I am finishing off a song which I first started more than 25 years ago. It’s called “We were the first” – second line; “We were the innocents”. I never finished it even though it’s got a pretty melody and lyrics seemed to be saying something. The trouble was I could not quite work what – it’s sometimes like that. And as well I couldn’t quite finish off the tune so I put it down and forgot about it.
Until last year. I was travelling with my good friend Ben and some others in Namibia. We were camped in the bush in the middle of a huge volcanic crater in the Erongo Mountains. After pitching tents under the brambly trees, collecting some wood for the evening fire, we wandered into the broken bouldered granite outcrops that surrounded us – Black Eagles watching us.
With us was Walter Peiffer a gentle bearded German-Namibian who was a friend and passionate advocate of the Bushmen of the Kalhari: a beautiful golden people who had lived in this empty valley long ago hunting and dancing and thriving in a unique relationship with the wildlife and landscape that surrounded us. An ancient, perhaps the first, people who have been systematically hunted, dispersed and murdered by other African tribes but mostly Dutch and British settlers.
Up amongst the rocks, on a granite wall we came across paintings in red: figures of men with spears; antelope, giraffe, buffalo; women standing in a line were they singing and dancing? A silent testimony to a disappeared people. We wondered when they had been painted and when they had last been looked at.
Then later; perched on my own on a rocky outcrop I watched the sunset turn the mountains on the far side of the plains to an original catch-breath ochre, amber and dusty gold, for the first time in decades I found myself singing:
We were the first,
We were the innocents
The First to stand in line,
To suffer for a crime we took no part in,
To suffer for a lie, we took no heart in,
We were the first, we were the first, we were the first.
And I knew then what the song was about: The tragedy of losing who you are.