Of Rediscovering your Voice and Askoek

By Antoinette Pienaar

Antoinette Pienaar has been described as one of the Karoo’s most extraordinary daughters. She was born in the town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where she grew up, going on to study Drama at the University of Stellenbosch. After starting out as a Shakespearean actor she turned to singing, storytelling and satire before her life changed forever. She contracted cerebral malaria on a trip to Mali in 2000 and returned to the Karoo to heal. That is when she met Oom Johannes Willemse, a gifted healer with whom she has forged a lifelong friendship. Over the last two decades, Antoinette has reconnected with the land of her birth in a way most people never do. This is the story of how she found her voice again.

Image by Gita Claassen

The following text has been translated from the Original Afrikaans version featured in JAN the Journal Volume 6

In the vastness of Theefontein, the stars usher us from one season to the next; as the stars move, so do we. In the winter of 2020, the stars moved as they did every winter, but the days remained lukewarm, the sky hazy, and the sun, which usually radiates a golden glow, now had a soupy consistency. The crippling drought had strangled the bushes, reducing them to nothing but sticks buckling under a cloudless sky.

And so, as the drought set in, my words dried up. I sat under the big tree on the werf, listening to the hollow echoes of my inner landscape, wondering what miracle would bring my words back to me.

The winter cold, bearing its sharp-toothed grin, came treading over the plains a week before the full moon. At her most replete, a storm was unleashed; our first rains of the season. The clouds broke like a dam, and lightning dressed the plain in a great white wedding gown. And as the muddy streams filled the wrinkles in the earth, the pebbles inside me – each a word in the lexicon of my soul – were set free by the deluge. The next morning, they lay shining inside of me and I realised that I wanted to do something to celebrate the return of my words. I decided to make askoek.

In quiet deference I walked into the wet veld in search of draaibos for the fire. With every footprint, I felt the roots of Mother Nature grow deeper into the very fibres of my being. I could feel the soft glow of the sun on my shoulders; the black ysterklip illuminated my insides and awoke the pebbles. The gentle breeze blew away the cobwebs and dust, and the pebbles began to stir. The sun, the blue sky and the drenched earth became the ingredients for the askoek that I was going to ferment that night and bake into the bread of life the next day.

In the feint light of the morning star, I began to dig the hole in the earth where I would bake the askoek. I had dried out the draaibos alongside the oven the night before; its beautiful fragrance permeating every corner my little white walled house. Under Oom Johannes’ watchful eye I watered the earth around the hole to prevent the sand from clinging to the askoek and lit the fire. It’s very important to use draaibos to make askoek to achieve its unique flavour. You also have to test the heat of the earthen oven with your hand, as the dough bakes directly on the ash but must not burn. It took me years and countless failed attempts to trust my hand and find that balance.

Once the fire had turned the wood to coal, I brought my kneading dish containing the dough I had by now kneaded for a second time, out onto the yard. I played with the warm, soft dough in my hands until it turned long and slack. With great care, I laid the dough on the ash and placed a piece of corrugated metal over the cavity in the earth. Then, I took my spade and scattered hot coals over sheet to surround the bread with heat from above and below.

A long wait followed. You mustn’t look under the metal sheet too soon or else the bread will implode. But you also don’t sit it out indoors. No, you remain standing there; walk around the hole, go and sit awhile on the big rock nearby, and jump up to go and feel the heat and let it set your hand aglow. Oom Johannes, my mentor, believes that bread is holy, and that you should treat it with love and respect.

At long last, I removed the metal sheet. But now you have to move quicker than a wild cat in pursuit of a mate. I took the askoek out of the ashes, passing it rapidly between hands, knocking on its crust to listen out for the hollow echo signalling that it is fully cooked – and then knocked the bread from all sides to release the ash still clinging to it. Finally, I wet the bread so that it glistens like the shell of a tortoise and rub it in soft lard.

By the time you sink your teeth into your first slice – mug of water by your side – you’re eating so much more than bread. This askoek becomes a feast. With every bite, you eat the blue sky that watched over you as you went in search of wood, you taste the joy of the rain, you eat the love with which it was made, you eat the sweat of your labour when you dug the hole in the earth, and the expansion of your inner landscape as you see it reflected in Mother Nature.

As the dry twigs transformed into lush green bush, the beautiful, glistening pebbles inside me continued to quiver. So, they weather and wear each other, rolling around inside my soul, into my pencil, and into the words that flow onto my paper.