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DECIMA Author: Eben Venter It is the day of my appointment with the sangoma. The sky is watery, with flecks of pale gold – early spring in the Eastern Cape. Black jeans and a polo with bright horizontal stripes seem appropriate for my outing. In the thin hours of the morning, my dream: a sign here that kept disappearing; a hand, winter-white and lifeless; and the colour blue. Until I meet the sangoma, I will not know if there is meaning in any of this. My question to the sangoma is simple: can a person enter the Great Fish River Reserve, harvest rhino horn, and leave safely? Not that I would dare or ever want to, but I need to know to tell the story I want to tell. In front of the shaving mirror, a speck on my shirt, the dropping of a housefly. I try to pick it off with a facecloth.
The plan, too, is simple. I will drive from here, from my mother's house in the retirement village to the BP Garage on Stamford Road, off the N2. A man named Thulani Lani Klaas will wait for me there. Either he'll get into my car, my mother's actually, but she doesn't drive anymore, or we'll use his car. I hope it's his. From there, Thulani will take me to the sangoma's house in Motherwell. I have never been to Motherwell, one of the biggest and oldest townships in South Africa, nor have I met Thulani, but he knows the sangoma. Thulani Klaas is my contact. All in all, the trip has been carefully planned, there is no need to be anxious.
My mother is at the dining room table. She has set it with her antique crocheted tablecloth, a Noritake plate, and a pretty teacup. On the plate, two butter-brown rusks with bitterish Nescafé in the cup. At this point of the story, I am in Paradise Flamingo Gardens Retirement Village. My mother slides her hand past the tiny jug of hot milk to enfold mine. She says the breakfast prayer. Then: you can have my car. I thank her for the prayer, which I regard as a blessing, as I no longer have the right to say such prayers. As I gather my stuff for the outing, my Leica camera, a charged iPhone, notebook, pencil and water bottle, my mother grabs my elbow with her bony, beautiful hand: my child, she says, don't go and die before me, that is all I ask.
I pass cliffs wild and dense with Eastern Cape flora distracting me from my busy-ness – the ominous greens, the last of the season's aloes, those perky flames, plumbago tumbling bluely, and prickly pear, tolofiya as it's locally known. And the tree-men pointing plump fingers at the heavens, from the large euphorbia family, also called sweet noors, and a splash of orange-blossomed tecomaria capensis.
At that point, lasting not very long at all as I speed along at 130 km/h, I recall my mother's farewell words. Of course, she is scared. She hardly knows where Motherwell is, and, what's more, I'll be outnumbered, maybe the only white person this Saturday morning in the entire township. As for the sangoma – my mother draws on the Afrikaans 'toordokter' to explain it to herself: a witch doctor who can and will perform supernatural acts on her son.
I pull in at the BP on Stamford Road and find a parking place. The service station operates like a village square: in chilly sunlight, a girl's mother-aunt plaits her hair next to Cars & Suds, where two more aunties in pink overcoats and two boys, both with Guinness beanies, hand-wash a car. Taxis and buses pull up, fill up, tyres are kick-tested, then pumped.
I step out of the car and make myself visible. Thulani has to find me; I don't know what he looks like. What a place this is – at the café, pap and boerewors and chakalaka tomato moor are today's special.
Time passes. No Thulani. At last, I hear my name. It is pronounced correctly by Thulani. Okay, we're going in his car, one of those new luxury Mercedes-Benz models.
He says Motherwell sinks the e, his tongue lapping lower teeth. It's where he grew up, and he's going to show me. Thulani. Bucket-style hat with a Burberry design. As he shakes my hand, he rests his sunglasses on the brim.
So now we're on the R335, which is also the road leading to the Great Fish River Reserve. To the right, bright white-and-blue shacks; on the left, Motherwell proper.
I tell you because I know what you're after, this is the start of the NU29s, and this is where you'll find the men who go out during the day to hunt. Bushmeat. Wildsvleis. It's theirs; he makes sure I hear that.
Neighbourhood units. All of Motherwell is divided into numbered NUs. He shifts somewhat in his beige pants; he's made himself comfortable on these over-firm seats. Some of the shacks in NU29 are new, I can tell. Raw constructions of salvaged corrugated iron and wooden pallets. This is where my poacher will come from, from that yard with its scraggy orange tree. The second poacher will be a young Afrikaans guy, full of plans, afraid of where life's taking him.