When I was a small boy in the Great Karoo, we either went barefoot to the movies on a Saturday afternoon at the Apollo, or went to see what Mannetjies Roux could do to a rugby field.
To youngsters trying to cleanse themselves from the abysmal emptiness of the beautiful vast Karoo, Mannetjies came second to the cowboys. It was only much later that we realized that he was a great cowboy in his own right. But back then he was almost as good as the cowboys in the movies!
The perception then was that whereas Mannetjies would only get into a vehicle to drive back to his farm or to his motherís house (we knew where she lived), a real cowboy would do something much more profound. After overcoming great dangers with sheer guts, he would look the most beautiful girl in the eye, then put on his hat, turn around, get onto his horse and ride away into the dying sunlight, never looking back. Not even the great Mannetjies Roux could do that!
The philosophy of the cowboy is the philosophy of the frontier country. The masses of people that streamed into the wild west of America had the same mental attitude of the black and white people that overwhelmed the indigenous inhabitants of the southern part of Africa. We came here as fierce protesters to the slow cycles of life in various home countries. We forever would get onto oxwagons and fight the unknown that beckons the yearning spirit for something that is different and esteemed to be more meaningful.
One sunny afternoon in Pretoria - now to be Tswane - whilst we were waiting for an appointment with a revolutionary black leader, one of my friends recalled what a wise man, Professor Dawid Bosch, had once said: "For every choice that we make, we have to say no to many others".
To translate that to the context of this article and the cowboy (frontier) approach to life means that one will have to understand the ambivalence of the choices that we human beings have to make. To stay put in a country and in a home, one will have to say no the choices that a move away would provide. "It is a strange wind, but it likes me."
To that encounter, one will constantly have to turn against a part of your heart and keep on saying no. Either you do that, or you lose the slow opening up of the known environment with all its subtle nuances. Either way you win something, but something will be lost too. That is the plight of the sole human being when looking deep into the vast universe.
We cowboys and cowgirls, living in a frontier country, do not have the immense depth of culture formed over many, many centuries. We are therefore rather wild for new experiences, thrive on change and adhere very easily to the main stream of the generalized norm of the day as the capacity to refer and to contrast with old imbedded ways are not yet there. The one dimensional aim of unrefined capitalism can use this one sided way of life to good effect. We donít spend slow time with anything because we can only understand surfaces of things. There is not time to wait for the opening up of anything, because we easily get bored with anything that does not soon change rapidly into something else.
People start off by buying a first property that is normally rather cheap and that fits perhaps two people with the possibility of a cat too. Then they become more affluent, a baby or two is added to the scenario and a next bigger house is on the cards. That house normally expands with the owners and in time a room or two will be added on. And a swimming pool and so on. With still some more affluence and with the maddening example of acquaintances that keep on moving up the ladder of more impressive property, one can easily join the upward race in buying impressive property. The in-trend of the Spanish type of house will be changed for the cold lines of the thoroughly modern that will be changed for the Tuscan look, and do not be caught sleeping in any previously accepted trend!
In that great movie, Tombstone, (still watching cowboy movies!) Doc Holliday talks about the big hole of emptiness in a manís breast. Sure, it is understandable for a family to move into a bigger house if that is the practical option, and it is also understandable if one wants to move into a safer area. But there comes a point when you have planted too many trees not to see them grow, or to see them bud and flower, a treasured time when you cannot leave the neighbourhood without losing out on the sharing of intertwining lives.
In many old countries houses are kept in the family for centuries, and the accompanying memories form part of layered lives. People are not disposable, we can change the context of relationships as is required, but all of those people form part of the horizon of our lives. I here want to howl for the deepening of our relationships with houses, gardens, and for acknowledgement of how the seasons of time interact in a slow meaningful way with everything.
I also want to howl for the authentic frontier spirit throbbing in the human heart. Can that fierce and proud spirit please stand up and erect a house that is embedded in ancient memory that allows many variations of depth,
but at the same time is prepared to creatively hand a new age a helping hand.
Let us fight the greed and superficiality that no one is completely without.
Wim van der Walt
17 September 2007