Some say she stood up too soon.
Leaving behind her bed and baby. Her eighth child in about as many years.
My great-grandmother: Ouma Sofie.
I never met her. I only caught imagined glimpses of her life through the stories, passed down her bloodline like the antique family Bible, marking the names and dates of birth of the different branches of our family tree.
Depending on who is telling the story, she either did not give her body and mind the chance to heal properly after giving birth on the back of a donkey-drawn wagon, or the beatings are what drove her mad.
The old people say she was a cold and numb mother, responding mechanically to the countless needs of her large brood. She was disconnected. Her blank stare was an open window in a long-abandoned house.
For many Africans, the time after the birth of a baby is considered sacred for mother and child. A peaceful cocoon of bonding and protection.
As a Coloured woman, I am made up of cultural and racial multitudes—there is a little Griqua and Khoi, I believe; some Dutch, Irish, and German. All melded together in a unique blend, making up a race classification that is distinct to Southern Africa. Coloured people’s beliefs and traditions are passed down from many varying groups like family recipes. Taking a little influence from here, a bit from there. The expert mixing of spice and heat that lends flavour to a fiery curry.
When my first child was born, my mother wrinkled her forehead in frustration every time I left my bedroom with my daughter. The first six weeks were supposed to be spent in a type of self-imposed quarantine meant to shield the infant’s fragile immune system from viruses and germs. To protect her defenseless soul from the evil intentions and jealous thoughts some may harbour.
All it served to do was drive me to the cliff’s edge of my sanity. I had already been pushed to the brink by the hormonal haze of pregnancy and birth.
In Ouma Sofie’s time, people did not even recognise there could be a thing like the baby blues. Life was too tough for such indulgences. Today, Hollywood stars and internet sensations talk openly about their experiences. The shame is fast losing its power.
Most mothers can relate to those first few weeks and months saturated with bone-deep exhaustion and sleep deprivation which alters more than moods. For some, they change entire personalities.
They say Ouma Sofie would leave her newborn and simply walk away from her God-given duty. Her husband turned to her family for advice. Her own brothers and sisters counseled that, perhaps, a good hiding would bring her back to her right mind.
A woman, like a stubborn mule, sometimes needed a little physical incentive to perform her duties sufficiently.
And just as her husband was about to oblige, it was as though the power of her ancestors united in a sacred uprising when, belt in hand, my great-grandfather fell to the ground. They called it an attack.
Some family members firmly believe that before that day he had never lifted his hand to her. Others have said that he beat her brutally; that it was his violence which brought on the madness. Causing her to walk away without a backward glance. Strolling calmly, but with purpose in the direction of the mountains, in search of the hidden gold.
Left for her by her ancestors. Buried somewhere in the vast veld.
Like her sanity after too many hard years.
I tried finding out more about Ouma Sofie. I mailed my cousin, Margie. Her mother, my father’s ousus, remembers more about her grandmother. She said Ouma Sofie, peculiarly, hated the colour yellow.
Perhaps it stood out too cheerfully amidst the dull monotony and stillness of the harsh land south of the Orange River where my father’s people eked out a life. There was no place for frivolity except when the Namaqua daisies were in bloom, stretching out and carpeting the arid ground with delightful bursts of colour.
She would rip the little blooms out of the ground. Not in anger or sorrow. Just matter-of-factly. In her own world it made perfect sense.
Her “madness”. It was the only word we had for her illness as children. We would sit around a small fire, my older cousins telling us some of the stories they had collected over the years. Gathering beneath the shade of a large boulder, we would braai a lieslap cut roughly from the mutton rib in the wired box, hanging under the shade of the big tree.
My father’s people were sheep farmers, so there was always freshly slaughtered meat. I remember watching, mesmerised as the animal’s throat was slit. My grandmother would place a large, old rusted tin beneath its head to catch the draining blood. Using a worn, stone-sharpened knife, she would cut a line carefully down its belly, expertly using her hand to separate the sheepskin from the off-white fat insulating its flesh.
Tales of Ouma Sofie’s quirks were retold often. Of how she would dig holes all across the mountains as she searched for treasure. One can be certain that an embellishment or two no doubt slipped in about the woman who would spend thirty years in a mental asylum.
In the late 1920s, patients were rarely discharged from Valkenberg Hospital. It was simply a given that they would stay. It was a place to keep disturbed souls away from respectable Apartheid-era Cape Town.
Ouma Sofie died a full generation before I was born but her legacy lives on: if only in my mind where her inheritance of lunacy hovers.
Quietly threatening. An inevitable unravelling.
I have been nervous and anxious for about as long as I can remember.
Was I born like that or did I become like that?
To escape the persistent drip-drip-drip of overthinking, I allow myself to drift away into a kind of numbness. It shields me when everything becomes just too much.
I remember one year my Uncle Dirkie fancied himself a tour guide—he had big plans to start a camping spot, Sun Valley, in the heart of the Richtersveld. The stark and sombre stretch of land is surrounded by imposing mountains and huge jagged rocks. At night a billion stars sparkle in the darkness.
I was twelve. My parents, sisters, and I drove from Windhoek in the old, dark green Mercedes-Benz. A trailer lugging the baggage of a family of five. Namibia had become independent two years earlier and the air buzzed with pride and hope. Driving from a place of such transformation, it seemed as if we were travelling back through time.
Political change may have been taking place in the upper echelons of society but evidence of apartheid and its legacy of distrust and hatred was prevalent wherever we went. People went about their lives like they always had. Racially separate, operating in an uneasy state of coexistence.
The pace of life in Namaqualand is unhurried. Strong coffee is savoured, as is relaxed conversation peppered with hearty laughs and deep wisdom.
All the cousins shared a large ronde huis, a semi-permanent hut-like tent which used to be a common sight dotted across the Northern Cape. We nestled together in a big family bed fashioned from layers of blankets and spread across the bare ground, telling deliciously scary ghost stories.
Our parents sat around a large campfire. Aunties and uncles singing together under the stars. Old church hymns. False melodies. Cheeks ruddy from the brandy and the chilly night air.
“She would wander off into the mountains for days on end searching for the gold,” I heard them say.
They spoke in Afrikaans. In that lazy, dragging lilt so typical of Namaqualanders. Stretched out vowels. Poetic phrases delivered in sing-song speech.
“She’d go out barefoot.”
Unbelievable to me. I remember the rocky ground where I sat in self pity, hunched over a bleeding leg earlier that day. I had slid down the side of a small koppie. A mini avalanche of rocks took me on a bumpy ride. I was spying on my older sister as she sneaked away to have a skelm cigarette when a big stone fell onto my thigh, leaving behind an open-mouthed gash and deepening bruise. She did not even look back at hearing me shout in shock. I could not blame her. I was an irritating kind of sibling. I followed her around constantly. Desperate to know her teenage secrets.
After some time I decided to pick up my mostly bruised ego and hobble back. I hoped the first aid kit in the car would have a bandage to keep the grit out of the forming scab but it was woefully under-stocked. There were no bandages or plasters. Not even a half squeezed tube of ointment. Nothing to dull the throbbing pain.
I absentmindedly rub my forefinger across the faint scar on my right leg, still slightly visible three decades later. Two milky, ivory toned gashes.
I have long felt an affinity to Ouma Sofie. Her story fascinated me years before I ever felt the first dark pulls of depression. Those episodic periods where I would take to bed until the fog lifted or real life demanded I pull myself together.
I wonder what she thought about, what it was that dragged her away from those around her.
In the end they say her husband felt he had no other choice but to send her away. By wagon to Springbok where she boarded a train bound for Cape Town and Valkenberg Hospital, whose desolate green roof earned it the infamous moniker: groen dakkies.
She stayed there far longer than anyone ever should.
My father’s father was only a small child when his mother went away. Decades later, he journeyed to find her. It was the late 50s or early 60s. He had grown up without her. Travelling to Cape Town at the time was a huge undertaking and very expensive for a mere sheep farmer.
Hospital staff said she could have gone home long ago, they simply never knew where to send her.
Her people lived on the back of a wagon, moving from place to place in search of pasture for their livestock. A house of stone only came much later.
He brought her back to live with him and his family. The mother he would never really know. Her grandchildren were the ages her children had been when she left. She never learned their names. She hardly acknowledged them. Mostly she was in her own world. Uninterested in those around her.
She was angry.
My Uncle Andre believes the devastation of being left at the hospital for so long, with no visitors, and no idea if anyone would ever come for her, was simply too much to bear.
She was taken from a world she was learning to live in, to a place where she knew nothing and no one.
I google Valkenberg. Driven by a curious compulsion.
Conditions were dark and dingy. The buildings were dilapidated. Racial segregation and discrimination was more than a way of life: it was the law. Ouma Sofie, as a Namaqualand Baster, most certainly received inferior care to the white patients. She was not, however, treated as badly as her black counterparts, I imagine. For that dubious mercy I feel both guilt and gratitude.
Difficult patients were chained to iron rings, tied up in straitjackets, or secluded in padded cells. In the absence of modern drugs to treat the myriad symptoms of mental illness, doctors would immerse patients in baths of steaming hot water. To calm them.
Wherever she went, Ouma Sofie was a woman surrounded by strangers. Present physically but wandering endlessly in her mind.
I sit and stare out of the window. My newborn is sleeping and my heart fills with a strange mix of emotions. Part devotion, part despair. Being a mother is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be.
I lay my hand gently on my child’s chest. Reassured. He breathes out contentedly. His long black eyelashes flutter. Visions of my baby suffocating in his sleep plague me. I check his breathing obsessively, even as I fantasise about walking out of this room and house. Right out of my own life.
I cannot comprehend that I prayed so fervently for these children yet I am struggling so. I love them with an ever-on-edge fierceness but I long to break free of their constant need of me. I am drained. I shrink away from their little hands, always reaching for me. Hungry mouths sucking at me. Calling me. Trying to reel me back from the place in my mind where I have retreated.
Not for the first time, I wonder if I am going the way of Ouma Sofie.
I am irritated. I do not know why. I shout at my daughter. Lash out at her simply doing what children do.
“Be quiet,” I hiss. “Your brother is sleeping!”
Her face falls and I hate myself.
“I’m sorry, my baby.”
Please forgive me.
My body is buzzing. I do not understand my own moods. I crave silence. Rest and solitude. Space to think. To pray. To simply be without anybody needing anything from me.
Even while sleeping my body aches from arching towards my son as he searches out my nipple, enlarged and tender. I am sweating. The air is hot and heavy. The souring smell of breast milk rises off my chest. I close my eyes and will myself to sleep. Like particles of dust as they drift in the sun’s rays, I am searching for something to cling to.
My grandmother’s house in Eksteenfontein, the small village where my father was raised, is a place I visit in my mind sometimes. It has been over a decade since I was last there. Shuffling through the memories of those childhood family trips seem to bring me a strange sort of solace.
I am in the backseat as we are bumping along the dirt road. Dust billows behind us. My mother’s hand stretches across the driver’s seat. My father is at the wheel. Elton John blasts from the radio.
There is peace.
The town’s name is spelled in large white rocks against the side of the hill which stands sentry over the graveyard where Ouma Sophie is buried.
We stop at the general store, once owned by my grandfather, Ouma Sophie’s son. A short and solid man. A full head of grey hair. He died when I was eight years old so I only have a few memories of him. He would sit in the single armchair by the front door after meals, using a small fold-out pocket knife to pick his teeth.
He was a progressive man despite having little schooling. He educated his daughters as well as his sons, when all around him believed girls were only good for housework and children.
We pass the white church which stands proudly, like the townspeople. Soon we are pulling up outside the house where Ouma Sofie ended her days: a simple white brick structure rooted at the foot of a mountain. My father’s childhood hand print is immortalised in cement by the front door.
Around the corner is a rectangular tin structure, the outside toilet I so hated as a child. Inside a simple wooden box covers a tunnel of shit stretching deep into the earth. The smell of sewage and strong disinfectant are no deterrent for the occasional snake.
Heat from the old coal stove greets me as I walk into the kitchen. I can almost taste the sticky-sweet white rice and vaal vleis my ouma used to cook, adding only onions, potatoes, and a little salt.
A formidable woman: my father’s mother cared for Ouma Sofie, her skoon ma, in her final years. As a child I found myself retreating from her stern manner but as I grew to be a woman I was touched to see her embrace the man I loved. This despite the environment of passed down racial prejudice in which she was shaped, that such a union was illegal only a few decades ago. She kissed this black man on the lips in greeting and I saw the humanity in those watery blue eyes.
I hope to travel with my own family to Eksteenfontein one day soon. My father may have lost much of his eyesight in one eye but he still takes to the long road, driving with ease and well worn confidence. Telling stories along the way.
I would like to learn to make soap the way my ouma did, with the fat from a sheep’s tail. To run my fingers down the side of the old grandfather clock standing sentinel at the end of the dining room table. Listen as the cuckoo birds sing of the slowly changing hours.
On the cabinet are family photos. I am there with my sisters, smiling shyly in my youth.
I imagine leading my children to the veld. Showing them the white succulent root they can suck on to keep thirst at bay, as we are scorched under the merciless African sun. Together we will collect sticks to make a fire, the way my cousins and I used to. Taking a little sugar from the kitchen to heat in an empty tin over the fire. Watching as it turns a deep brown before cooling it just enough to roll hastily between the palms of our hands. Hot, hard tameletjies—to be sucked and savoured greedily.
Of course, I will walk as Ouma Sofie did.
Savouring the silence and solitude.
Natasha Uys is a journalist and editor from Windhoek, Namibia. She is currently studying Media Management through the Sol Plaatje Institute at Rhodes University. This is her first published essay.