!Khanni stood at the port, shivering and drenched from the Atlantic winter rain that seeped through the rugged blanket thrown over her scant long dress, with her hands cuffed to the front of her body. Her thin small eyes seemed to sulk deeper into her face with hopelessness and fatigue as her future played out before her eyes while Cezar held tightly to her cuffs, ready to load her like precious cargo into the ship destined for the exhibitions and circuses of London and the rest of Europe.
Life was devoid of misery before the Dutch descended on Gamtoos soil where !Khanni lived freely and happily with her father and her Khoe community. She was no ordinary Khoe woman. Hardwired to live as she believed was best, and often going against the tradition of the submitted Khoe woman whose life is best lived offering !karri to the men that surround her and constant little mouths attacking her breasts for milk, !Khanni’s father knew he had a special daughter, who mimicked the son he wished he had before his dear wife announced that she bore him a girl. He made peace with !Khanni’s existence in the world, especially because she resembled her mother’s beautiful features, but more because she was the remnant of his wife after the plague descended her into the world of the dead.
Too seasoned an archer for any Khoe member of her tribe, !Khanni set out for the wild, to lurch among the tall grass stalks of the Eastern interior, following the antelope with the precision of a leopard, her golden caramel skin glistening in the African sun as it evaporates sweat from her body. Her small eyes follow her prey, and at just the right moment, she draws back her bow and sends the arrow flying into the heart of the antelope. She runs towards her catch for her family as the other antelope in the herd run for safety. She is delighted, as her and her father will feast on corn and barbequed antelope spiced with rock salt traded from villages in the Kalahari tonight. Then, in the morning, she would descend to the cave at the Gamtoos to paint the story about her hunt of the antelope. She was one of the finest rock painters in the community, and the only female one.
One day, or as it seemed to !Khanni, her body changed into a strange object that made her feel uncomfortable, even distant from it. Her skinny frame was invaded stout body cells that swelled up her thighs, buttocks and hips, while forming breasts that mimicked pomegranates of a colossal size. In the end of the puberty process, !Khanni had the most voluptuous curves, breasts and buttocks any Khoe woman had ever adorned. She looked like a perfectly ripe pear, with protruding contours so seamless that she was the epitome of the African female form. And she disliked it immensely. She agonized over her rite of passage into womanhood, so much so that she hid the beginning of the rite from her father when she woke up one morning with an aching pelvis only to see a red blotch on the blanket that she used as a mattress. She was afraid that he would recognize her as a woman; no longer as his a son personified in female form, and would inflict the traditional burden of servitude as a Khoe woman. Ever since she was a little girl, she wished that she had been born a boy. She resolved to live like her father’s son, stick-fighting with the boys, hunting after game and documenting her creativity on the Gamtoos’ deeply-earthed caves, hoping that one day her wish would be granted.
One evening, during a feast in the village, !Khanni sensed a strangeness in the air, a danger that felt like the lion’s slow and calculated approach on its prey behind the tall reeds of the wilderness. The drums were beating loud, providing a pulsating rhythm that resulted in shrieks of a vocal and physical kind. As the beat got louder, the tribeswomen danced like they were fighting off an unanticipated invader. With no warning, cannons of fire exploded on the village huts, causing mass panic as people, like unaware antelope, ran for cover from the pernicious lion that was the Dutch soldiers that had launched an invasion. As !Khanni ran for cover towards the thick darkness of the Gamtoos river banks, a blow on the right of her face sent her crashing down, muffling the sounds and sights of horrors that stammered from her vision. The knock jilted the consciousness from her body, as it did to the life of her father by the many savages that seized the village, and she disappeared into the thick silence of unconsciousness.
As the sun sluggishly frees itself from the imprisonment of heavy storm clouds, so did consciousness return to !Khanni, accompanied by what felt like a dissecting of her head due to the blow she endured and heavy steel cuffs bolted to her wrists. She was being pulled along in a carriage attached to a horse, and as soon as it came to an abrupt halt in front of a white double farm house, a tall, thin, bearded man appeared, jolting the chain that had her hands in bondage.
“Ya Khoe”, the man impolitely bellowed in a thick Dutch accent. “My naam is Cezar, and you are the new servant for my brother and his wife”, he continued.
At that moment, Cezar’s burly and brunette-haired sister-in-law, known as Mevrouw, thundered out of the front door to meet her new servant. As she grabbed !Khanni by arm while she was still barefoot, bloodied and cuffed, she bawled, “Ya Khoe woman! It’s time to get to work. Dust won’t remove itself. Gaan!”. At that, she tugged !Khanni towards the porch of the farm house.
As the beating desert sun sucks out the life from the earth, so did the life of subservience remove the pride of Khoe identity from !Khanni, whose days were filled with offering tea and wine to her superiors, chaffed hands and a weary back from the burdens laid on by Mevrouw, and often, her delicate caramel coloured cheek would be turned into a landing ground for the thick, fat-filled slap from Mevrouw for some sort of imagined housekeeping failure.
Cezar, on the other hand, took interest in !Khanni’s voluptuous female form. He constantly stared at her as she tended to her duties, salivating lustfully at its sight as much being disgusted by the exaggeration of the evolved African. He wanted to touch it, to explore its hidden yet forbidden treasure as a man feeding his lustful appetite, but his colonial mind reminded him that he could never resort to such a lowliness of touching an African, yet alone find it attractive enough to be intrigued by it.
One night after yet another drinking spree with his fellow farmers, he insisted to !Khanni, “Change out of that long servant dress of yours into your traditional leather skirt and beads. I want to show my friends your African body”.
Fearing the bludgeoning hands of Mevrouw at a minor sight of disobedience, !Khanni obliged to entertain Cezar and his guests with the spectacle of her body. “Turn that way”, Cezar drunkenly instructed. “Turn this way”, he continued as he directed !Khanni to the wonder, lust amusement of his friends at the voluptuous size of the evolved African, whose breasts, buttocks and hips were of such enormity that they had to poke and prod at them as if to confirm their validity.
News soon spread across the Dutch farming community of the evolved African woman, and soon, Cezar had transformed Mevrouw’s house into a showroom that entertained the hordes of male spectators who would poke, prod and squeeze !Khanni’s body as if it were a combined sex and science experimental sample.
!Khanni’s detest for her body, which she realized was no ordinary occurrence in the world in which she now lived, turned into repugnance as she felt the heaviness of her hips and buttocks as they hung from the sides and the back of her body like remoras, and the protruding of her breasts like malignant tumors invading her chest. She resented womanhood, and wished that she had been born a man, for then she would endure the luxury of worn-out hands and a broken back working like a slave in Mevrouw’s fields. Instead, she stood molested by perverted men, all because she was born a Khoe woman. With every stare, with every jeer and with every touch at her body, she felt her dignity dry up like the Gamtoos during drought season.
One cold winter night, after yet another spectacle of her body, !Khanni endured another blow from Cezar on her head which sent her thumping down to the floor. As the dining room blurrily spun around, she felt the pain from her heartbreak and her humiliation flow out of her body with every trickle of blood that flowed, and became overwhelmed with joy at the looming unconsciousness that felt like the embrace of her father welcoming her back home after a long and treacherous journey. She slipped into the thickness of unconsciousness, all the while being hauled off into a world that would make Cezar a famous man.
She regained consciousness once again in Cezar’s carriage as it abruptly stopped at a dock, and she could hear the sounds of ships against the light, icy cold drizzle that covered the Cape. As she lifted her hands to hold her thumping head, she saw her cuffed hands. In a slightly disorientated yet frightened voice, she asked, “Cezar, where am I? What is going on?”
Cezar excitedly replied, “An exhibitor in Europe gave me an opportunity to showcase you, my wondrous African person, at exhibitions and circuses in Europe at his expense!” He added, “You will be exhibited in town squares for a fee, and Europe’s greatest anatomists will study you and mention me as the person who found you”. Mevrouw happily added, “Ya! You will show the world humans in this rough continent look like, with your big bums and breasts!”
Both of them giggled with delight, happy at the prospect that !Khanni’s exhibition will be so successful that the exhibitor will fulfill his part of the contract, which they decided not to disclose to !Khanni, which will be to pay Cezar and his family a portion of the income from the exhibition of !Khanni for as long as she continues to attract mass European eyeballs and wealth from their wallets.
!Khanni felt faint upon hearing the news that she would be taken away from her ancestral land to be poked, prodded and humiliated, traded for a pittance yet treated like a rare scientific discovery that could expand the knowledge of mankind. As the icy cold rain water seeped into her body, it seemed to freeze her already distant identity as a one who was noble, strong and dearly loved, running free in the warm wilderness; an identity burned down by invading soldiers who then forced her into a servant’s cotton dress and into her own traditional attire for debasing and mockery.
The captain’s secretary approached the dock where Cezar and Mevrouw stood with !Khanni. “Sir, it is time to get ready for departure”, he said. “Your paperwork is in order, however we need a name for her, your parcel to Europe…”, he added.
Cezar, with a wide smile on his face replied, ‘Her name is Saartjie’.
*image from blackthen.com.