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"The Story of an African Farm" by Olive Schreiner

The Story of an African Farm may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog. The following post is by Christo Volschenk who blogs regularly at

Olive Schreiner is a well-known name in South Africa, largely (but not only) thanks to this book. She wrote it while working as a governess on a farm of an Afrikaner or boere family in the arid Great Karoo region of South Africa in the late 19th century. It was an immediate success, yet quite controversial because she wrote critically of the boere for their a-cultural lifestyle without books or other forms of cultural activity. Here religion is excepted as the boere were and still are a very religious people.

Schreiner was, of course, correct in her criticisms. But for people struggling to survive in hostile natural conditions with very little means and the nearest neighbor 30 kilometers away, cultural activity was a luxury. For most of the time between 1653 and 1949 the focus of the boere was on survival.

Many decades later, the Afrikaners created and implemented the concept of Apartheid. At the time, the desire to break free from poverty probably was the main driving force. But the fact that they didn't have a clear identity or cultural life as a group might also have played a role in the creation of Apartheid. If that's true, then Schreiner's observations roughly half a century earlier about the boere's cultural life (or lack thereof) might have been early warning signals of things to come.

My Afrikaner forefathers also farmed in the Karoo, and my mother was born there. As children we used to holiday on my grandpa's Karoo farm, probably not too far away from Olive Schreiner's "African farm". Until recently my mother, who is still alive, used to scold me for buying so many books--she would have preferred me to read no other book than the Bible. (Some last traces of what Schreiner observed in the Afrikaner family back then, I guess.)

The Karoo has been suffering under climate change for many decades now, with the desert sands taking over ever bigger parts, making it ever more difficult for farmers to survive. My grandfather abandoned his farm and moved to the nearby town already in 1962. More recently, the Karoo has seen a revival of some kind, with romantics and city slickers buying weekend farms and going there for the quiet, wide open spaces, pure, clean air, and clear night sky. And to get away from the crime in the cities and bigger towns.

I'm 56 now. In 1999 I married in the Karoo, in a small town called Matjiesfontein which has no more than 20 houses, a hotel, post office and train station and where Schreiner lived a great part of her later life for health reasons. I live in Germany now and often long to go back and live in the Great Karoo with its natural environment and climate, where the tombstones of both my father's and mother's parents still stand in the dust.

This is my story of an African farm.

Postscript: To see how and when my ancestors came to South Africa, click here. To go back even further in time, click on "Evert Jansz. Volschenk". Moses van Macassar and Sara van Madagascar were slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch.


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