Saturday, November 07, 2009

things not to say in a room full of farmers!

So today was the annual meeting of all the landowners in the area. I go along every year partly to represent the university and partly to meet farmers with rocks on their land. To tell the truth all I’ve ever really got out of it is a bizarre Afrikaans vocabulary (most of the meeting is in Afrikaans), some sleep while they bicker over levies and security requirements and many pages of doodles.

Tonight was different. I was invited along as one of three guest speakers and told that although the meeting began at 3:30 I didn’t have to sit through the usual stuff but could go along at 5 in time to speak. I planned on getting there earlier to do my usual job representing the oh-so-hallowed university, but then it turned out that a combination of bad roads and rain meant driving for 20km along what was effectively a potholed and rutted mud-slick. So it took me a while longer than I’d planned so I snuck in at 4:45 and tried to find a seat without being noticed.

The chairman spotted me and paused, mid-discussion to yell out a welcome to me. I waved and tried to ignore the WHOOSH of every head turning towards me. Fortunately someone moved up and cleared a seat for me and I sat down quickly. The woman introduced herself as the chairman’s wife.

‘I’ve heard so much about you! What’s happening now is they’re still discussing issues, so you’re welcome to listen, it’ll be another fifteen minutes or so. Otherwise you’re welcome to sit outside, have some coffee…”

Anyone who knows me will know that I got mildly excited at the prospect of coffee and she offered to show me where it was. And then the weird behaviour continued; rather than leave me to it, she made herself a cup of (ric)coffee (beggars, choosers, you know?) and asked if i wanted to sit inside or outside. and she stayed with me. it was so strange.

When the other speakers arrived I was introduced and we all chatted along with the owner of the lodge we were at and his family (all very very German, Hans, Heidi and Hermann and their awesome dog as well as a bunch of German staff who had the scariest lumo-blue eyeshadow I‘ve ever seen). I learned a lot about the area first from the chairman’s wife who pointed out the shape of the land and how you an tell it used to be a tobacco farm as well as swapping stories of the strange farmers and the different sides of the conservancy being so different. Apparently its being separated to have independent governing bodies on each side which is fair enough considering the bickering between the sides at the previous meetings.

Apparently from tobacco farming (the area was a huge tobacco area until the industry collapsed here in the 70’s or 80’s or something) the new owners rehabilitated the land (beautifully might i add, if you can ignore the prickly-pear they were cultivating in pots around the braai area and the bonsai Aap-se-tert that was Hans’s pride and joy) and turned it into a hunting lodge. At some stage while listening to the Parks board people discussing venemous snakes while the Germans discussed German dialects (in German) there was a pause.

“Was that a gunshot?” Hans shrugged


“But who’s out today?” asked Heidi. “We don’t have guests this weekend and Jaco across at the other lodge doesn’t have anyone either.”

“Oh well. We’ll just have to go hunt some poachers later.” and the conversations resumed.

Once the meeting ended (it was an hour-long fifteen minutes) we set up a laptop and projector (with the assistance of a flower-pot) and the first speaker got started (once one of the farmers figured out that the bathroom was right behind the speaker and spent ten minutes trying to get the door open). He was a nice guy, very keen on what he was talking about and absolutely unable to either change his tone of voice or make eye contact with anyone. His discussion on changing legislation to protect and conserve the area made for a lively discussion as he had the wind a bit knocked out of his sails to learn that the entire area is under a land claim right now and so nothing he said can be put into practise until it’s settled. Of course the farmers had fun trying to figure out the loopholes and so on until one of them got very agitated and started screaming a bunch of things about a bunch of people and eventually ended up using a word that I don’t think is legal anymore.

For a room full of conservative farmers to go dead-quiet and a collective gasp… it was THAT bad. The chairman hustled the speaker off the stage to a smattering of applause and sent me up.

Here’s the fun part. I speak to scientists regularly. I speak to laymen regularly. I don’t really spend much time telling farmers about what I actually do and I had no idea how to pitch a talk at them. I mean laymen with practical experience but no theoretical background, a shaky grasp on English and a bunch of superstitions? Fun times! I had considered speaking in Afrikaans but wussed out ad made a slideshow with a bunch of photos and figured I’d wing it.

It worked quite well, they paid attention and didn’t fall asleep and I told a lot of stories of the things lizards do, which ones bite harder, which areas they live in, that sort of thing. I got them giggling at the idea of the lizard treadmill and at lizards outsmarting me (‘And you’re doing a PhD?’ thanks for the catcall Mrs Parks-board-guy’s-wife!) I even re-enacted my jumping out from behind a bush screaming, and asked the lucky spectators to identify themselves.

It was all going quite well… You must realise I don’t see people often (i.e. at all) around here. And after a while I start singing to myself, thinking out loud, talking to myself… you know…

So at some stage I mentioned something and they chuckled and I thought

‘Great, now they all think I’m cRaZy’ (add weird vocal effects to the cRaZy)

and the entire room BURST out laughing. I think the guy form the bathroom incident may have wet his kortbroek.

Did I say that out loud? Oh yes I did.

Either way I got some pretty enthusiastic applause at the end and they were all awake (just in time for a LONG talk on other legislation that wouldn’t actually affect the area at all) before the official end-of-year braai. By the it was 7pm so I made my excuses and went home to measure lizards and get away from the people who think I’m insane.


po said...

It sounds like you were the highlight of a loooong meeting, the probably LOVED you! This treadmill thing though, you gotta admit, it sounds a little crazy. Just a little :)

Helen said...

Thanks Po! That makes me feel a bit better. I guess at least crazy is entertaining!

And the treadmill is actually an established scientific technique!

Kath Lockett said...

Ah, good on ya Helen - they loved you!
....maybe not the person outside with the gun though....

Tamara said...

I wish I could've heard your talk!

SuvvyGirl said...

Sounds like quite the evening. Maybe the chairman decided you'd be a good break for them in between rounds and it sounds as if you were!!

African Bliss said...

Hell miesie jy is damn snaaks,you made us have a real giggle on this wednesday morn.