Calamity, yet Hope

By Bruce Wade

Calamity is not a word that I use often in my daily vocabulary. But it has been something that has come across my mind more and more these days. Google defines calamity as ‘an event causing great and often sudden damage or distress; a disaster’. This is why it is a strange word for me. I have not been in a sudden or great event. Sure, I have seen them on TV and watched documentaries of events, but that is always on the other side of the screen, away from me and the direct effects on me and my household.

Even this COVID thing has been at a distance, albeit at arm’s length, it has not had any direct effect on me. I have compassion for those who suffer loss and had offered my counsel and a shoulder to those who had suffered loss. Loss in both lives, financial and emotional due to calamities.

But this story is about a family, a family linked to my family through my wife’s side of the family. They are farmers. You know the ones who hold the backbone of our country together through their daily struggle with the elements, political fighting, lack of funds, encouragement and support of farmers. Those who drive bakkies and live in far outlying areas. This family are sheep farmers, so they are allocated to land that is even outside the outside, beyond the horizon and away from the green valleys and fruitful deltas of natural irrigation and fertile soil.

For some reason, God made sheep able to live in large flat open areas with very little rain or food. I have also seen sheep live happily in frozen places like the farms in the Netherlands where they sleep outside in the snow, while their fellow farm animals, the cows, live in heated sheds during the winter. Sheep are awesome, and they provide us with both wool and meat. Now, if you do not live in the south of South Africa, you may not know that the Karoo sheep eat mostly a plant type called fynbos, and this gives a unique and very delicious taste to the meat. It is almost like a pre-marinated diet. The Karoo lamb is a darker meat with a rich herby taste. Yummy.

So, all is good for the sheep farmers when the sheep have fynbos to eat and they supplement the diet with grass and nutrients, but mostly the sheep just wander around the very large farms and graze on the natural habitat of the Karoo.

But fynbos only grows when there is at least some rain. Even just a little bit of rain will sustain the plants. They have been created to live in dry, clay, dusty soil and do well in these harsh conditions. But ideal dry is not what we have at the moment. On this particular farm, it has not rained for seven years. Not a drop, nothing. Not even morning dew, or frost or fog. Nothing. And all the fynbos has dried up to nothing. What little above the ground vegetation the plants have has been eaten or dried to a crisp and blown away in the hot wind. The roots lie deep under the hard soil waiting for the rain to come and hopefully they will have enough energy and courage to begin to sprout again. But those rains just do not come.

Now we can begin to blame climate change and the fossil fuel industry and point fingers at greenhouse gasses and the big industry players, but the fact is that blame just does not cut it. The ground is dry dust, the windmill turns and pumps up dust into a dust-filled dam.

And the sheep huddle together to protect them from the heat and wind and wait patiently for the rain and for the farmer to provide water and food as they see their mates die off one by one each day: Calamity.

A recent photo of their farm looks like this _____________________. That is the horizon, flat and shapeless, not a tree, shrub, animal, insect. Nothing. Everything that could leave has left. But the family of farmers are there still. They truck in food and water each week to try to keep their beloved sheep and goats alive and pray each day for a cloud in the sky to build and pause for just a moment and shed some drops of nutrients into the thirsty soil.

Farmer’s bank accounts are much like those pendulums that swing back and forth in a wide arc. During their planting or non-harvest season, the balance begins to swing towards zero and into the red zone. Banks lend huge amounts to farms during this time to cover the costs of seed, fertilizer and feed for their crops and animals. They also take out insurance to cover the loan and additional cover for events such as drought and flood and storm damage. As the balance swings further into the dark red zone, the soil begins to sprout green shoots and leaves and then plants and fruit. The animals grow and fatten and get ready for the market. If everything goes according to plan, and just as the banks begin to peer over their gold-rimmed spectacles with concern, it is harvesting time and the trucks deliver their goods to markets and the money begins to flow in. The bank balance pendulum swings fastback through zero and into the green zone. Loans are paid off and profits are spent on new equipment, dams are built or enlarged, and new fields prospected for the coming season. Then the cycle begins again.

But what happens when the balance is deep in the red and the rains do not come, and the money fails to come in and then the bank gets worried and begins to call? What happens when the insurance has paid out all it can, and they then stop returning your calls? What happens when the natural vegetation dries up and dies and is swept away by the wind?

A farm is not like an old car that you can still sell or trade-in to get a new one with better perks and gadgets. A farm is more than an asset, more than a plot of land that produces food for the country, a farm is the very blood that flows through the farmer’s veins. It is not just a lifestyle; it is the very life itself.

So, when does a farmer reach the point of no return, when they have to cash in everything to make it work? When they have spent the money from their bank account and then the money from the bank’s bank account and all that the insurance has paid and then borrowed from friends and used donations and sold the tractors and send family members to work in town and then begun to look for work elsewhere, just to send enough money home to keep what is left of the animals alive long enough to rebuild flocks and herds when one day the clouds will gather and the rain will come?

Calamity: an event causing great and often sudden damage or distress when you and all your resources have reached beyond their breaking point and you look up to heaven and say quietly, “Help me please”.

This week it started to rain

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