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U3A Writing: The Missing Ingedient

Ida Smith tells a South African story of hopes unrealised.

If one happens to go down to that part of the North-West Province today there may not be anyone left who remembers the woman who had lived there many years ago and who could perform miracle cures with the medicines she mixed, and the ingredients she used. This is her story.

“Look at her!” said Max Green, as he stood at the door of his little shop puffing on a cigarette. He watched old Lenie de Lange as she approached the piece of empty veld across the road. She gathered her heavy long black skirt and floral apron in one hand, then bending forward, pressed the middle strand of the wire fence with the other and deftly slid through to the lonely stretch of veld on the other side.

Max Green continued to watch as her dumpy figure, almost hidden by the tall queek grass, moved deeper and deeper until all that could be seen of her was the white straw hat bobbing about as she crept about this forlorn stretch of ground.

He knew what she was up to. She had told him on her last visit to the shop some days ago, that she was going to look for that unbelievable, wonderful plant.

“Does she really think she’ll find it?” Max Green snorted. “She considers herself the Miracle Medicine Madam,” he muttered unkindly. “But, she’s been a good customer for years,” he admitted going inside and turning to inspect the neat row of yellow and red boxes of herbal ‘’Dutch Medicines”. He always kept a good stock of these for the rural community living so far from the nearest doctor.

Old Lenie de Lange, or Tant Lenie, as she was generally known, was highly regarded for her knowledge and ability to take just the right measure from each of her little medicine bottles, and after mixing them together, concoct a never-fail remedy. Some of her medicines had weird names, like Harlemensis, Wit Dulcis, Hoffman’s Druppels, Duiwel’s Drek and Balsem Kopiva. But, when combined in the right doses they seemed to work miraculously to cure or relieve all kinds of ailments.

Lately, sadly, everyone had heard how concerned Tant Lenie was about her husband Oom Willem, that pious gentle old man, who sometimes read part of the Book at the service at the small school on Sundays.

His back pains had grievously worsened recently, in spite of the regular herbal medicine provided by Tant Lenie. For a while now, she had been agitating to obtain a plant ingredient which she felt could cure the pains. She knew that it had been indigenous to this particular area in the past. It was the Morea edulis, or uintjie, well known since the Voortrekker days for its curative and therapeutic properties.

The previous night after they had prayed, she said to Willem that she was going to find the uintjies that would relieve him of the gnawing pain. Her determination to find this plant increased after the predikant’s visit to their home a week ago, when, on leaving he had blessed her for caring so devotedly for her dear old husband. His kind words had reassured her that she would succeed, but mainly that the Good Father would spare Willem’s life and ease his pain.

As soon as Tant Lenie had entered this suffocating sea of grass, she fixed her eyes on the ground. It was so hard to see anything at all. She would have to search more slowly. Tired now, and a little out of breath, she sat down on a red, pockmarked ant-heap, her eyes probing the undergrowth around her. The air was hot and sultry. But soon, she got up and pushed her way onwards, opening up the swaying grass with her small puffy hands.

There were myriads of plants growing here with insects feeding off them. Among them she knew would be the one she so desperately wanted. In her mind, over and over she repeated “The Lord will help me find it for Willem’s sake.” A soft rustling in the grass made her jump. She stood still. Then a meerkat, its bushy tail almost brushing her feet sneaked past her and was gone.

Soon she reached a deep sloot which years ago had been the little road running through the farms. It now lay forgotten, eroded like a deep, abandoned trough, its centre filled with a line of fine grass. But, what did she see! Ah! There in that patch over there, her trained eye spotted a big clump of uintjies standing in full splendour, their light green leaves spread out like flat petals. Her precious uintjies! At last. Thank the Lord!

Tant Lenie felt elated. From her apron pocket she withdrew the little cloth bag and kitchen knife. She dug away at the plants. Lovingly, she caressed the smooth white bulbs, like little miniature onion roots. She tasted one and recalled how as a child living on a farm nearby, she and her friends had dug them up and relished them. She realised that it was getting late. The little bag was full. She could hear the school children shouting during their playtime. It was time to go. She hurried towards the fence and crept through, carefully holding on to her precious bag.

A few days later Oom Willem’s medicine was ready. So sure was Tant Lenie that the uintjies were the missing ingredient that she urged her poor old Willem to take some of it whenever the pain got very bad; but while his spirit was uplifted by the reassurance and promises that all would be well, everyone could see how weak and sallow he was and how thin and quiet he had become.

His sickness worsened. A few weeks later he could no longer get out of bed. She took to sitting by him, waving a cloth to chase the flies from his pale, tortured face. She read to him from the Bible and from the little journal left by the predikant. Then, Oom Willem slipped away. Most of the neighbouring people and Max Green came to the funeral that Saturday at the little cemetery on the corner of the road.

The predikant made a long speech about the well-loved Oom Willem who had been the oldest resident in the community. But Tant Lenie understood it had been his time and that miracle cures belonged only to the Almighty himself.

And she knew in her heart that she had done her best.


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