Genadendal is a place of significant importance in the history of our country. It lies in a little valley close to the Sonderend Mountains not very far from Cape Town and very close to the scenic town of Greyton.Few people will probably know that the valley where Genadendal stands today, was previously called Baviaanskloof. When thinking about Baviaanskloof, most people will associate it with the very popular Baviaanskloof Wilderness area near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. The fact is that the Western Cape’s Baviaanskloof is much older than the counterpart in the Eastern Cape.
These days though, the people who live here do not refer to the old name anymore – they are quite happy to live in Genadendal, literally translated as ‘The Valley of Grace’ or even “the Valley of Mercy’.We have never been there, but this changed recently when we, almost by chance, popped in just to see what the place was all about. In our minds this was probably a little mission station with its typical church and a few other old buildings. Wow, we only got out of there three hours later, thanks mainly to the generous time of three Genadendallers who made our day.
We do not know which of Auntie Lottie, the enthusiastic Marco Scheppers or the legendary walking encyclopaedia Isaac Balie should get the medal for making our day. What kindness, friendliness and generosity we experienced and what a fascinating tale they unfolded in front of us. Marco, the young guide, and Isaac, they grey elder who has spent 50 years serving this community, where the best guides one can hope for. When Marco spoke of Isaac, one could see the respect and admiration in his eyes for someone who have done so much for these people. Marco is the new generation who has so much respect for the past and will be the ideal person to inspire those who come to visit in future.
Auntie Lottie? We noticed her when she answered a question halfway across the imposing church where she was decorating the pillars with new season fynbos for the children’s service the following Sunday. Janey asked somebody what a particularly beautiful bunch of fynbos was called, when the booming voice came across the church floor – “It is KAR KAR – in English they probably call it CAR CAR.” We were immediately drawn to where Auntie Lottie was working with the help of as few youngsters. At 75 she is a sparkling person and had all those around her in stiches.
So next to Marco and Isaac, Auntie Lottie was a totally different experience – and probably representative of so many people in this wonderful place.
The previous night a young barman at our hotel in Greyton told us that there was not much happening in Genadendal. ‘There is a museum where a few people are employed, but generally it is a place in decline where people find it hard to survive,” he said.So our idea was to quickly take a look around before we resume our trip to Cape Town. The long road into the little town did little to excite us, a few dogs lying disinterestedly on the pavements, further on some horses were feeding on the sidewalk or in the gardens of residents, and many of the modest houses were in disrepair.
We headed down the road to where we thought the ‘museum’ would be. On the way we passed a memorial to those from the town, who fought gallantly and died in the World Wars as members of the Cape Corps. Then, around the corner we arrived at Church Square and we were immediately transferred into a time in history almost as old as the country itself.As we turned down the little side streets following interesting looking signs, we passed an imposing church building and saw many well-maintained and beautifully painted buildings with thatch roofs standing amongst giant oak trees.
We stopped at what was called the ‘memorial garden’, looked over the wall but saw nothing but a number of big rocks placed together in the middle amongst trees. Perhaps this is a place in decline after all, we thought.
Then Marco came walking amongst the oak trees
But then we met a young Marco Scheppers, who told us he was responsible for the water mill, which is still working today and where enough flower is milled once a week to bake bread for the complex. He turned out to be an excellent guide and walked us around the complex, recounting the history of each of places in the multi-faceted museum.
The mill was impressive, and we learnt that the ‘heap of stones’ is a memorial to Georg Schmidt, who came to the Cape in 1737 with the instructions to Christianize the Khoekhoen people who lived in the area. The jury is out just how effective his efforts were, because he managed to baptise only 5 people in seven years and was originally recalled. It was only at the end of that century when Genadendal was truly established as a mission station with a fast growing population.In his defence we must record that Georg Schmidt arrived at a time when the Khoekhoen, already suffering under the influx of white farmers, were reeling from a smallpox epidemic to which they had no immunity. As a people they were on the verge of extinction and, against enormous odds, Schmidt formed the small congregation and taught the Khoekhoen to read and write. According to writings his good works came unstuck, however, when he began baptising the converts and the Dutch clergy based in Cape Town threw up their hands in horror. According to them, Schmidt was not an ordained minister and therefore had no right to administer the sacraments. In 1743 Schmidt was forced to return to Europe a disappointed man.
Marco led us down the path through the Chinese Rose hedge and under the trees to the historical cemetery, where we noted several signs warning us about snakes. Here lies most of the people who either supported this community or led the people on their path to Christ. “It is a serine place,” I told Janey. Not far away is a Khoisan Village which is still under construction. More importantly, we found another pear tree of historical significance in South Africa.Under this pear tree Georg Schmidt taught his people – first in Dutch so they could understand the bible, and then baptised the first five Christians. We thought of another historical pear tree – some distance from here in the Company Gardens in Cape Town which is the oldest fruit tree in South Africa. This must be the second oldest then.
Then we met Dr Isaac Balie
Young Marco encouraged us to look up the legendary Dr Isaac Balie – who was busy working on the presentation for Ganadendal’s Founders Day celebrations in one of the old buildings. When we found him, he signed a book we found in one of the tourist shops on the complex. We warmed to the now retired educational leader of the community, much like his grandfather and father before him.We learnt that once Genadendal was the second biggest settlement at the Cape, that it housed the first teachers training college in South Africa, and that it had the biggest librarian South Africa and that once it was an economic hub sustaining those who lived there. We stood silently as he recited a poem he wrote about the days when he was a child and could roam free in the valley under the mountain along with his friends. His soft voice and pure Afrikaans pronouncements kept us spell bound. We saw the incredible music collection and Isaac took us through the historical phase of the town depicted on the walls of one of the rooms – from the VOC to the New South Africa.
There was the golden years. One was certainly the visit of former President Nelson Mandela – which Isaac describes as a red letter day! It boosted support for the town and Madiba must also clearly have bene inspired by what he saw. One wonders whether this visit was the reason why Madiba changed the name of his official residence in Cape Town to Genadendal.But now, towards the end of our visit, Isaac confirmed some concerns about the future of this historic town. He said he was in despair about the future of the town. “It is indeed a place in decline, because the people here have forgotten about the truths of the Bible and Christ.”
And yet old and young were gathering in the church to decorate the building for children’s service, where the junior and senior school pupils would sing in choirs and participate in the religious service. We left, overwhelmed by what we experienced, but also sad about Isaac’s words. What would those who are resting in the neat lines of graves in the cemetery, who came from so far in Europe to serve the community, think of all this if they were around today?