nthposition online magazine

That old-time (South African) religion

by Ron Singer

[ places - november 10 ]

I am in Johannesburg working on a book of interviews, for which I need to go to a place called Viljoenskroon. This small town is about three hours south of Jo'burg in the Free State, a bastion of conservative Afrikanerdom. Wanting to do this in a leisurely way, I make a reservation for two nights at Matol Guest House, which is on a working farm twelve miles from Viljoenskroon. The proprietor emails me a map.

On a scorching late-summer afternoon, I take the M1/N1 toll road out of hazy, polluted Jo'burg and past the gold mines. After a while, I am in farm country, where I turn onto local roads. Forty-five minutes of teeth-jarring potholes, a left turn, a bounce or two up a rutted path, and there I am: Matol Guest House. The cheerful farm wife, Elma Barkhuizen, comes out to greet me. I am the only guest. Later, when he returns from the fields, I meet Kobus, the Boer ("farmer"). He grows corn and sunflowers.

The next day, I drive to Viljoenskroon and complete my business, which is to interview Puleng Motoseneng, director of an organization called Ntataise (Sotho for "to lead a child by the hand"), which trains early-childhood educators across South Africa. By coincidence, Puleng's father once worked on the farm where Matol is now located. Elma and Kobus regard her as a friend.

Before supper on Night #2, I blunder into the spiritual twilight zone. Venturing into the parlor to wait to be called to table, I encounter half-a-dozen women, the two grown sons of the family, and a newborn. They (the adults) are about to hold a Bible study session. Most of them self-identify as 'Protestant', which for Afrikaners means various branches of Congregationalism. Offering to hold parts of the session in English, in which few of the women turn out to be proficient, the leader tactfully asks if I might like to participate.

"If I can be a fly on the wall," I reply. "But I warn you, I'm not really a believer. And I may write about this."

She agrees, and they proceed to sing three or four happy-God songs, after which they stand, join hands, and say some prayers. I remain a seated fly. Then, they - we - reach the main business, a Sunday school-like discussion based on Paul's letter to the Galatians, in north-central Asia Minor, with a little Peter mixed in. The theme is belief in Christ and the way this spiritual contract is supposed to trigger good behavior - temperance, kindness, etc. They ask me where I stand.

"I'm a Jewish atheist and a Quaker fellow-traveler." Wickedly, I enjoy their looks of consternation, but I hasten to add that I believe in, and try to practice, the same virtues they do, except that my practice is based upon adherence to a perceived social contract and to... blah blah. "Don't forget," I remind them, "I don't believe in God."

"But," the leader objects, "God is necessary to hold wickedness in check and to inspire goodness." She pushes me on the God point, promises to pray for me, and ends with a veiled threat: "Who knows?"

I semi-politely reply that they can do as they please. As the session ends, they eat Elma's cheesecake and drink her coffee, passing the hat to pay for the goodies. Finally, they disperse, and I wait to be called to supper.

Looking back later that evening, this whole discussion seems familiar, and I place it: a late-night college bull session fifty years before, on The Brothers Karamazov. If there were no God, the argument went, we would devour each other like creatures of the deep. Not for the first time in South Africa, I feel as if I have been in a time warp. But I am glad I was not rude enough to ask how, in a former era, their precious theology allowed the devout to go along with all the apartheid nastiness.

Ah, supper! Both nights, I am treated to a plain, delicious, home-cooked meal spiced with conversation, a relief and a pleasure after so many solitary restaurant dinners. The first night's menu:

lamb pie, filo dough
big roasted potato wedges
stewed pumpkin
broccoli
green salad w/tomatoes
red South African wine (good plonk)
dessert: apple crisp, filo dough w/ whipped cream
eau froid (well)

Supper #2: bbq'd chicken and catfish, which Kobus, a part-time caterer, has prepared in an outbuilding, while the rest of us were wrestling with theology. Sides, by Elma.

The first night, we all joined hands, and Kobus said, "Thank you, Lord, for ... in the name of ... and his son, Jesus Christ." The second night, when the family and I have once again joined hands, Elma suggests that I say grace.

Did you ever see the film, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick? I save the goal, sort of, with something like this (omitting pauses, "er's," and "um's"): "We are very grateful for this delicious food and for the wonderful company, which cheers our spirits." Amen, over-and-out.

Ron: Was that okay?

Elma: Yes, it was fine, thank you.

When I go to pay the bill the next morning, something is wrong: the small tally does not include the two suppers.

"Aren't you cheating yourself? What about ..."

"Please, Ron," Elma smiles, "the suppers are on the house. We enjoyed talking with you so much. We learned a lot from you, it was so interesting."

Have I unwittingly been singing for my suppers?