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Michael K Phillips
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. " Pablo Picasso.
"The Aspirations of a teller of tall stories!"
The word “gat” in Afrikaans means “hole” in English. Makapan’s Gat means Makapan’s Hole. Holes feature significantly in the language of people to describe aspects of their lives and experience. We dig a “hole” for ourselves when we do or say things that reflect badly on us. We describe an experience or an influence that affects all aspects of our being as being “holistic”, and in an existential sense, our presence on this earth ends with a hole in the ground for our physical presence while we speculate intellectually and spiritually about where our ethereal being will go when we die at the end of our earthbound lives.In fact a Chinese proverb puts the importance of “holes” in our lives succinctly: “Only he that has travelled the road knows where the holes are deep.” This retrospective knowledge of knowing where the pitfalls of life are can only be useful to two kinds of people: Those who intend to travel the road again and those, who by virtue of their perceived wisdom, intend to advise others, usually. starting out on the road, how they should travel and thus avoid said “holes”.
The former are not great in number. Who in their right minds would want to travel life’s road again? It is a characteristic of 21st century life that people are apt to discount the utopia of youth as the best days of their life. Common are the phrases,“I have done that, got the T shirt, sung from that song sheet, seen the movie”, and so on and this seems to underline the attitude of a great swathe of society who, once having negotiated life’s ups and downs, simply “can’t be asked any more”.The good and the great of Society are the exception to this rule, often ignoring personal danger and discomfort to travel that same road again and again altruistically in pursuit of a higher value than self-interest. The latter group are very numerous. From teachers to men and women of religion and humanity, from parents guiding their offspring to mentors in all walks of life, knowledge and experience are there to pass on to others. They are motivated by their empathy. We are as a species, by the time we reach womanhood or manhood, the best prepared to circumvent the “holes” and make it safely to the end of our journey. How unsuccessful we are, however, at avoiding those “holes”! If I can pass on anything of value to my daughter it is that life is never as it seems when we first encounter it on the long and weary road. That is why I have entitled this book after a chief of the Kekane tribe called Makapan (Mokopane) and his cave situated in the northern sector of South Africa. I encountered this cave as a student at Pretoria University when I was in my early 20s. Four friends, including my girlfriend at the time, “Tyreen”, armed with candles and rope, travelled to Makapan’s Gat for the day to enjoy some hours of exploration. I think that was the intent but the years do fade the memory. We knew nothing of the history of these caves which today hold the secrets of the African past from the days of Australopithecus, to the Mfecane and South Africa’s more recent history, then in the making. I was able to impress Tyreen with my knowledge of geological structures, especially the features of stalactites and Stalagmites not by virtue of any profound knowledge on my part, but because an ancient Xhosa gentleman had been my guide round the Sterkfontein Caves the week before and he had provided me with a pneumonic for the occasion: “ If you want to know the difference, yes the difference between the ones that come down and the ones that go up, then you just need to say this one-The tights come down- yes (much self-chorteling as he makes reference to stockings) and then the mites go up( more chorteling as his fingers imitate the movement of 5 legged creatures) and where they meet in the middle.....it is mighty tight.” (Huge guffaws of laughter as the old man renders appreciation to his own joke.) As distasteful as this may at first seem, for some reason it has been almost impossible to forget, try as I might. If I can distinguish the difference between what comes down and what goes up in calciferous columns today, it is because of that pneumonic. A very significant event. I qualified at Pretoria University in Political Science and International Politics, but finding very little interest in my desire to be Foreign Minister, I spent my whole life in education.
This in turn led me to specialise in Specific Learning Difficulties with focus on learning and memory. It is not surprising therefore to have learned over time that if you want to remember something really difficult like a date, event or name, associate it with something rude! Only just remember to write the date, event or name and not the rude word on your answer sheet. Examiners have no sense of humour. And humour is what this book is about. Real humour not trivia. There is something about a nation’s humour that reveals its inner soul, its essential conflicts, sadness and joy. The extremes go together, inseparable to the last. There is no shortage of dichotomous heart wrenching opposites in South African history. A place of beauty easily obscures a more treacherous past and Makapan’s Gat is no exception. The name is something of a giveaway. The Cave is now famous for its archeological finds, scientific research, historical relevance and yet it is still remembered by the name of a chief who lead his people to the cave for safety and in doing so condemned their number to slaughter from a Boer Commando, themselves seeking revenge for earlier atrocities. While I was standing in caverns with my friends admiring the wondrous product of the forces of nature, I was unaware of a more sinister story. A story which is also the story of a sub-continent. People will say of South Africa that it is a land of plenty, of contrast and great beauty. A veritable Garden of Eden but beneath the surface is a sadness that begs the question, how does a nation survive such divisive forces and go on to mould into the Rainbow Nation. I do not profess to have all the answers. There is the foresight of great men like Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu and F W De Klerk. Risk takers who saw beyond their personal and national self interest. Then there the fortitude of the people themselves. Not one people, but many people, cultures, languages and traditions. What I do conclude is that their ability to adapt comes through the tradition of the story teller. This after all is the technology of the original inhabitants of this earth to pass wisdom from one generation to another and like in areas of modern day conflict in Ireland, the Middle East and Africa, stories go hand in hand with a sense of humour. A sense of humour that does not seek to belittle what has gone before but which, in recognising that there are only so many tears to shed, we must at some point laugh at ourselves and amongst ourselves. But what of this “aspiration” to be a " teller of tall stories". I have a passion for the writings of many South African writers not the least of whom is Herman Charles Bosman. In his book “A Sip of Jerepigo” he makes reference to his character’s( Oom Schalk Laurens) concern that he may be associated with “biggest liar in Groot Mariko” after he had told his story of his encounter with a leopard on his farm, to a group of friends and neighbours in the town’s post office. I would have no qualms about sustaining such an “association”. Stories are one thing and the story teller is the other. The story influences the teller and the teller moulds the story. After the event, neither are the same again. As the Irish comedian would say: “It’s the way you tell’m” as his catch phrase. For many years in my 20s and 30s I was a man in exile. I took encouragement in the interaction between myself as an educator and my pupils and found after the need to fill in for a missing vicar who failed to turn up for an assembly at a large comprehensive school in England, that everyone had an interest in stories.
My assemblies became story sessions, fuelled by popular demand and drew on the greatest story tellers from my African past to Guru Nanak, Jesus, the Ramayana, the misfortunes and fortunes of Job, stories of the “Dream Time” and ones I created myself. The story of the razor is not original. Altered yes, but not original. It was told to an assembly by a then “young” social worker who had 900 teenage students leaning on his every word, gesture and exclamation in a way that could never be achieved by the very best of trained teachers. It was a long time ago and I do not know the identity of this orator but in recognition of his skill and the incredible story line, I could not leave it out of the line up. Now in my late 60's I am constantly asked by ex pupils and colleagues when the stories will appear in a book. Easier said than done, but this is it. The South African writer Audrey Blignaut left an impression on my young mind when I read of an unhappy family, haunted in their farmhouse by a ghost to the extent that they eventually packed up their goods and chattels onto their ox wagon and moved away. As the wagon trundled down the drive, oblivious to the occupants, the spectre was seen to emerge from the house and move swiftly to the departing wagon, to take its perch on the back of the lumbering cart. The story ends there. Why should a ghost lose a good haunt? Go for it Audrey. You are the writer. You can do anything! RIP. I am indebted to Makapan and to all those who in the course of a lifetime have fuelled my love of a good yarn and the deeper meaning that it conveys to all our sensibilities.
The Road to Makapan's Gat Introduction
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