No darkness on earth can match the depth of a desert night. No firmament of stars can rival the spectacle of a desert sky. For the most part it is only the drifted face of sand and the beasts of the wild who are witness to such silent marvels. Except a small fraternity of herders who follow their flocks and cattle along the edges of the desert. They wander the Sahel, the empty quarter of Arabia and the Horn of Africa, the fringes of the Gobi and the Atacama, the interior of Australia, and they are at home in the Kalahari of southern Africa.
The fast-track Kalahari cousins of those herders, meanwhile, are surrounded by the garish lights and shopping malls of Windhoek, Kimberley, Francistown and Bulawayo where, in December, an other-worldly scene has taken hold. At the height of southern summer, when candles have a way of bending into a ‘U’ shape in the heat, there Bing Crosby croons oddly of ‘sleigh bells in the snow’, Norman Rockwell scenes feature mugs of hot chocolate, Santa Claus appears trimmed in ermine under a brassy sun, even as shoppers dash about snapping up last minute gifts and wherewithal for holiday feasting. But if you eavesdrop on the unguarded chatter of the buses and trains or under the eaves of shebeens, the township drinking spots, the nostalgia is overwhelmingly for ‘meraka’, the distant cattle posts, the camp-like settings where the herders close in the livestock at night to keep out predators. The glitzy city markets are regretted light years from that pastoral scene.
Those who do manage at Christmas to flee the cities and towns, find their way into the back country in their battered Toyota pickups loaded with staples for the herders, with remedies to ward off cattle ticks, with a supply of libation and – powerful memories. On this frontier of settled life, where by flickering firelight and to the lowing of herds, consciousness travels into a deep past, where breath and pulse find some baseline, where conversation with the night consists of the crackle of a hearth, a shower of sparks, meandering smoke, and finally, dying embers.
No one need observe that this scene, fragrant with what marks a stable, is where our bards have located their dearest dreams, read in the night sky prophecies of hope and promise, and told of encounters – mysteries – that defeat language. This is the fare of desert herders, and it is what their city cousins still long to share.