My friend Vivien Smith has sent me a copy of the book her mother, Nancy Mathews, wrote about her South African childhood, called Dancing on Mara Dust (Vivien wrote a concluding chapter bringing the story up to date). As the jacket copy says, “The book tells of lifestyles that have disappeared, of people and places who are but shadowy memories, interspersed with unique observations of animal life and with snapshots of royalty and famous names from long ago.” Mrs. Mathews grew up in the 1920s and ’30s on a farm in the sparsely settled north of the Transvaal, near the Soutpansberg (‘salt-pan mountain’), and the work and ingenuity necessary to make a go of it there are amazing to someone who grew up decades later in easier circumstances. I enjoyed the loving descriptions of the land and its inhabitants, both human and animal (there’s a splendid description of fish eagles on page 140), but of course I particularly appreciate the use of language: “zithering” is exactly right for the sound of cicadas, but it would never have occurred to me. And I’ve learned some new words, like inspan for ‘to yoke, harness’ (apparently only South African). To add to my pleasure, there are bits of Northern Sotho/Sepedi scattered through the book (and a helpful glossary in the front). I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in South Africa, growing up on farms, or just a good (if sometimes very sad) story.


  1. I learned that verb from H. Rider Haggard – ” Mr. Clifford gave orders that the oxen, which were filling themselves with the dry grass near at hand, should be got up and inspanned. The voorlooper, a Zulu boy, who had left them for a little while to share the rest of the coffee with Hans, rose from his haunches with a grunt, and departed to fetch them.”
    So who can tell me what exactly a voorlooper is? 🙂 It must be Dutch, right?

  2. In dutch ‘voorloper’ normally means precursor, forerunner, but in this case it should probably be taken literally: front-walker.
    The spelling ‘voorlooper’ seems rather weird.
    The double double o spelling is pre 1934 in the case of dutch, and I wasn’t aware that is was ever spelled like that in afrikaans…

  3. In Scots, to “loup” is to leap, and also to run. I remember from childhood that a friend referred to the great steeplechase, The Grand National, as “cuddy loupin'”. (A “cuddy” is a donkey – and therefore a dismissive term for a horse.)

  4. Of course, when you get where you are going (which takes time at Two. Miles. An. Hour, or less with a heavy load) the oxen must be outspanned. Both words are Afrikaans calques.

    As for a voorloper (voorlooper is the usual way that Haggard spells it, and the OED lists this as an alternative), it is a boy (either an actual youth or a grown man, but in any case not white) who stands next to the first pair of oxen and guides them, more or less as SN says.

    Benita, An African Romance: according to Haggard, an African legend founded on truth.

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