From earliest times, water sources and wells have been the scene of rare encounter, of betrothal and alliance, of secrets, struggles and dreams, yes, and of slaking thirst for mortal and beast, nowhere more earnestly than in the arid interiors of the planet’s landmasses. When desert winds drive storms of dust and sand, when the heavens turn to brass and hunger stalks the living, it is the well that offers a last resort, a redoubt from extinction. Who owns that well holds the key to tomorrow.
At the southeastern edge of the Kalahari desert lies Molepolole, one of the largest traditional villages on earth, home of the Bakwena, the ‘crocodile people’. More than 70,000 residents cluster there in traditional, many still-thatched, homesteads. My family and I were invited once to have tea with one of the revered figures of the village, the late Dr. Alfred Merriweather, who had given lifetime service in the local hospital. A majority of adults in that village impossibly laid claim to have been delivered by this healer of magic name who received for his labors from Queen Elizabeth II the ‘Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ (CBE). Which means he and his wife Mary served a most creditable afternoon cuppa.
When the elegant tea and biscuits were over, we walked his garden, and the hospital grounds which included a rare artifact of an earlier era: a prefab house produced in Liverpool, shipped to Capetown and dragged 900 miles, partly by ox cart, into the interior. Its occupants over the decades must surely have wished under the desert sun for a simple – and cool – thatched rondavel like their neighbors.
But the most memorable stop came when we stepped outside the hospital gates to a nondescript corner beside a gravel track. The good doctor removed several concrete blocks from corrugated roofing sheets on the ground which when shifted revealed a ragged, gaping hole. It was a century-old well. Modern amenities had long ago brought piped water to the village. The old well was a nearly forgotten relic of the past. But at its beginnings, it had meant life itself to the Crocodile People.
Our wonder deepened when the doctor motioned us to stand at the well’s lip. The shaft dropped away endlessly. Once in a great while concentration would catch a slight glint from the depths far below. Drop a pebble into the darkness and after an impossibly long silence, you hear the faintest splash. Weak kneed with the sensation, we listened to his account of those who drove this shaft into the earth’s interior, who were lowered hundreds of feet into the darkness by ropes to toil with crude iron tools, sometimes disabled by cave-ins, sometimes through solid rock, without any assurance that their exertions would lead to a fruitful end.
Our visit ended, we took leave of the good doctor and tiptoed away, hushed at the power of this wayside wonder, and the magnificence of those who fought through rock to open … a well.