GROOT MARICO, SOUTH AFRICA -- Oom Schalk Lourens, the wizened narrator of Herman Charles Bosman's classic stories of turn-of-the-century Afrikaner life in the bushveld, would have tapped his pipe on his shoe and hooted for another glass of homemade peach brandy to celebrate.
"Laughter," Oom (uncle) Schalk would say. "Well, there's a queer thing for you, now, and something not so easy to understand. And the older you get, the more things you seem to find to laugh at."
Like the thigh-slapping spectacle of strapping young farmboys hopping around a crude racetrack in potato sacks, or holding an old-fashioned tug of war, or their fathers, wearing the same kind of khaki shorts, knee socks and broad-brimmed hats that were popular during the Anglo-Boer wars, holding a pipe-smoking contest and competing to tell the tallest tale while their womenfolk fuss over simmering iron cauldrons of potjiekos stew.
Hundreds of farmers from the platteland descended on the Marico bushveld in the western Transvaal late last month for a revival of the traditional Boeresport -- or farmers' sport -- festival, an institution that has been dying in the face of modernization and the young people's rush to the big cities.
As in simpler times, the farmers arm-wrestled, competed in half-mile runs through the bush, held fishing contests and sang a lot.
The venue was appropriate, because it was in the Marico where Bosman -- the Mark Twain of Afrikaner culture -- found the characters for his simple, earthy stories that are enduringly popular.
In Bosman's time, Boeresport festivals were commonplace events on almost every farm in the platteland, and were occasions for families to gather and forget for a day their treadmill lives of trying to grow crops without rain, or keeping their cattle from dying from heart-water disease.
But even worse times have befallen the Marico. Years of drought and overgrazing have ravaged the land, replacing the cornfields with scrubland covered mostly with thorn bushes.
As family farms have been consolidated and children have turned their eyes to jobs in the cities, their departure has left a smaller and older population longing for a return to traditional ways.
"That is why we're reviving the Boeresport festival. We want to get it back into our cultural life -- everything that can bring us together again and make us feel like Boers again," said Danie Oosthuizen, who like most farmers around here traces his ancestry to the Voortrekkers -- who in the last century drove by ox wagon from Cape Colony to the Transvaal to escape British dominance.
Six straight years of drought in the Marico have reduced the local irrigation reservoir by three-quarters. Unlike the Bosman days, the young farmers cannot just load up their wagons and look for more fertile land to till, Oosthuizen said. They head for Johannesburg or Pretoria and look for office jobs.
But some of them were back last month, perhaps dressed more modishly than when they left, but nonetheless absorbed in the cultural revival. If their return to the ways of the platteland seemed all too brief, it might also have been seen as fitting.
Bosman, after all, spent only six months in the Marico in 1925 -- as a 21-year-old schoolmaster's assistant. He returned to his home in Johannesburg, where he soon after was sentenced to hang for shooting to death his stepbrother. When his sentence was commuted, he served four years in prison and then drew from his short bushveld experience four volumes of venerable stories.
Hessen van der Walt, one of South Africa's leading Afrikaans folksingers, showed up for the Boeresport festival and said he was suffering from an acute attack of nostalgia.
His grandfather immigrated from Holland and became one of the rugged Boer pioneers. But until three years ago, van der Walt was running several fast-food shops and "just existing without any feeling for what I was doing or what my culture was about."
He took up writing and singing Afrikaans ballads, made some records and soon had four of them at the top of the country's Hit Parade. Now he tours the Transvaal and Orange Free State, singing to white audiences, but assiduously avoiding political themes.
"That's not to say that I agree with everything that goes on here, but I try to sing of my love for all the people of South Africa and leave the politics to others," van der Walt said.
British and American rock music long ago eclipsed Afrikaans ballads in popularity among most young Afrikaners, and van der Walt admits an uphill battle as he tours the country in a minibus.
"But it's my love. It's not just a job to me, it's a life," he said.
Nearby, weather-hardened old Boers sat on bales of straw and indulged in another Afrikaner pastime -- drinking and telling stories, just as Bosman's characters did in Groot Marico's tiny post office long ago.
The fancy cocktails with sliced fruit and swizzle sticks of bars in Johannesburg and Cape Town give way in the Marico to homemade peach or plum brandy. But this mampoer is another Afrikaner institution threatened by modernization. In Bosman's time, Oosthuizen recalled, every farm had a still, legal or otherwise.
Now, he said, excise taxes are so high that it is almost impossible for a farmer to maintain a proper still. But Oosthuizen, chairman of the local farmers' union, is relying on the revival of the Boeresport festival to remedy that problem. Some of the proceeds will go to buying a still for Groot Marico.