#69 – into the diamond field

It was in Cape Town that Jamie became aware of the enormous schism between the blacks and whites. The
blacks had no rights except the few they were given by those in power. They were herded into conclaves
that were ghettos and were allowed to leave only to work for the white man.
“How do you stand it?” Jamie asked Banda one day.
“The hungry lion hides its claws. We will change all this someday. The white man accepts the black man
because his muscles are needed, but he must also learn to accept his brain. The more he drives us into a
corner, the more he fears us because he knows that one day there may be discrimination and humiliation in
reverse. He cannot bear the thought of that. But we will survive because of isiko.”
“Who is isiko?”
Banda shook his head. “Not a who. A what. It is difficult to explain, Mr. McGregor. Isiko is our roots. It is the
feeling of belonging to a nation that has given its name to the great Zambezi River. Generations ago my
ancestors entered the waters of the Zambezi naked, driving their herds before them. Their weakest
members were lost, the prey of the swirling waters or hungry crocodiles, but the survivors emerged from the
waters stronger and more virile. When a Bantu dies, isiko demands that the members of his family retire to
the forest so that the rest of the community will not have to share their distress. Isiko is the scorn felt for a
slave who cringes, the belief that a man can look anyone in the face, that he is worth no more and no less
than any other man. Have you heard of John Tengo Jabavu?” He pronounced the name with reverence.
“You will, Mr. McGregor,” Banda promised. “You will.”
And Banda changed the subject.
Jamie began to feel a growing admiration for Banda. In the beginning there was a wariness between the two
men. Jamie had to learn to trust a man who had almost killed him. And Banda had to learn to trust an ageold
enemy—a white man. Unlike most of the blacks Jamie had met, Banda was educated.
“Where did you go to school?” Jamie asked.
“Nowhere. I’ve worked since I was a small boy. My grandmother educated me. She worked for a Boer
schoolteacher. She learned to read and write so she could teach me to read and write. I owe her
It was on a late Saturday afternoon after work that Jamie first heard of the Namib Desert in Great
Namaqualand. He and Banda were in the deserted warehouse on the docks, sharing an impala stew
Banda’s mother had cooked. It was good—a little gamey for Jamie’s taste, but his bowl was soon empty,
and he lay back on some old sacks to question Banda.
“When did you first meet Van der Merwe?”
“When I was working at the diamond beach on the Namib Desert. He owns the beach with two partners. He
had just stolen his share from some poor prospector, and he was down there
visiting it.” “If Van der Merwe is so rich, why does he still work at his
“The store is his bait. That’s how he gets new prospectors to come to him. And he grows richer.”
Jamie thought of how easily he himself had been cheated. How trusting that naive young boy had been! He
could see Margaret’s oval-shaped face as she said, My father might be the one to help you. He had thought
she was a child until he had noticed her breasts and— Jamie suddenly jumped to his feet, a smile on his
face, and the up-turning of his lips made the livid scar across his chin ripple.
‘Tell me how you happened to go to work for Van der Merwe.”
“On the day he came to the beach with his daughter—she was about eleven then—I suppose she got bored
sitting around and she went into the water and the tide grabbed her. I jumped in and pulled her out. I was a
young boy, but I thought Van der Merwe was going to kill me.” Jamie stared at him. “Why?”
“Because I had my arms around her. Not because I was black, but because I was a male. He can’t stand the
thought of any man touching his daughter. Someone finally calmed him down and reminded him that I had
saved her life. He brought me back to Klipdrift as his servant.” Banda hesitated a moment, then continued.
“Two months later, my sister came to visit me.” His voice was very quiet. “She was the same age as Van der
Merwe’s daughter.” There was nothing Jamie could say.
Finally Banda broke the silence. “I should have stayed in the
Namib Desert. That was an easy job. We’d crawl along the
beach picking up diamonds and putting them in little jam tins.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying that the diamonds are just
lying there, on top of the sand?”
“That’s what I’m saying, Mr. McGregor. But forget what you’re thinking. Nobody can get near that field. It’s on
the ocean, and the waves are up to thirty feet high. They don’t even bother guarding the shore. A lot of
people have tried to sneak in by sea. They’ve all been killed by the waves or the reefs.” ‘There must be
some other way to get in.” “No. The Namib Desert runs right down to the ocean’s shore.”
“What about the entrance to the diamond field?”
‘There’s a guard tower and a barbed-wire fence. Inside the
fence are guards with guns and dogs that’ll tear a man to pieces.
And they have a new kind of explosive called a land mine.
They’re buried all over the field. If you don’t have a map of the
land mines, you’ll get blown to bits.” “How large is the diamond field?”
“It runs for about thirty-five miles.”
Thirty-five miles of diamonds just lying on the sand. . . “My God!”
“You aren’t the first one to get excited about the diamond fields at the Namib, and you won’t be the last. I’ve
picked up what was left of people who tried to come in by boat and got torn apart by the reefs. I’ve seen
what those land mines do if a man takes one wrong step, and I’ve watched those dogs rip out a man’s
throat. Forget it, Mr. McGregor. I’ve been there. There’s no way in and there’s no way out—not alive, that is.”
Jamie was unable to sleep that night. He kept visualizing thirty-five miles of sand sprinkled with enormous
diamonds belonging to Van der Merwe. He thought of the sea and the jagged reefs, the dogs hungry to kill,
the guards and the land mines. He was not afraid of the danger; he was not afraid of dying. He was only
afraid of dying before he repaid Salomon van der Merwe.
On the following Monday Jamie went into a cartographer’s shop and bought a map of Great Namaqualand.
There was the beach, off the South Atlantic Ocean between Luderitz to the north and the Orange River
Estuary to the south. The area was marked in red: sperrgebiet—Forbidden.
Jamie examined every detail of the area on the map, going over it again and again. There were three
thousand miles of ocean flowing from South America to South Africa, with nothing to impede the waves, so
that their full fury was spent on the deadly reefs of the South Atlantic shore. Forty miles south, down the
coastline, was an open beach. That must be where the poor bastards launched their boats to sail into the
forbidden area, Jamie decided. Looking at the map, he could understand why the shore was not guarded.
The reefs would make a landing im-possible.


Copyright © 1982 by Sheldon Literary Trust

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