Song of Be

Song of Be

3.7 4
by Lesley Beake

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Be, a young Bushman woman searching in the desert for the peace she remembers from her childhood, realizes that she and her people must reconcile new personal and political realities with ancient traditions.


Be, a young Bushman woman searching in the desert for the peace she remembers from her childhood, realizes that she and her people must reconcile new personal and political realities with ancient traditions.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in newly independent Namibia, this novel gracefully places a tender coming-of-age tale into a political context. Raised in the Nyae Nyae area of the Kalahari Desert, Be--a Ju/'hoan (Bushman) girl--leaves the cozy warmth of her extended family group when she accompanies her mother to Ontevrede, the farm where her grandfather has worked for years. While her mother strives to please her new employer, Kleinbaas, Be becomes the protegee of the farmer's wife, who teaches the Ju/'hoan girl to read and write. A painful series of events forces Be to a deeper understanding of the Ju/'hoan people's struggles to retain the essence of their traditional way of life, and of her own family's complicated involvement with Kleinbaas and his wife. Love, too, comes to Be--in the form of dashing Khu, who arrives at the farm in his red four-wheel-drive to insure that Be and her family register to vote in their country's first democratic elections. Because it focuses on a handful of convincingly developed characters, the story is never overwhelmed by its political message and by the copious amount of information it conveys. Beake's understated evocations of the African landscape have the nearly tangible quality of a sense memory. Thoughtful and provocative. Ages 12-up. (Nov.)
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Be's story tells of change among the San (or Bushmen, as the author says they prefer to be called) of Namibia. Her life emerges in flashbacks as she feels herself dying from a self-inflicted, poisoned-arrow wound. A young woman, probably in her mid teens, she remembers her warm and gentle childhood, broken by a trek with her mother to the Boer farm where her grandfather has worked for decades. The farmer's strangely fragile wife takes to the child and becomes her companion and teacher. When tragedy strikes the farm and Be concludes that she has betrayed everyone she loves, she leaves to try to return to her childhood place, only to find it empty. Through these events and settings, Beake successfully creates images more true to present-day Bushman realities than those of still-popular descriptions from the 1950s and '60s. Here readers see a people destructively drawn into barely paid farm labor, the army, alcohol, and unemployment. Yet Beake also offers the hope that the Bushmen will grow again in pride and identity as they work together to reestablish their values through their newly independent nation. The well-constructed plot's suspense holds readers' attention. The characters are interesting and believable; Be comes across as real and empathetic. Simple language, sometimes touching on the poetic, tries to catch the feel and perspective of someone from this hunter/gatherer culture. This novel will interest YAs who enjoy reading about people who share their common humanity though their lives are lived in profoundly different ways.-Loretta Kreider Andrews, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore

Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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Song of Be

By Lesley Beake

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1993 Maskew Miller Longman (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-687-3


I have just killed myself.

I meant it to be quick, but when I came to stick the poison arrow into the vein in my arm, I couldn't, and the arrow tip went into the thickest part of my leg instead. Maybe, inside my head, I wanted a little more time. To think.

So I am sitting here under the thin shade of a thorn tree and thinking about my life and the things that were me — Be, of the Ju/'hoan people.

The first thing I remember ... is smoke. That was the first thing. Warm, gray smoke rising from a small fire with an orange flame. The warmth was not just from the fire — hot on my feet and warm on my legs — but from behind me as well, the warmth of the people and smoky blankets. The warmth of love.

It surrounded me so that I was full and complete, with the happiness of belonging deep inside me. Aia was there. I remember feeling her presence, somewhere on the other side of the circle, but I didn't need my own mother close to me to have happiness. If Aia was busy, or out gathering food in the veld, or away somewhere else, there were other people to love me almost as much.

* * *

Their voices enclosed me. Deep voices of the old people and small voices of the young ones playing behind the fire-circle. Somebody was singing softly a little way off. The dogs and puppies and chickens kept getting in the way and once the old rooster ran right over old Kamha and everyone laughed — old Kamha most of all.

I remember times when we went to the veld to find food; the sound of the women calling to one another and their laughter. I remember Aia walking ahead of me and my looking up to her, walking with a straight back.

I remember coming home late, over the veld, with the warm dusty sunshine in our eyes and tsama melons in our arms and in the women's carrying bags. We could see the small smoke from the cooking fires where the old ones waited, and hear the barking of the dogs who had recognized us while we were still far away. Then the sun would be red in the low sky and the people would come from where they had been — from hunting, or from the vegetable gardens — and they would sit together and smoke and talk.

A time comes to my mind that I thought I had forgotten. Xama went to get water at the wind pump. The sky was bright, bright blue, and the grass and the thorn trees were green with summer and the air warm with it.

My friend Nisa came with us and she and I also had small buckets to bring back water. Our feet danced and danced in the dust and the honey scent of the bush was around us. We passed the place where the old baobab tree is, and the birds whirled and whirred around our heads when they heard us laughing.

"Wash!" old Xama said when we got to the water hole where the cattle drink. She took Nisa's green dress and my red dress and tramped them in the tub she had brought with the other washing. Nisa and I played in the water and the cool drops flew through the air like bright beads, cold on our skin.

On that night — or another night, I don't know now — I remember the smell of the new grass that Aia and her friends had used to thatch our small hut, and the feel of the smooth, gray dust between my toes. I remember the kudu skin that Aia used to cover me with when I went to sleep, soft and supple from being worked and worked between her fingers.

"Good night, child," she said, and her voice was love. "Good night, my child. Sleep now, under the stars."

Through the opening of the hut I could see them — many, many bright and shining lights, scattered over the dark sky of Bushmanland.

I drifted into sleep, and our people were around me like a hum, like bees, soft and warm, and honey scented.

I know now why we had to go to my grandfather in the Gobabis District. Then I didn't.

We went on foot at first and my feet dragged in the dust behind Aia's footprints and I was hot and tired and wanted to go home.

"I want to go home!" I can still hear the words in my young voice as well as the silence before Aia spoke.

"There is no home now, Be. Now we must go on, to another place. We must do this for my father, who needs us."

I didn't understand. How could I?

We walked and walked, a long, long time. The bush through which our feet led us was thick. Thorns pulled at my skirt and worried their way into my skin so that Aia had to stop and help me before we went on.

"When will we get there?"

But Aia had no answer, just a sigh that might have been the wind.

I was afraid of the lions. Always we had been told, Nisa and I, to be careful of the lions.

"Don't go out of the village on your own!"

"Don't wander off into the veld!"

"Stay with the older children, they will watch over you."

The big people didn't always say the word, but we children knew what they were thinking of: lions.

"What about the lions, Aia?"

Aia sighed again, saying: "They will come if they come. I will make a fire at night."

Somehow that didn't seem like enough protection to me, but no lions came and we didn't even hear their voices, shouting to one another in the darkness. I know that because I listened.

* * *

We came to a place with buildings that were made out of bricks and had roofs of tin. There was a shop where people were buying flour and mealie meal and tobacco, but Aia didn't go in.

"We have our food," she said, patting her carrying bag, which hung over her shoulder, "and we have no money for such things."

I remember turning back to look, after we had passed that place, and there was a small girl, like me, looking as well. She had on a blue dress that was so dirty it was almost gray, and a red tin in her hand from which she was drinking. She didn't speak, but her eyes made her my friend. I would have liked to stay with her and maybe go to her hut and speak of things that we might know.

I was so tired. Aia carried me for a time when my feet couldn't carry me anymore. She tied me on her back with her kudu blanket as she had done when I was a small child, and balanced her bundle on her head. Aia was used to carrying heavy loads — she did that every day when she went gathering in the veld — but I could feel through her skin how tired she was and soon I asked to be put down so that I could walk and maybe help her a little.

"Can I sing to you, Aia?"

Aia smiled her special smile that I loved. "Yes, Be, child of my heart, sing for me."

For a time I sang the songs that I knew from our fireside and our people, but I began to feel the sadness choking my words, and Aia too was quiet and still as she walked. I stopped singing then.

"Why do we have to go?"

Aia thought for a moment, as if she wasn't sure what to say. "My father — who is your grandfather — works for a white farmer in the south. He has worked there for most of the years of his life."

I waited while she thought again.

"Last week Gumtsa brought me a message. It said ..."

Aia's voice trailed away as if she didn't want to hear the words she was about to say. "... it said that we must come. My father is old and sick, and he needs me to help him with his work."

Then Aia pressed her lips together in a way that told me she wasn't going to say any more right then.

* * *

It was the dry time, but Aia knew where to look for the food that would give us water and fill our stomachs. She examined the ground carefully while we walked, for this was not a familiar place where she knew every bush and the cycle of every plant. When she found tsama melons or tsi beans or sweet nin berries, she would put them carefully inside her carrying bag for later. We had four ostrich shells filled with water and plugged with grass, and we had some sticks of dried meat which Tushay had given us before we started our journey.

"I do not like this," Tushay said. "But maybe you must go." And he looked at Aia a long time as if there were other things that he might have said. Then we left.

Aia would watch the sun as it moved over our heads and feel the breeze that came from the west, and her footsteps were sure in the dust as we made our way south.

The walk lasted many days. At night Aia made a big fire, in case of the lions. I had a little shelter to sleep in, built with branches and Aia's carrying skin, but through it I could still see the stars, which were the same as they had been in our own place, scattered like dust across the black.

Aia sat at her fire and I could feel that her thoughts were lonely ones. I remember looking, one night, for the last time before my eyes fell closed, seeing her shape, dark against the yellow of the flames, bent forward as if she was listening to something that only she could hear.

In the morning Aia woke me and her smile was back.

"Come, Be. It is time to walk again. Soon we will be with your grandfather."

I had never met Grandfather. While I walked, I thought about what he would be like. What would the place be like? What would our lives be like when we got there?

It was hard for me to think those things, because I had never been anywhere except our home. Maybe he would live in a house like we had seen in that village, with a tin roof and brick walls. Maybe he would have a lot of money so that we could buy things in a shop and Aia wouldn't have to work so hard to find food.

After a long time we saw a donkey cart. Aia and I rode in the back, and the dirt under the wheels shook and shook and shook us, until our teeth rattled in our heads, and we were glad to get back down again, even though our feet were still tired.

Once a blue truck stopped. The driver was a black man who smiled, showing his white teeth, and spoke to Aia in words I didn't understand, but he was kind. The other people sitting with him in the front waved at us with their arms, indicating that we must get on, so we climbed into the back, where there were cans of petrol and diesel. The truck flew over the bumpy road and the cold wind bit our ears until it was time for us to climb down and start to walk again.

And then we came to Ontevrede.

"Now," Aia said, "is the time to stop being a child and to learn new things."

I wondered what the new things would be.

There was a green board at the gate, with the name of the farm. Aia stood for a long moment, just looking at it. "What does it say?" she asked me.

"Ontevrede," I told her.

Aia nodded her head. "Yes, Ontevrede," and that was all she said until we had walked up the long, dusty road that led to a white house with four tall, dark trees around it.

Some Herero people were standing waiting for pay when we arrived, so it must have been a Friday evening. Their eyes measured us as we walked across the yard.

"Good day," Aia said quietly.

They looked at us without smiling, but their faces were not unfriendly. "Good day," said one. "Why have you come with this child?"

"I am looking for my father, who is called Dam."

All the Herero people smiled then, or laughed. "Ah. The Bushman." I didn't like the way they said that, as if our people were not good enough for them.

"Yes. My father is a Bushman, and so are we." Aia's head went up when she said that and she was proud.

One of the Herero men, who I know now was called Moses, answered quite kindly then. "Dam will be at the back. He hasn't finished with the feed yet." Moses jerked his head in the way that we should go and Aia thanked him. I could feel their eyes on us when we went.

The shed was full of cows, brown and black, and one with a gray hide and white spots who looked at me with her yellow eyes when I passed. The smell was of cattle dung and straw and warmth, and I thought I would like to lie down quietly beside that gray cow and sleep and sleep in her straw. At the end of the shed was Grandfather, shoveling hay into the feed troughs.

"Father?" There was a question in Aia's voice. "Father? We have come, as your message, which Gumtsa brought, asked us to."

I was surprised. Grandfather was old, much older than I had imagined. His face was very wrinkled and lined. The skin on his arms hung in folds as if it had become too large for him. He was so thin. ...

And then Grandfather smiled. I think it was worth all the hard walking and riding in donkey carts and trucks when we saw the happiness in Grandfather's face. He dropped the fork he was using and just stood and looked and looked at us as if he would never have enough of looking.

"Thank you," he said and he took my hand and that of Aia in his and we were together.

Sitting here, under my thorn tree, I am watching the sun move slowly across the afternoon sky. I am not sorry that it is finished, that it is over. There were too many hard things.

After we had seen Grandfather, we saw Kleinbaas. I didn't know why he was called by a name that means "small boss" because he is very big. His shadow stretched right across the cow shed when he came in at the door behind Grandfather.

"Dam? Haven't you finished yet?" His voice, which now I know well, was not angry, but like it almost always is, tired and irritated with everyone and everything. His voice wasn't a big voice, but one that belonged to a small person with a small mind.

Grandfather made himself taller. His shoulders went back and he put down the hayfork he was holding.

"I have nearly finished," Grandfather said. "I have just stopped to welcome my daughter and my granddaughter, who have come, as I said to you they would."

Kleinbaas peered at us in the gloom of the cow shed. I could hear the cows behind me, chewing softly, their hooves moving on the concrete floor.

"Hmm," Kleinbaas said. He was thick and pink and solid, and his legs stood steady in their long blue socks and brown leather shoes, as if they were planted there and could not be moved.

He looked mostly at Aia. His eyes slid very quickly over me, as if I wasn't important. "You worked in a kitchen before?" he said to Aia. He spoke quickly with short, sharp words.

"No, sir, I have not," Aia said, "but I can learn."

"And milking? Do you know about milking? I'll expect you to help out after the housework's done. It shouldn't take you all day. There's only the two of us."

"Yes, sir, I know about milking."

Again there was that quiet, and again I heard the sounds of the cows.

"And mending? There's always stuff to be mended at Ontevrede." Kleinbaas laughed shortly.


"Hmm. We'll see. There's no place for loafers at Ontevrede. No place for loafers at all. We work hard here."

Aia did not answer this time, and Grandfather too was silent.

"I only agreed to keep this tired old man on because he promised me he would get someone reliable to help in the house and with ... with ... other things that need to be done."

Nobody said anything back to Kleinbaas, so he went on by himself.

"I run a tight operation here. Ontevrede isn't one of those fancy farms like you get down south. Not like in the Cape, where my brother ..."

Kleinbaas stopped there and his look was bitter. "Not like that lot down there. This is hard country and a man has to be hard to make a living. You understand me?"

Aia nodded.

"My wife is ... not always well." Kleinbaas stopped again and for the first time I felt that there was something gentle about this man, after all his hard, sharp words.

"She needs help. In the house, you understand."

But that was not really what Kleinbaas meant when he said that.

"I'll give you a week to learn — no pay, but food and a room. Then we'll see."

Aia nodded again and he turned to go. But then he came back and when he spoke his voice was slow, like jam sticking to a spoon. "I'm not a bad man," he said, and then he was gone. I wondered who he was really trying to say those words to.

* * *

Kleinbaas had another name, which was Mr. Coetzee, but none of us on the farm called him that. Mrs. Coetzee was small and pretty, and very thin, and her eyes didn't always look at you when she was speaking. Her hair was beautiful, long and yellow and shiny. She was wearing a soft blue dress that first day, with a small white collar. Her hands kept going to the collar and touching it, as if she wasn't certain whether it was still there or not, and her hands were long and thin with short-cut nails and the ring of Kleinbaas shining on one of her fingers.


Excerpted from Song of Be by Lesley Beake. Copyright © 1993 Maskew Miller Longman (Pty) Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lesley Beake is the author of the novel Song of Be.
Lesley Beake is the author of the novel Song of Be.

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The Song of Be 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Tersa1 More than 1 year ago
This book Song Of Be tells a touching story. All though the story is somewhat understandable some parts are hard to interpret exactly. I do not suggest this book for younger audiences. I thought the moral of a book taught a great lesson but I had to re-read a couple times to make sure I got it right. Overall I think the Song Of Be is an okay book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I also loved this book. Even though I am a guy, this book still touched my life in many ways.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read this book and it brought tears to my eyes. Be's life is very much like mine. This is a great book and should be read by everyone.