õase’ (a great man’s daughter) and therefore she could not be married to a man who owned no cattle other than a single pack ox which was barely alive. No, he could not let it happen. Van Meerman was devastated by the news and began to brood.
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Number of pages: 173
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What was said about Finding Soutbek
‘Jennings’s unique achievement in her novel is the manner she is able to create the poetic and allegorical in her spare, understated prose descriptions of character and place, making us believe she is writing about a very particular and real place but which is at the same time metonymic of all South African space.’ - Shaun Viljoen University of Stellenbosch
Rustum Kozain at the launch of Finding Soutbek on 13 June 2012 in Cape Town:
‘This is a most remarkable novel, a debut of a writer to be watched.’
‘Most noteworthy for me is the understated quality of the writing.’
‘The characters are lifelike, remarkable, familiar yet unrecognisable, surprise the reader, and hum with the writer’s imagination.’
Read also a report of the launch on the Books Live blog and one by Pat Orpen who taught Karen Jennings at Wynberg High School.
‘What sets this book apart is the expert characterisation.’ & ‘Jennings is an exciting newcomer to South African literary fiction - definitely one to watch.’ - Cape Times
‘Far from that, it is well-written, the blending of the historical narratives with contemporary Soutbek was done brilliantly and Karen Jennings definitely captured the moroseness of the town, the sadness of Anna and the stress of being a Mayor in what seemed like an ill-forsaken town.’ - Bookshy blog
‘Finding Soutbek’s shadow remains long after the book has been shut.’ Art Much? The UJ Arts & Culture Magazine
‘Both the contemporary and the historical strands of this novel are well-written, intriguing, and make for a good page-turner.’ & ‘I strongly recommend this unusual but tragic novel to everyone.’- Adam Yamey on goodreads
‘It is slowly mesmerising and enchanting in its progression of events. & For the reader who enjoys understated narrative of many layers and revelations.’ - Inkling Book Reviews
‘Finding Soutbek is a delicate and intricate novel... This narrative heavy text is enriched with subtle ironies and vivid metaphors.
Jennings's sensitive and thought-provoking writing is exquisitely painful; with quiet authority, she reflects the reality of present day South Africa.’ - Judy Croome on Goodreads
‘A powerful book that does make you dwell on the idea of your own response and obligation to others. It also underlines the truth that money does not equal happiness.’ - Simon Quicke on Inside Books
‘I enjoyed Finding Soutbek. It’s an ambitious, layered novel that switches between the 17th century and the present in a small, remote community in South Africa.’
‘There is also something that seems particularly South African. That is, the book reminded me of works I’ve read by Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing.’ - Whispering Gums Blog
‘Karen Jennings writes with compassion and humanity, but shows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. She doesn’t preach but tells a story, which, like a parable, is left for the reader to interpret.’ - Emma Lee on her blog
‘Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative.’ - Jeanette Currie on Fiction Uncovered
‘The unreliability of each character’s account is what keeps the novel interesting ... and leaves something to the imagination.
Finding Soutbek may be set in South Africa, but it has something to say about inequalities everywhere.’ - Watching The Coast blog
‘Finding Soutbek is a beautifully written, complex novel that sensitively explores how the past can influence the future, and the destructive power of self-deception.’ - Pam McIlroy on her Pamreader blog
‘Forced removals, doctored histories – what emerges is a different truth, and a dirty one.’ - Elsbeth Lindner on BookOxygen
‘I recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about people and character, and anyone interested in South Africa.’ - Lilolia