Leon meets Boers in Patagonia

ONCE in their thousands, only a handful of Afrikaans-speaking Boers remain in the windswept Patagonian coastal town of Comodoro Rivadavia and its hinterland.

ONCE in their thousands, only a handful of Afrikaans-speaking Boers remain in the windswept Patagonian coastal town of Comodoro Rivadavia and its hinterland.

Between 1903 and 1909, up to 800 Boer families (about 3000 people) trekked by ship to this lonely spot on Argentina's east coast.

They had suffered badly in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. Some had lost family members in Kitchener's infamous concentration camps; others had their farmhouses destroyed by British troops.

A century later, their numbers have dwindled. On Saturday, a small group of Afrikaans-speaking Argentines assembled in the town to greet newly appointed South African ambassador Tony Leon.

Leon and his wife had travelled to Patagonia from the embassy in Buenos Aires, 1800km to the north.

Juan Kruger, born in Argentina in 1947, said : " Ek glo nie jy sal meer as 20 Afrikaans-sprekende mense kry in die land (I don't believe you will find more than 20 Afrikaans-speaking people in the country)."

Kruger was referring to those who still speak Afrikaans as a first language.

The Afrikaners helped turn Comodoro Rivadavia from a tiny settlement with few buildings into a large and noisy oil town . Local legend says it was Boers drilling for water who made the first oil strike, in a region that supplies a considerable portion of Argentina's fuel.

About a dozen Argentine Afrikaners, most in their 50s and 60s, gathered at a suburban house to speak to Leon. They served him tea and melktert, baked by Graciela Hammond, who learned the recipe from her mother.

Leon told them the South African embassy stood ready to help them.

"If there is anything we can do for you, please let us know," he said.

He wrote in a commemorative book : " Ek hoop dat hierdie gemeenskap, met sy erfenis en taal, sal in Argentinie oorleef (I hope that this community, and its heritage and language, will survive in Argentina)."

Danie Botha, 67, said he planned to visit South Africa for the first time in March.

Sarah de Lange, who farms sheep, said she makes biltong, which was quite different to beef biltong, but tasted good.

Jan Schlebusch, who was with his wife Martha (née Myburgh) said he had visited South Africa in 1990.

A 1965 report in the Sunday Times said there was "more Afrikaans than Spanish" heard in the shops, bars and offices of Sarmiento.

Fifty years later, the days of hearing Afrikaans spoken in Patagonia seem to be drawing to a close.

Carlo de Lange, 65, said he thought the Afrikaans language would soon become extinct in the region.

"Na my geslag is daar nie meer Afrikaans nie (After my generation there will be no more Afrikaans)." - Sapa

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