The tale of the German, the donkeys and rural Namibia

I’ve just been writing a letter to a German painter whom I met on a long trip outdoors last February; some readers may recall my dispatches from Namibia and the Kalahari Desert, writes Damien Enright.

The tale of the German, the donkeys and rural Namibia

I was thanking him for a catalogue of his paintings which he’d mailed me from Germany. Fabulous (as in fable-inspired) animals feature regularly in his work, and among them donkeys that look distinctly Irish.

Andreas Grunert and his wife, Hanne, happened to pull into the Ochsenwagen (ancient wagon) roadhouse hotel on the outskirts of the town of Rehoboth (which, it turned out, had a very unique history) at exactly the same time as my wife and me. We were the only guests.

There wasn’t a lot to do at a dusty outpost on the Trans Namibia Highway of an evening, no leafy ditches — as in Ireland — with wildflowers and buzzing insects to enjoy. After dinner, we and our fellow guests fell naturally into conversation. On the long straight highway outside, an occasional truck, big as a railway carriage, passed.

It turned out that Andreas, who has had a highly distinguished career, had spent protracted periods of his early life painting at Irish outposts, such as Inishbofin, where he passed three years, the depths of Kerry, West Cork. He is one of those Germans, like Kuno Meyer, who standardised Irish, Heinrich Boll, who wrote great books in Achill, and Joseph Beuys, who called Ireland “the brain of Europe”, who fell under Ireland’s enthralling spell.

We had a memorable evening, exchanging yarns, with a great deal of laughter. It’s a joy of travelling, meeting kindred spirits in unlikely places. We were a foursome perfectly matched, of the same opinion about Namibia, the EU, Donal Trump, the ways of the world and its foibles.

In the morning, we had to part. The Grunert’s rented 4x4 truck was playing up; it limped away, with a doubtful future. They regretfully left us, also in some bother. My wife’s iPad had disappeared. The hotel proprietor, Morgen, and his family were unusually distressed. We assumed this was because of the disgrace to the hotel, but there was more to it: it was a disgrace for their very unique community.

Members of a small ethnic group known as the Basters, they and 35,000 people of similar mixed race live around the town of Rehoboth, in central Namibia. The name Baster is derived from ‘bastaard’, the Dutch word for ‘crossbreed’. While some people would consider this term demeaning, the Basters themselves use it as a “proud name”.

They descend from 18th century Cape Colony Dutch farmers and their African Nama wives. In the 19th century, a new wave of Boer settlers arrived and drove them off their farms, just as the later Anglo Normans arriving here seized the lands of the first Normans who had settled and become “more native” than ourselves.

Loading all they owned onto ox-drawn wagons, the dispossessed families trekked north across the Orange River. After years wandering the unchartered wilderness and deserts, they established the town of Rehoboth in 1871, with their own government and laws.

The missing iPad had ‘disappeared’ when my wife, going back and forth to our rented wagon, packing our gear, (I was writing my Examiner column to email it before we left internet cover), had left one door a few millimeters open, with the iPad inside. When she had pressed the electronic key as she walked away, the doors, throughout, didn’t click closed.

A neighbour mentioned seeing two boys on the way home from school running away from the vehicle. Family and in-laws drove off in two cars to find them. They had no luck. It happened, however, that Morgen ran the local radio station. He set off to broadcast news of the theft to the entire Baster community. “We will get it back!” he promised.

My wife and I were at Marienthal, 300km south, when our mobile phone rang. The iPad had been found “in the grass” by an eight-year old boy who had brought it to his mother. Most probably the older boy, who opportunistically stole it, had got cold feet due to the furore and devised this way of giving it back. The boy’s mother returned it to us in Rehoboth next day. The communities’ honour was restored.

We were invited to stay for an annual ceremony thanking god for the communities’ salvation from an attack by German South-West Africa troops in 1915. They would have annihilated the colony, the Basters, outnumbered but defending themselves, having run out of ammunition. The entire community had prayed together all that night, and in the morning the Germans ‘miraculously’ lifted the siege and left.

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