There she was, a peasant girl, barely fifteen, raising her hand. Later she would tell people her hand went up by itself.
It’s the year 1863. The town of Worcester is surrounded by farms. Most of them spreading out against the feet of the illustrious, huge mountains. The Hex River valley is a fertile one. Vineyards stand lush in summer. In autumn the leaves change into fiery red, brown and orange hues. And in winter the valley endures lashes of wind and rain.
It is here where Lily was born. The daughter of Eva and Abel Februarie, both children of former slaves. Eva was the daughter of Klaas and Roslyn Baadjie. Klaas was of Khoi-descent, hailing from the thirsty, dry crust of the Karoo. Roslyn was the daughter of two people who proudly called themselves Masbiekers (Mozambiquans).
Abel, an only child, never talked about his father. He carried his mother’s surname. He was fair of complexion with green eyes so there was a lot of speculation about who the man could be who fathered him.
At fifteen Lily, also an only child, could retell her family’s story with eyes closed. She could imagine them all as babies, as teenagers as adults. Her mind was a fertile one.
Lily had golden-brown skin, light-brown eyes and was athletically built, long legs which could sprint up the koppies and long arms which could reach the highest bunch of grapes hanging on the vines.
She started working officially on the plantation at the age of fourteen, but already before that she would join her parents to do the daily work. During winter Lily and her mother could stay at home because then it was mainly the men working, fixing wires and pruning the vines. In the middle of Spring the vines would be covered with light green leaves and young branches. That was when the women would return.
Work started at six in the morning and ended at six in the late afternoon. The grapes at this stage could hardly be seen. To prevent the branches from growing wildly they had to tie them around the wires. Once they were done with the blocks of vines, they walked back to the first row of vines again. By this time the grapes hung in little bunches, small but clearly visible. The time had come to inspect each bunch and to decide which of the smallest ones must be cut out. And so they worked until they had reached the end of the more than a hundred rows, and each time they would return to the first row the grapes would be bigger, and jostling with each other for a place on the bunch.
With a pair of scissors in hand the workers delved into the bunch and took out the small ones until the remaining grapes hung freely. So the action was repeated until the grapes started to ripen, getting soft and red.
Harvesting the grapes was great fun for Lily and her friends. They would hide some bunches in the sand and fetch them at night. The penalty for such a crime was painful. They would get a hiding from the baas plus a hiding from their parents.
Lily hated the stomping of the grapes. She knew what the result was of that stomping, wine that would change the behaviour of her father, and the uncles and aunts living in the farm-houses around them. She prayed at night for an end to the drinking of alcohol, she even prayed that the grape harvest should not be taken to the cellar but straight to the town where it could be sold.
On Sundays they all had to go to church. The church was built on the adjacent farm belonging to the De Villiers family. The old slave bell rang at nine o’clock and then they all had to be inside. The farmers and their families from the surrounding farms entered last and sat in the front. The farm-workers all stood at the back.
From the pulpit the dominee would pray for the sinners, those that drank too much. He read from the Bible emphasising how this was like a needle in God’s eye and that He would certainly punish those who did not want to stop with this atrocious behaviour. He also warned that their material condition would not change, they would stay poor if they kept on drinking wine.
Lily always left the church with a sad heart. Ever since she started coming to church she became scared for her father who drank too much. She prayed for her father, asking God to help him mend his ways. And she also prayed for some of her friends. The moment they reached the age of 15 they were allowed to receive wine on a Friday after work. Lily refused. Some of her friends did not. Lily started to pray for them too. She became an avid prayer-girl.
So it was an anointed Lily who raised her hand that early evening.
It was the 4th day of the Revival Services. Reverend James Johnson was a travelling reverend. He travelled with his assistant George Pickering. George was to be ordained in the Anglican Church at the end of the year. It was November so he had a month to go.
The reason for Reverend Johnson’s revival crusades was that there was a concern that the farmworkers and society as a whole were falling into decay. It was generally believed that since the abolishment of slavery in 1834, there was little control over the farmworkers. Many stories were spread. The farmers bemoaned the lifting of the curfew which was upheld during slavery. Farmworkers were accused of low morality, the many babies that were born irked the powers-that-be and many workers were accused of trespassing on nearby farms. The farmworkers had too much freedom, the ruling class charged, and this lead to bad behaviour. Hence, a spiritual awakening had to be organised.
It was demanded that farm workers attended all the revival services. Workers stopped working early for that week. The services started at seven o’ clock. They were held in the same church they went to every Sunday where they stood at the back.
It was that Thursday evening with the full moon rising over the koppies and a cool breeze blowing through the church that Lily felt a strange feeling, as she later explained.
The congregants also seemed to be more intent on listening to the preacher, George Pickering who was running the service. Rev James Johnson had to attend to another matter on a nearby farm.
When George Pickering asked if anyone wanted to request a hymn to be sung, or want to say a prayer, Lily’s hand went up. She almost immediately started praying. Her voice was trembling as she lifted her hands upwards. She spoke to God directly, that’s how her father and the others remembered it. Her father was the first one who heard sounds running from his mouth. In the meantime a strong rumbling sound was coming from afar. By then most of the people were speaking in tongues, Lily was still praying and the rumbling sound was above their heads. Some people fell to the ground.
It was a most uncommon sight for George Pickering. He asked the congregants to stop. He came to Lily, touched her arm and spoke in her ear. Lily was in another world. People were speaking in tongues.
George Pickering shouted louder for the people to stop. He realized that he had lost control over the service and ran outside. He ordered that Reverend James Johnson be summonsed to come and bring order to the meeting. James Johnson was about 50 metres from the church when he heard the noise.
“What chaos is this?” he shouted as he entered the church. “Quiet! Quiet! Everybody quiet!” But to no avail.
There is no account of what happened next but the following day’s revival service was cancelled.
That night Lily could not get up from the floor where she was sleeping. She felt weak and was unable to go to work. Her mother picked some boegoe growing on the banks of the river and gave Lily some leaves to chew. She also drank some of the tea made with the boegoe.
However, Mr. Steyn, the owner of the farm they stayed on, visited their little house. He demanded that Lily and her parents come and see him at four o’clock that afternoon.
Present at the meeting were Reverend James Johnson, George Pickering and Mr Steyn.
They told Lily her behaviour was a disgrace. She was responsible for the chaos. As a man of God James Johnson said he felt betrayed and insulted.
In her weak state Lily wanted to explain what happened. “My hand went up by itself.”
“Nonsense”, Reverend Johnson shouted. “You were planning this Lily.”
“Now don’t keep yourself clever here” interjected Johannes Steyn.
“You know how many times I spoke to you about your attitude. You are a worker here on this farm, you must obey the rules! To think that you disgraced us in the House of the Lord. I will not stand for that!”
Lily’s father and mother were sitting in the corner. Her father nervously clutching his old hat and her mother wiping her tears with the ends of her doek.
“It is clear,” Johnson continued, “it was the devil at work. We cannot stand for this Mr Steyn. The Lord will never forgive us if we do not punish Lily.”
Lily’s stomach was turning. She wanted to throw up. She was not allowed to say anything but managed, “It was something that I could not control baas, the Lord spoke to me…”
James Johnson was besides himself, he walked right up to Lily where she was sitting on a huge log next to her parents, “The Lord? How about the devil? Do you think this is the way the Lord speaks to his people? No word from you Lily. No more!”
Then Lily fainted. Her mother was sobbing by now and her father tried to bring her around.
Johannes Steyn, Reverend James Johnson and George Pickering left unceremoniously, leaving Lily’s parents to tend to her.
For three days Abel and Eva Baadjie did not see or hear from the three gentlemen. They went to work, but in a frightened and anxious state. Certainly, something was going to come of that meeting. They feared for their daughter. At night they closed their doors tightly and prayed earnestly and tearfully, asked God to intervene.
Johannes Steyn refused to allow Lily to work again. Lily, who took a few days to get her strength back. was told to go home by the bywoner Ben Kruger. Ben was the overseer on the farm.
By then all the workers knew that a bigger storm was brewing. They spoke in hushed tones to each other, saw that they arrived for work earlier than usual and tried to work as fast as they could.
And just as they feared, the news hit them like a bucket of water, full in the face. Lily was ordered to leave the farm. She was given a week to gather her stuff.
Lily’s parents were besides themselves. The rest of the farmworkers were avoiding them like the plague. The news of the praying incident at the church spread like wildfire through the farming community and also reached the town of Worcester. There were many opinions about what happened on that “fateful” evening. Two stood out. For some it was the Hand of God that took control of the prayer meeting and for others it was definitely the work of the devil.
So one evening in the pitch dark Abel and Eva packed up the little by way of material possessions that they had. Together with Lily they quietly left the farm house. After a while on the road Lily asked her parents if she could pray for safe passage. The area was well-known for wild animals that roamed at night.
Abel was impatient. “Lily, you know what happened the last time you prayed? Don’t start again!”
But then he heard a feint rumbling again, Lily was praying, the way she prayed during the revival service. After the prayer it was as if the heaviness lifted off their shoulders. It even seemed not as dark anymore. The three walked and sang with Lily regularly interjecting with a prayer.
Abel ordered that they sleep for a little while. They could hear the Hex river flow nearby.
When the day broke they saw Worcester’s mountains in the distance. They knew not what was awaiting them in the town but they believed, strong in their faith, that their prayers would see them through.
And so it happened that Lily and Abel and Eva walked into oblivion, never to be remembered by their names again. In the history books of the revival crusades Lily is remembered without a name, only as the young Coloured girl who asked to pray and who caused consternation. And Eva and Abel never existed…
But stories can be resurrected, names can be given life so that deeply buried pain and trauma can be extracted from the burdened body.
Lily might become Sara and Sara might become Rosie but in the telling by story-gatherers they will never be nameless again.
Painting: Willie Strydom – Hex River Valley (1.2m x 750)