Lessons from the Bushmen in Laurens van der Post’s “A Story Like the Wind”

Sir Laurens van der Post. Photo via NNDB. Click image to go there for a list of his books and a brief biography.

Both as an author and as a man, Laurens van der Post was someone who did not shy away from the difficult questions of life. Although one biographer slags him for allegedly fabricating stories and passing them off as real, many of those stories explore territories of the soul and spirit from which few others have returned intact.

On the one hand you could say he allied himself with established powers, choosing quite deliberately to serve Britain in becoming the post WWII British military attache in Indonesia and in later life accepting a knighthood from the Queen, and a role as godfather to one of Charles and Diana’s children. But on the other hand, his early contact with Bushman culture growing up in South Africa gave him an uncommon and critical perspective on the limitations and spiritual poverty of western materialism, a theme he explored in many of his novels.

In his novel, “A Story Like the Wind”, he paints a picture of a boy coming of age in a rural farmstead in northern South Africa. The boy’s father suffers from a strange ailment. Western doctors tell him there is nothing wrong with him, yet he continues to waste away. Earlier in his career he had been an inspector of schools for the government, but later in life he decided to strike out on his own, establishing Hunter’s Drift, a remote farm where he was far enough away, he thought, to ignore the norms of his society, and put his own ideals into practice. Ideals such as homeschooling for his boy, and equitable treatment for his black co-workers.

Spoiler alert: You’ll get a much deeper experience by reading the first half of the book “A Story Like the Wind”, but for those who don’t want to take the time or trouble, I’m going to summarize the parts I think are relevant. What I’m relating here is actually a sub-plot in the book, it’s not the main story.

While his parents were away consulting yet more doctors, the boy, Francois, talked with his black friends at the farmstead. These black people had little faith in white medicine men and urged Francois to visit a local witch doctor of great repute. They saw the father’s illness as the result of an evil spell having been cast on him, and they wondered what enemies such a kind and well loved man could possibly have; who could have wanted to cast such a spell?

Finally they remembered. The government. Yes, of course, the government disapproved of what the father was doing and the success of his whole enterprise only made it worse. He was not toeing the line that was set by his people, and in the language of the black tribes, they, his people, were turning their backs on him. In native lore, people had been known to die from this “turning of the backs”, from being ostracized and exiled from the company and approval of their own kind.

Having been raised by a Bushman nanny, Francois understood this line of thought immediately, and would have gone sooner if he’d had the chance. But he couldn’t go while his parents were still there because, although they appreciated the black people and their culture in many other respects, the idea that witch doctors could actually help with sickness was something that was beyond them. They placed their faith firmly in material science and western medicine.

So, while his father and mother were away seeing yet more doctors, Francois set off with a black friend to visit the medicine man, bringing several hairs from his father’s head, as a witness (like in dowsing or radionics), so the witch doctor could tune into him at a distance. After an arduous journey they arrived at last, and of course the witch doctor knew in advance that they were coming and what their business was. All was well, except that Francois forgot to bring some witness of his father’s “enemy”.

Laurens van der Post with a praying mantis, a creature which is revered by the Bushman as a manifestation of the divine. Photo is  from Jonathan Stedall, a British  filmmaker who made several documentaries with van der Post for the BBC. From Jonathan Stedall’s website. Click image to go there and read a chapter about van der Post from Jonathan Stedall’s book.

They agreed that Francois would send back some “witness” of the government, such as official papers. And the witch doctor also wanted something from what he described as that person who tells the government what to do. After he returns home, Francois found a portrait of the Queen among his father’s things and sent that, along with  official government letters and papers, by a fast runner, to the witch doctor.

A few days later, someone from the witch doctor came to Francois’ home to return the two heifers he had brought as an offering. It was all too late. Francois’ father was already too far out of his body. The witch doctor couldn’t save him. A few days later Francois heard word of his father’s death through the visit of a friend.

Laurens van der Post died in 1996 Read his obituary in the Independent. 

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