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The last Boers of Patagonia

Ricky Hunt

More than a century after their forebears landed on Patagonia's east coast, their Afrikaans is rusty, but their cultural ties are strong.

“Ek verstaan ‘n bietjie Afrikaans, maar te praat is nie maklik vir my nie [I understand a bit of Afrikaans, but it’s not easy for me to speak it],” says Juan Blackie matter-of-factly.

Nothing about this would be strange if it wasn’t coming from a third-generation Boer descendant who has never been to South Africa. Blackie, a jovial, unshorn fellow in his early 40s, lives in Argentina’s Chubut province in the small farming town of Sarmiento, about 160km inland from Comodoro Rivadavia, a dusty, wind-swept patch of earth on Patagonia’s east coast where the Boers landed in 1903.

The kettle on the stove whistles and he takes it off the boil. He pours hot water into a gourd filled with bitter herbs and takes a sip of his maté, a traditional Argentine drink, before passing it around the room, which is filled with relatives who have been called in from around town to meet the South Africans who have ventured into the heart of Patagonia to track them down.

His aunt, Ana Schlebusch, a woman in her 50s with a broad, toothless smile and a farm-ruddied face, bursts into the living room a few minutes later. “Wie is die Suid Afrikaners?” she asks excitedly, a blush spreading outwards from her too-pink nose. She had received a phone call just minutes before to tell her the news and invite her over. Her eyes fix on the journalist stretching to remember pleasantries in his second language. She grins broadly and launches into a diatribe about how good it is to meet “regte Suid Afrikaners”.

The Blackies and the Schlebusches are two of roughly 600 Afrikaner families who came to Argentina in the early 1900s after the Boers’ overwhelming defeat to the British in the Anglo-Boer War. They aren’t exactly Boers any more—more an amalgamation of Boer and Argentine, who themselves are a hodgepodge mix of their European, mostly Spanish and Italian, forefathers. Traces of Afrikaner culture remain—they make biltong from guanacos, a small type of llama native to Patagonia, spice up their Spanish with the odd Afrikaans word and love their brandewyn and Coke—but over the generations it has obtained a distinctly Argentinian flavour.

Listening to this woman’s flawless Afrikaans, you’d be forgiven for assuming you were sitting on a stoep in Blikkiesdorp or Bapsfontein. But she is an exception, one of only a handful of Boer descendants who still keep the language alive.

In 1965 Sunday Times journalist Peter Schirmer visited the town and wrote that in Sarmiento “more Afrikaans than Spanish is heard in the shops, bars and offices”, but that is no longer the case. Today names such as Kruger, Van der Merwe, Botha, Van Wyk, De Bruyn and Eloff are still around, but the people who hold them are a far cry from the Afrikaners in South Africa and maintain little of the cultural heritage of their ancestors.

The last great trek
Patagonia’s east coast is a dry place, not all that dissimilar to the Karoo, which is why the Argentine government, under General Julio A Roca, gave the Boers the land in 1902, thinking that the hard-working South African farmers could draw fruit from the earth. Argentina wanted to attract settlers to Patagonia and the Boers wanted a patch of land in the sun that they could call their own after the British had burned their farms in the Anglo-Boer War.

The first ones arrived in 1903—the bittereinders who refused to cede to British rule—and looked out at the barren horizon on a cold June afternoon. Many couldn’t believe this was their new land, bleak sandstone cliffs rising sheer from the icy Atlantic.

It wasn’t easy going. There were no houses, no infrastructure and, most importantly, no drinking water. More soon followed and, by 1907, there were more than 600 Boer families in the region, although almost half returned to South Africa in 1938, the centenary of the Great Trek, which saw a huge resurgence in Afrikaner nationalism. Sara De Langer, a third-generation Boer descendant in her early 60s living in Comodoro, says the closest water source was 36km away and it had to be brought in by wagon. She wears the khaki of her forefathers and her face is deeply grooved, weathered by years in the Patagonian wind.

“The Boers used to call this place ‘Die of Thirst’,” she tells me in word-perfect Afrikaans, which is tinged with a Spanish accent. For a long time they lived in tents and tried to do what they knew best—work the land—but the climate in this far corner of the Earth is cold, arid and unforgiving.

The Boers were among the first settlers to arrive in Comodoro. The population in 1903 was just 140; now it’s the biggest city in Patagonia with a population of 300 000. They soon began to build roads and telegraph lines so that they could link their land, as well as schools, bridges and dams—all through their own efforts and resources. They worked hard, subsisted poorly and lived up to their hardy reputation.

In 1907 the Boers’ pleas to the Argentine government to search for water were heard and a drilling machine was sent down from Buenos Aires. But instead of water they hit oil, vast deposits of it, much of it on the land they had been given. The drive from Comodoro to Sarmiento today is littered with mechanical giants, limbs reaching into the earth to pump 25% of Argentina’s total oil deposits. Had the regulations been different, the Boers may well have developed into an elite enclave of Argentine society, but Argentine law decrees that all mineral rights belong to the state.

“The story of the Boers in Chubut is a remarkable one, in terms of privation, hardship and loss,” says Tony Leon, the former Democratic ­Alliance leader and now South African ambassador to Argentina, who, with his wife, has been living in Buenos Aires for just over a year.

Many Boers trekked further into the hinterland, reaching Sarmiento, where they found arable land and running water. The area is an oasis compared with the harsh Patagonian semidesert surrounding it and reminded the Boers so much of their abandoned South African farmland that they decided to set up camp permanently. They planted willows and elms for windbreaks and to prevent erosion, and Sarmiento bloomed.

Lekker op die plaas
In Bruce Chatwin’s 1977 seminal text on the area, creatively named In Patagonia, the renowned travel writer describes the Boers as such: “They lived in fear of the Lord, celebrated Dingaan’s Day and took oaths on the Dutch Reformed Bible. They did not marry outsiders and their daughters had to go to the kitchen if a Latin entered the house.” De Langer is quick to dispel this notion. The Boers were forced to acclimatise to their new land, they had to learn the language and the customs of the native people. Certainly, these days Chatwin’s assertion holds little weight. Every Boer descendant the Mail & Guardian spoke to had married an Argentine. If their politiek, as Chatwin claims, was once separatist, it is no longer.

Back at the Blackie house, a DVD is put into the machine and the whole family gathers round to watch a documentary made in the 1970s about this intriguing sect of Argentine society. Schlebusch points at the TV: “Those are my brothers,” she says in Afrikaans, gesturing to three men seated on a bench. “The one in the middle is dead. The other two still work on the farm, but they struggle a lot.” At one time there were several families living on their sheep farm—about 30 to 40 people in total, Schlebusch says—but now her brothers are the only ones left.

The documentary comes to an end and a home video of the yearly Afrikaans fiesta is put on. Every February until 2005 about 300 Boer descendants gathered in the veld near Sarmiento, setting up their tents in a big kraal for a weekend of athletics, rugby, braai vleis and sokkie (dancing). In the video an elderly man sits on a stage playing Sarie Marais on his accordion while the youngsters whirl around the dance floor.

Up until a few years ago it was typical for many Boer families to live on a single farm. The festival was a way to bring all the Boers in the region together and because many of them lived in relative proximity it was easier for them to get together. But families gradually began to leave the farms—their children often got jobs in the city—and the festival’s attendance dwindled. By 2005, with so few families willing to make the trek and attend, it, more than anything else, just petered out.

108 years of solitude
At one time the Boer community in Patagonia was the biggest community of Boers living outside South Africa, but exactly how many Boers now live in Comodoro and its surrounding areas is unclear, although Graciela Àguila Hammond, another third-generation Boer, claims a 2008 survey puts the number at about 1 200. Martin Blackie puts the number at about 500.

Leon says “the embassy has no accurate estimation of the number of Boer descendants, simply because, according to our records, none of them are South African citizens. However, during my visit to Comodoro Rivadavia last November, I met about 35 Boer families and was told by them that the community numbered ‘several hundred’.”

Leon went to Comodoro to address the Boer community shortly after he was made ambassador in August 2009. He said to the congregation (in Afrikaans, of course): “I hope that this community and its heritage and language will survive in Argentina” and was fed some of Hammond’s melktert. Hammond runs Die Kleep, a koffiehuis in the town. She started the place eight years ago to mark the centenary of the Boers’ arrival here.

At the time the first-generation Boers had almost all died out and she wanted to find a way to preserve Afrikaans culture. She did it through soetkos. On the menu are treats you’d be likely to find at any tuisnywerheid: melktert, koeksisters, konfyt, ardekoekies, sjokolade koek and such. The worn linoleum, the plastic chairs and the warm welcome remind you of a good vetkoek paleis in die Vrystaat, although no vetkoeks are for sale here.

In Hammond’s home-cum-coffee shop she proudly displays a bottle of Amarula, some kitsch tribal masks and a print of a lion, all trinkets her cousin brought back when she visited South Africa on holiday last year. Her Afrikaans is almost unintelligible through her thick Spanish accent and the Spanish words she frequently throws into sentences, but she manages to get her point across in her congenial manner, stumbling when she tries to think of an Afrikaans word she can’t remember.

“I learned Afrikaans at home—it was my ‘kitchen language’—but now I speak mostly Spanish,” she says. At 18 she left home to study, got married to an Argentine soon after and spoke Afrikaans only at Boer gatherings. Spanish became her new kombuistaal and her children never learned it. Juan Wright (69) lives in Sarmiento. He spoke Afrikaans when he was a child, but has long since forgotten the language. All he can remember are the bad words.

“Damn it!” he shouts suddenly. “What does ‘damn it’ mean?” The closest approximation I can offer in my sketchy Spanish is diablo—or devil—although I know the essence is lost in translation. “I never knew what it meant. My father used to say it when we had done something wrong,” he explains through our interpreter, Luis, raising the back of his hand in a mock swipe.

His niece, Ana Wright, says her grandparents didn’t allow her father to learn Afrikaans. “Spanish lessons cost a lot. My grandfather said he didn’t want to waste his money on his children learning a language if they weren’t going to use it.” Juan Wright chips in: “When my mother and my aunt came here, they couldn’t speak any Spanish. When they went to the shops, they had to point at the things they wanted. Our parents wanted us to be Argentinian so that we didn’t have to go through that.”

The Argentinian Boers left South Africa before the language was formalised. As a result, none seems to know how to read or write in Afrikaans, although the community hopes to get an Afrikaans teacher to keep the language alive—at least for one more generation. “Last year we asked Leon for an Afrikaans teacher but we still haven’t heard anything,” says De Langer. Leon says the embassy is working on it, but in the past year, promoting the Fifa World Cup took priority.

Martin Blackie, Juan’s seventysomething uncle, a second-generation Boer whose mother was among the first batch of settlers and whose father was detained in a concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer war, was honorary vice-consul of the Boer descendants in Chubut for 20 years, a position he held with much pride, but with the decline of an authentic Boer community there was no longer need for a consul and his position fell away last year. His children also speak little Afrikaans.

Though the language may disappear, he is right in thinking the Boer descendants in Patagonia will retain many aspects of Boer culture, even if in “20 or 30 years Afrikaans is not spoken here”.

They are losing their language, but they express the vibrant spirit of their culture in the Spanish they were thrown into. Their forefathers, with stubbornness and gall, had the courage to venture across the Atlantic in a rusty vessel and today’s Boer descendants in Patagonia are following their example, burgeoning forward in a country at once emphatically foreign and completely theirs.

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