MY ARRANGED MARRIAGE
by Sydney Fryer
It all started in February 1987. The SA Air Force was involved in preparations for some
of the final conflicts of the Bush War in the Angola – South West Africa (today Namibia)
arena. The threat from within Southern Angola was on the increase and with it the very
real possibility that SAAF bases in Northern SWA could be under air attack in the near
At that time I was the Officer Commanding of 121 Sqn, an air defence squadron
equipped with Tigercat Missile Systems (known by code name HILDA). I was tasked to
prepare for deployment to Air Force Base Ondangwa, 58 km South of the Angolan
border. We were put on readiness to deploy the weapon systems to the operational area
any time from April to August of that year. Apart from the preparations at our home base,
250 Air Defence Artillery Group near Hammanskraal, I flew to Ondangwa to coordinate
our integration into the base defence systems.
Typical Hilda missile site. Launcher with 3 missiles on the Left, Control Unit under cammo nets on the
Right, 3 spare missiles on a bomb trailer in front of the ramp.
Earth ramps to elevate the missile systems some 3 to 4 meters above the general area
were constructed during previous deployments, and revisiting these were part of the
preparations. The ramps were all as close to the perimeter as possible, with the access
away from the fence. The sides and fronts were planted with natural grass to help with
camouflage and to prevent corrosion from water and wind. I had to determine whether
they were still in a good condition and stable enough to carry the weight of the weapon
systems. It was found that some large trees grew close to the ramps, just outside the base
perimeter and in line with the primary firing line of the weapons. Some of these trees
were as high as 15 meters. Since the Tigercat missile armed after about 500 meters from
launch, a collision with a tree could cause a detonation, putting the local population close
to the fence in serious danger. Even if the missile did not explode, the debris resulting
from a tree being hit could still cause harm. There was not choice, the trees had to go.
I met with Colonel Spyker Jacobs, the Officer Commanding of AFB Ondangwa, and
explained the situation. He undertook to have the trees cleared by the time the convoy
from South Africa arrives. After some meetings with the Air Defence Sector at
Ondangwa, I returned to base in good spirit, we would be ready in time!
We waited until 28 July for the order to depart, and some ten days later the convoy
reached Ondangwa. I had the luxury of a Transall C160 flight, two days after the convoy
left home base. My services were urgently required, as Command and Control
preparations reach a critical stage. After two or three days of meetings and workshops, I
took some time off to revisit the missile ramps. Not a single tree was removed!
A very irate Lieutenant met with Colonel Jacobs and was told in no uncertain ter ms:
“Your missile systems, your trees. I have more important things to worry about. This
meeting is over.” And a bit of parting advice as I walked out of the door: “Get to know
the local culture before you chop down their trees”.
The advice from the local Public Relations Officer was very simple: “Do not cut down
any tree without the permission of the owner”. Most of the trees were fruit trees, being
Marula and Jakkalsbessie (Jackal Berry) and that would mean double trouble. A plan,
that would have excess food from the mess as a bribe, was formulated and a suitable
vehicle to carry the loot was found. As we picked up the food from the NCO mess, one of
the kitchen staff heard about the mission and decided that being an interpreter would be
far better than peeling countless of potatoes per day. Thus Cleopas was recruited
And there we went, a driver, some security members, Cleopas and myself in a Rhino
armed vehicle, followed by the food truck, off to visit the first kraal. The first meeting
took ages, as Cleopas did not know what a missile system was and had to directly
translate everything I said. This got better with subsequent visits, and by the look of the
onlookers’ eyes, the story and the associated dangers were elevated greatly as we
progressed from owner to owner. Obviously Cleopas was enjoying himself in his new
role as Safety Advisor to the SAAF!
Back to the first meeting: After explaining to the owner what could happen to his home
and family if a missile should hit his tree, we were obviously met with more than a bit of
resistance. Objections related to shade for his life-stock and food from the tree for his
family were strongly argued. The blow was substantially softened when we offloaded
more food than he has seen in his life. This brought forth a very quick approval from the
owner, “Yes, the tree can go”. Then the punch line followed: “ I can give you the tree, but
I have to discuss it with
my Chief first”. So off
we went to the Chief,
Cleopas, the tree owner
and my whole
entourage. It should be
noted that all meetings
took place in the inner
kraal, where only men
Between the tree owner
and Cleopas they
explained the problem
and dangers to the
The entrance to a typical Ovambo kraal. In the background the entrance
Chief and also to the inner kraal is visible.
mentioned the load of
food the owner received. The Chief strongly objected to the loss of the tree, only until we
offloaded his share of the food. All of a sudden it was OK to cut down the tree, BUT, he
had to discuss this decision with his Tribal Captain. Off we went, the Chief, the tree
owner, Cleopas and my group of merry men!
The first Captain we met was another story. He was not much interested in the trees and
dangers of missile exploding. He wanted to know about Pretoria and the Union
Buildings, Cape Town and
the state of politics in South
Africa. After a lot of talking
and his share in food, the tree
was mine to do with as I
This whole cycle was
repeated for each and every
tree that had to be cut down,
about 20 in total. After a
while it was getting much
easier. With Cleopas getting
the hang of it and scaring the
living daylights out of the
Airman Grové with one of his ”Mig-Mincer” missiles.
locals with his description of
the danger, I did not do much talking. As we progressed we obviously met up with the
same Chiefs and Captains as before, so much so that some of them greeted us with smiles
and open arms and showed us were to put the food as we approached the kraal! After a
few formalities and “How’s your father” we were off to the next. The fact that there were
only three Tribal Captains involved also helped a bit.
The first Captain we visited was the most interesting of all. He thoroughly enjoyed our
company and sometimes sent messages that he would like to talk to me, even when there
were no negotiations required. After a few visits he was obviously comfortable enough to
ask me for a bit of money, not much, just 20c to buy a shot of brandy from the local
Cookha Shop (Ovambo shebeen or bar). I only had a two Rand note with me and gave it
to him. He was ecstatic, this was much more than he bargained for. His praise of me and
my riches made me feel a bit uncomfortable, realizing how little some of the local
population had. With a subsequent visit I took him some tobacco, adding to my image of
a rich guy. This time he requested me to come around the next Sunday, as he had a gift
That Sunday I received dozens of
woven baskets of all shapes and
sizes. After giving away most of it,
my share was still enough to make
the C130 load master give me
“that” look when I returned home a
couple of months later.
About three weeks after the last
tree was cut down, Cleopas came
around with a message from my
favorite Captain; he wanted to see
me urgently. Suspecting serious
illness from his side, I went there
Cleopas, the Captain and author with some of the baskets.
with a bit of a heavy heart.
On arrival, we were taken into the inner kraal where the Captain soon joined us, alive and
well with his usual big smile, maybe a bit bigger this time. I should have sensed problems
when a young Ovambo girl of about 14 years old sat down just outside the gate to the
inner kraal with her back to us.The Captain started his speech with the usual praise of my
riches and diplomatic prowess when handling the touchy subject of trees to be cut down.
He also made mention of his principal wife’s enjoyment of instant coffee with condensed
milk. Nothing would please him more and do more for the relationship between SA and
SWA than me marrying his youngest daughter!
Thank goodness all arguments were through Cleopas for translation, giving me time to
think and prepare for the next move of a very cunning old man. I explained that I was
already married, to which he replied that his culture allows for more than one wife.
Refusing to be outdone, I told him that I already have two wives, showing him my
wedding band on the left and my late father’s ring on the right hand. His reply was short
and sweet: “What about the other eight fingers, or are you to old for more wives?”
My next reply took some time to formulate, as I was taken aback a bit by his last
argument. I argued that I couldn’t take his daughter to SA, as our laws state that you
should stay with your wife in the area where you paid Lobola (a pre- nuptial gift to the
bride’s family in African tribal culture). He replied that I did not pay Lobola and would
therefore be free to take her with. I in turn argued that some of the people working wit h
me did not like me and would argue that the food, money and tobacco were Lobola. I
thought I was off the hook when he conceded that he would not like to see his daughter’s
new husband in jail. After a short while he pointed out an area bordering on AFB
Ondangwa. This area was about one kilometer by two kilometers big. He said that he
would give the land and all the kraals on it to me and that all people in the area would
belong to me and work for me. He would have a suitable home built for my family and
me. All I had to do was bring my two wives and kids to Ondangwa. Once again I used the
excuse of Lobola. I paid for my wives in SA and could not take them away from there!
He was very upset with the fact that this marriage would not work. As a last resort he said
he would talk to PW Botha at the next tribal meeting in Windhoek, which was due in
about a month. He was sure that PW would be able to get rid of “this silly law”! With a
last plea that I should also try to resolve the issue, I was free to go.
Three months later I left Ondangwa without hearing another word from my “Father in
Law”. Needless to say, my fellow squadron members did not let a single chance go by
without telling the story of my Ovambo bride, with additions and variations to suit the
occasion. Some even say that I did marry her and stayed in her father’s house for the
duration of my tour!
Peace came to the region not long after that and I never went back to Ondangwa again. I
suppose the Captain is dead by now and my “bride” married off to another!