Bosman & Mampoer in Marico

“There is no other place I know that is so heavy with atmosphere, so strangely and darkly impregnated with that stuff of life that bears the authentic stamp of South-Africa.”
– Herman Charles Bosman

The Marico District is situated in the North-West Province, South Africa.  Only two hours away from Gauteng, Groot Marico is situated between the towns of Swartruggens and Zeerust, en-route to Botswana.  The famous Groot Marico region, in the northern part of the North West Province, borders Botswana.  The town Groot Marico (meaning Big Marico) is named after the Groot Marico river, one of the few perennial rivers in this area.  The name has got nothing to do with the size of the town, which is really very small.  Groot Marico is well known for its beautiful African bushveld surroundings and the special kind of hospitality of its interesting people.  It is no wonder that so many of Herman Charles Bosman’s tales all started in the Marico.  With its enchanting atmosphere and warm hospitality, the Groot Marico offers you a culturally rich holiday that’s sure to relax and entertain you.  Here, in a Bushveld setting that is truly African, the attitudes are down-to-earth and the sunsets heavenly.

The town is very laid-back, it almost seems as if time is a mere construct, a fact attested by the clock face on the church steeple that has no provision for hands.  Groot Marico is one of the only towns in South Africa that still has a manual telephone exchange.  While the area is now fully automated, the locals decided that they wanted to continue using the manual exchange and so it remains to this day.  The Groot Marico is renowned as a cultural attraction and is also known as “Bosman Country” for it is here that the famous storyteller, Herman Charles Bosman, set most of his typically South African tales.

The author Herman Charles Bosman, one of South-Africa’s best known short story writers, held the Marico in high esteem.  He wrote many wonderful stories full of humour about the Marico and its people.  Herman Charles Bosman was born in 1905 in Kuilsrivier, near Cape Town.  Shortly afterwards his family moved to Johannesburg where he was educated.  He was deeply absorbed in literature, excelled in languages, was repelled by Science and Mathematics and in his matriculation examination he answered the paper on Algebra with a beautifully phrased essay, explaining that he felt he might dispense with the knowledge of this subject since his ability in English was exceptional.

On receiving his degree, Bosman was appointed to a teaching post in the Groot Marico district.  A most fruitful year, for the place and the people enthralled him – they provided him with the background for his best-known works, the Oom Schalk Lourens and Voorkamer sketches.  On his return to Johannesburg for the June holidays, his visit ended in catastrophe in the house of his mother and stepfather when he fired a hunting rifle at his stepbrother and killed him.  Bosman was sentenced to death, but later a reprieve was granted and at the age of 21 he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.  He was, however, released after four and a half years.

He relates his prison experience in “Cold Stone Jug” and it was while he was in prison that he wrote his first Oom Schalk Lourens stories.  On his release he started his own printing press and associated with a colorful group of journalists and authors in Johannesburg.  Then came nine years in Europe – London, Paris, Brussels and it was in London that he wrote a number of stories, later collected as “Mafeking Road”.  On the outbreak of the war he returned to South Africa where he worked as a journalist and literary editor for several newspapers and at this time translated the Rubayat of Omar Khayam into Afrikaans.

Herman Charles Bosman was a great party-giver and his parties were famous for the brilliant and witty conversation which went on far into the night.  Two days after a housewarming party he was taken ill with severe chest pains.  His wife took him to Edenvale Hospital.  On arrival he was asked, “Place of birth?” Herman replied, “Born Kuilsrivier – Died Edenvale Hospital.”  A few minutes after he entered the examination room, the doctor could be heard roaring with laughter.  Herman came out of the room and told his wife he had indigestion.  A few hours later he collapsed at home.  He died as he was being wheeled back into Edenvale Hospital.  The date was the 14th of October, 1951.

The HC Bosman Living Museum will be hosting the Annual Bosman weekend 21 – 23 October 2011.  As always this is the main event of the year in Groot Marico.  This year the program for the Bosman weekend will be featuring an interesting variety of performances, lectures, workshops,  art exhibitions  and music.  There will also be time to share at a leisurely pace, the company, the ambience of bush and fireplace – and excellent performances by well known artists.  The entertainment is all based on the Bosman inspiration: the atmosphere and culinary fare promise to be authentic Marico bosveld.

For something completely different, Groot Marico is also the home of South Africa’s very own moonshine, known locally as Mampoer.  But be warned, it is firewater with an alcohol content often reaching a staggering 90% proof.  The Americans call it ‘moonshine’, to the warm-blooded Irish it is ‘Poteen’ and the Swiss call it ‘Kirsch’.  In South Africa, it is ‘Witblits’ in the Cape and to Jobergers it is just ‘Mampoer’.  Mampoer is uniquely South African.  Its legend is so entangled in the South African folklore legends that it is difficult to distinguish between facts and fables.

Although the Mampoer name has come to be closely associated with the Groot Marico, its origin lies further north, in the northern and eastern parts of the former Transvaal.  Here Sekwati founded the Bapedi tribe in the early 19th century.  In 1861 his son Sekhukuni took over the tribal leadership.  An elder brother, Mampuru, had been groomed for chieftainship, and together with his followers, regarded Sekhukuni as a swindler.  Sekhukuni, however, proved to be a capable leader, refusing to yield authority to the unceasing attempts of white settlers to subject him and his followers.  Eventually the British got the upper hand in 1879 and Sekhukuni was imprisoned in Pretoria.  He was released after the Boer and Brit conflict in 1881, but soon afterwards, in August 1882, murdered by Mampuru.  Sought by the authorities of the former Transvaal Republic, Mampuru placed himself under the protection of Niabela, a chief of the Ndzundza tribe of Transvaal Ndebele.  In tribal politics it would have been impossible for Niabela to refuse Mampuru’s solicitations without losing authority.  Thus he found himself in conflict with the white authorities and after a costly war was imprisoned along with Mampuru.  The latter was hanged in public on 23 November 1883 outside Pretoria Central Prison.

The burgers who had taken part in the war had been promised land: 15,000 morgen of Ndzunza land was subdivided into plots of 8 morgen each.  The people to whom their land was allotted, had no previous experience of farming.  They were mostly “bywoners” or white squatters.  Even experienced farmers would have found it difficult to make headway on these small tracts of land.  Though there were more than 40 perennial streams in the area, people were quarrelling about water rights.  Though attempts at farming turned out less successfully, the Mapochslanders soon became known for their pot-stills and the peach-brandy they distilled.  They called it Mampoer, thus immortalizing the unfortunate Bapedi chief.

What makes Mampoer so unique is the fact that it is distilled on the farm according to handpicked recipes and very special processes.  The secrets of distilling this potent ‘brandy’ are carried over from generation to generation and this adds to the mystery that surrounds it.  The test to determine quality of mampoer is very simple.  Pour a small quantity on a flat surface and light it.  If it all burns off with a clear blue flame, it is unadulterated and full strength.  This is why Mampoer is sometimes also called ‘fire water’, it causes the first-time drinker to catch his breath with his first sip.

Fruits used to distill Mampoer in the Marico include all the citrus varieties, among which lemons are said to reign supreme.  But still owners will use peaches, apricots, pears, plums and figs.  Among these there is considerable consensus that figs are the top of the range, followed by the authentic yellow peach.  Since the 1940’s however, the latter is no longer so abundant, or must be obtained from the highveld.  The many varieties of wild birds for which the Marico is famous, also compete for available fruit.  Wild fruits are sometimes favored by distillers for their distinctive flavors, such as marula, milk-plum , karree-berry and kei-apple.

Authentic mampoer distilling is a protracted, labour-intensive process, allowing no mistakes.  Only 6-10% of the fermented sap will end up as mampoer in a bottle.  The distiller  who leaves the “traditional” ways of his forebears and acquires a license to distill, will find the pinch of the taxman quite sharply.  In the North, taxation was already in existence in 1878.  A tradition of clandestine production developed parallel to the legislative route, as could be expected from frontiersmen with a fiercely independent mind-set.  In any case the pot-still used to be historically a component of most well run farmyards.  As one old Marico farmer once remarked “ three things are a pest on any farmyard: a blue gum tree, a bitch on heat and a mampoer-still.”  Mampoer distilling can therefore hardly be regarded as a lucrative exercise.  In fact, it is a labour of love, keeping old traditions alive and perhaps sustained by those more subtle, unmaterialistic rewards usually associated with alchemy.