The Angolan Refugee by Ginny Swart
* IDB stands for Illicit Diamond Buying, a traditional South African pastime which carries a heavy jail sentence if you’re
caught buying diamonds from anyone except a registered diamond dealer.
One night, when I was ten, my father came home from work carrying a tortoise under his arm. With difficulty. It was the biggest
tortoise I’d ever seen.
He placed it on the kitchen table and the seven of us watched as it slowly pushed out its ancient head and surveyed its surroundings.
“Get that thing out of this house and into the yard where it belongs,” said my mother sharply. “Where on
earth did you find such a monster?”
My father looked a bit sheepish.
“A guy from Angola got stopped coming through the border today. His whole family, nine kids, the granny, chickens, the
lot. Then when I was parking his truck out of the way I found this big rock here sitting in a corner at the back. So I thought,
shame man, he’ll probably die. They could be sitting in that camp for months. I thought the kids might like it.”
My father was a policeman, at that time seconded to the Namibian Immigration and posted to the border crossing at Oshikango
My mother didn’t think much of his job, however. She found it difficult to make friends amongst the wives of the customs
officials, who she thought were a rough lot. In the four years we’d lived there, she had never been invited for morning
coffee and in turn, she had never invited anyone herself. She said we five kids kept her more than busy enough, thank you.
There was no place for a pet in our house: my four brothers were allergic to cats and according to my mother all dogs were
potentially vicious fighters, or at the very least flea carriers and hair shedders. Probably, we just couldn’t afford
to feed a dog.
“A Portuguese tortoise!” I was enchanted. “Let’s call him da Silva.”
Mr. De Silva was the only Portuguese person we knew. He owned the fruit and veg shop opposite the general dealer, but made
most of his money from the pinball machine that stood on the stoep outside his shop.
“You’re not allowed to bring that tortoise home, Jannie, you know that. He’s livestock. We could get into
“Ag…” Pa smiled. “Nobody will mind if we just let it run in our garden .I couldn’t just leave
it there in that filthy truck. He was hungry.”
“Hungry, my foot, ” said my mother, but she went into the kitchen and cut some slices of fresh cabbage. “Take
this out to him and see if he likes it.”
He did. Da Silva settled down in our back yard, the perfect pet. It was difficult to bond with da Silva but he accepted cabbage,
fruit or whatever else could be spared from the kitchen, and if we forgot about him, he foraged for himself. In winter, he
disappeared underground, only digging himself out when he could feel the warmth once again.
The year I started high school, my father joined the Railway police and we moved down to De Aar in the middle of the Karoo.
da Silva came too, travelling in the boot of our green Valiant, completely filling a Sunlight Soap carton with holes punched
in the lid.
I was sent off to a Cape Town boarding school, and appointed my youngest brother, Frikkie, to feed him his usual titbits.
Frikkie was seven at the time and happily accepted the responsibility. da Silva became his tortoise and he hotly defended
his right to be the sole feeder and caretaker of the family pet.
Frikkie took to studying da Silva.. He borrowed books from the library and discovered that he was a male Leopard tortoise,
the biggest kind you could get in Africa. He measured 60 cms from end to end of his shell and was too heavy for Frikkie to
lift easily. He even did a school project on da Silva, for which he got an A, with the remark “Very well observed”
at the bottom of it.
“That’s nice,” said my mother approvingly. “Pity it had to be about that stupid tortoise though. You
should get interested in sheep, man. Then you could get a job as a farm manager one day. They train school leavers all about
sheep, no need to go to agricultural college”
“I don’t want to work on a farm, Ma,” said Frikkie softly. “I don’t like sheep. They’ve
got funny yellow eyes.”
“Course he doesn’t want to work with sheep,” said my father heartily. ‘Unless you’ve got your
own farm, you spend your whole life dipping sheep and washing their backsides for blowfly. No, Frikkie’s going to be
a policeman like me, eh Frikkie?”
“A policeman?” exploded my mother. “D’you think he wants to spend his life in some miserable little
dorp like this? Working with all these skollies? No, Frikkie gets an A for his school work – he’s going to get
a good job somewhere far away from this hole.”
My father got up and went to the door.
“Think I’ll check the chickens before I turn in.”
“You concentrate on sheep, son,” sniffed my mother, who liked having the last word. “There’s good
money in sheep.”
One evening during the winter holidays while Frikkie was at a Voortekker meeting, my father was reading the paper in front
of the fire. Suddenly he gave a loud exclamation and snorted with laughter.
"Listen to this!” he exclaimed. “They’re using tortoises for smuggling diamonds! “
Apparently, some Angolans, leaving their country in their thousands and officially classed as refugees, had been caught sticking
uncut diamonds onto the shell of a small tortoise, then gluing the shell of a larger tortoise on top. These were kept until
the time was right to sell them on, and nobody knew how many had made it through into South Africa undetected. But a specially
doctored tortoises had been found, with uncut diamonds valued at half a million rands glued between the two shells. The give-away
had been a double ridge at the bottom edge where the top shell fitted less than exactly over the other.
“Bloody marvellous!” chuckled my father.
The same thought struck us all simultaneously.
De Silva. Diamonds. Could he have …?
It was night time, as cold and dark as only a Karroo night can be. I fetched a flashlight from the garage and we walked out
into the back garden, the frosted grass crunching underfoot. We found the rounded shape of da Silva under a pile of hay in
his box. “Quickly, bring him into the light where we can see him properly,” said my mother, her voice shrill with
excitement. “Don’t drop him now.”
We had barely got da Silva onto the kitchen table when Frikkie came home.
“What’re you doing with Da Silva?” he demanded, “He doesn’t feel like coming out now, he’s
hibernating. I never said you could play with him.”
“Don’t worry, Boet, we’re just checking his shell,” soothed my father.
“There might be diamonds under there,” added my mother, flushed with the idea of sudden wealth. “Uncut diamonds.”
“Oh, come on, Ma,” retorted Frikkie, You don’t get diamonds from a tortoise! You get them
from under the ground!”
“Don’t get cheeky with me, young man,” she snapped, “ da Silva is from Angola, isn’t he? His
shell could be stuffed with diamonds.”
We examined da Silva’s shell and in the dim kitchen light, wondered if we were seeing a thickness above the outer edge.
Could this be another shell, one that had been expertly glued down ten years before? How could we not have noticed this until
“Jannie,” said my mother, “We’ve got to get this shell off. Where’s the claw hammer?”
“Ma!” Frikkie was horrified. “You can’t smash da Silva’s shell off! He’ll die!”
“No, Boetie, not smash it off, you Pa is just going to.. sort of.. lift the top shell off.”
I saw her wink at my father, who studied the tortoise, sleepily poking his head out and staring around him with beady little
“I tell you what, skattie,” he answered, “Let’s leave this till tomorrow morning when it’s properly
light. I’ll go down to the hardware and see if they’ve got anything that can dissolve the glue. I wouldn’t
want to kill this animal.”
“If you crack a tortoise shell, they get infections, Ma,” said Frikkie in a strangled voice. “Leave da Silva
, he hasn’t got any diamonds hidden away.”
“Okay, Frik,” said my father. “Take him back to the garden.”
“Just think if that tortoise has been carrying uncut diamonds all this time!” said my mother dreamily. “You
know it’s not hard to sell those things. Those IDB men pay you cash, no questions asked. Even one little diamond can
make a person rich. A big tortoise like ours could be carrying fortune.”
But in the morning, da Silva was gone, his wooden box empty.
I suspected that Frikkie had taken him somewhere else until the diamond rush was over, but my mother was furious.
“He’s here in the garden somewhere,” she muttered, on her hands and knees between the cabbages. “Or
someone came and stole him in the night. They could have guessed he’s a very valuable animal.”
We all joined the hunt, except Frikkie, until my father burst our bubble. He told us not to be stupid, that having uncut diamonds
was a crime. A man with a strong respect for Authority, he didn’t intend to lose his job just because his wife and a
bunch of greedy kids wanted to try a bit of illicit diamond selling.
We never saw da Silva again. I thought he might have fallen in love with a lady tortoise and followed her into the veldt.
My mother referred to him bitterly as ‘that tortoise that could have made us rich’ and for a long time afterwards
I found her peering underneath the aloe bushes and pushing aside the bougainvillea..
I went away to college, and my brothers grew up and left home too. Frikkie won a bursary to study zoology at the university
in Port Elizabeth. He did his doctorate on the Chelonians of the Eastern Cape and had a permit to keep several tortoises in
his back garden.
When our parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, all five children descended on the small house in De Aar.
The reunion was noisy and cheerful with many of the young cousins meeting for the first time. After a huge dinner at the hotel
my father made a short speech, embarrassing my mother, then sat down gratefully to get on with some serious brandy and coke.
The rest of us caught up with family news.
“Hey Frik, remember da Silva?” I said idly. “Was it you that set him free that night?”
“Not me,” he grinned. “It was Pa. I saw him go out in the truck and drive him off to the veldt on the other
side of the railway line. He told me the next day that he thought it would get Ma off his back. He didn’t want to kill
da Silva any more than I did! He never believed they’d find any uncut diamonds, and if they were there, he certainly
didn’t want to find them. It would have given him a heart attack just thinking about what to do with them.”
“I suppose da Silva is still wandering around in the veldt somewhere. Tortoises live a long time, don’t they?”
“He could live to be 60 years,” said Frikkie. “They’re pretty long lived. If someone found da Silva
they might have kept him too, although it’s illegal these days and they might not want to risk the fine. I don’t
suppose we’ll ever know.”
But in the end, I did.
Four years later I was visiting my mother in the retirement home, where she’d moved after my father died. Now eighty-
one and nearly blind, she demanded to be read to from the Cape Town papers I brought with me, commenting tartly on everything
I had to search for the shorter, human interest articles that she liked and had just finished reading aloud about a snake
from Bloemfontein which swallowed a Maltese poodle. “Shame, that was somebody’s little pet, let’s hope it
didn’t suffer too much, eh,” when my eye caught the headline below.
“Man found guilty after shaggy-tortoise story ”
I read it silently. It was about a man being tried for the possession of uncut diamonds. He’d tried to sell them to
an undercover policeman, who had looked at the stones he offered and promptly arrested him. In his defence, the man said he’d
come across the squashed remains of a big tortoise on the highway between Johannesburg and De Aar, and he’d found the
stones right there amongst the broken shell. He claimed the tortoise must have eaten them and by rights, this gift from the
gods was legally his. The policeman hadn’t believed a word of his story and neither did the magistrate. Five years and
no option of a fine.
I must have made a small noise, because my mother snapped, “Come on, what have you found? Read it to me! Don’t
skip the good bits!”
“It’s nothing, ma, just some man found guilty of IDB.”
“Only fools would get involved with illegal diamonds,” she said.
I turned the page and carried on reading aloud about a homing pigeon that returned to its loft after three years absence.
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