Nathan Reynerson Gets a Little Taste of Southern [African] Hospitality
Growing up in South Louisiana comes with certain expectations when you travel to other parts of the world. We strive to treat our guests with “Southern hospitality,” making sure they eat good food, experience the local culture, and have a good time doing it.
Having been to 15 different countries all over the world, I have come to the realization that not everyone feels the same way when Americans decide to stop in their neck of the woods and stay for a while.
Some of the people I meet in other countries are minimally tolerant of Americans, and most are curious to see if we are anything like the movies they see on television.
This was my first visit to South Africa, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the people I met were some of the most hospitable and kind people in the entire world! They were gracious hosts who wanted me to see the best of what their country has to offer, and make sure my short business trip was the bait that would get me to come back for a longer stay!
I think I just found the Louisiana of Africa!
As I started my trip, I spotted a group of men congregating in the airport terminal. Each one was wearing some sort of camouflage clothing, and they weren’t hiding the fact that they were flying to Africa for one reason. After boarding, the guy sitting next to me was quick to tell me about his hunting prowess with various North American animals, and before I could even ask, he started spouting off all the different species he planned on shooting in Africa. By all forecasts, it was going to be a long flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg.
Actually, after the adrenaline rush of the plane taking off and exchanging the obligatory truncated life story with my new best friend for the next 16 hours, I found myself a bit envious of my fellow passenger.
A safari deep in the bush of Africa would be the ideal reason behind suffering a long plane flight, but I was on a business trip that would let me get barely acclimated from the jet-lag before I had to make the return flight.
I began to doubt that my first African experience would even be worth mentioning when I got home. What did Africa have to offer someone who wasn’t going on safari? I was about to find out.
I had prepped myself before I left for the fact that I would probably not see the Africa I had read about my whole life, but that still didn’t deter the good-natured ribbing I was planning on giving my host for the week.
After exiting the baggage claim, I asked him where all the elephants and giraffes were? I mean surely I should have seen one or two of those huge animals while flying over the plains of South Africa…right?
Arno chuckled, shook his head, smiled and mumbled something under his breath about “‘muricans”.
Riding down the main highways of South Africa, I found myself curiously ogling the people and the landscape. The three-hour drive from Johannesburg to Bethlehem was enough to have me itching to see more of this beautiful country and comfortable enough to start using local words – like “Jo-burg” and “biltong.” For you who don’t know what biltong is – it is similar to beef jerky in the USA, only better! If you happen to be in Africa and someone offers you a piece of biltong, just take it! You can thank me later.
The day I arrived just happened to be a holiday. It was National Heritage Day, but most of the country celebrated by cooking outdoors, so it is unofficially National Braai Day (U.S. translation: National BBQ Day).
The whole Bernard family was there – Arno, Sr. and his wife Antjie; Arno, Jr., his wife Zine, and their three kids, Like, Arno, and Mia; Franco and his new bride, Alta; Juan, Eleanor, and their two sons, Juandre and Lucian, and the youngest son Ruan and his fiancée, Nicolene.
I was also able to meet Amos, a young black man in his mid-30’s who has worked for Arno, Jr., the past 11 years.
Amos is HIV positive, and the Bernard family is not just his source of income, but also his source for healthcare. Without the medication they buy for him, his quality of life and life expectancy would be drastically reduced. In my short time there, I could see that he was more than just a hired hand, but a part of the family life and community of the Bernard family.
Knowing I had less than a week to gather all the pictures, video, and information I would need to do all of the promotion and marketing for Arno Bernard Knives next year, I had no time to waste.
So in between the tasty morsels coming off the braai, I started asking questions about how they started making knives and the philosophy behind their business. I got a lot of insight and history of the Afrikaans people and learned a lot about the Bernard family.
Arno Bernard, Sr. made his first knife about 35 years ago. He joined the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa in 1994 and has been making knives full-time as long as his four boys can remember.
All of them started out by just helping make knives for extra money, and now they all are in business together, a family of knifemakers.
Arno, Jr. remembered one of the first knives he ever made by himself. He said, “I was about 16 years old and made a potentially career-ending mistake. The distance between the platen and the wheel was too much. When I pushed the blade forward, the belt grabbed and pulled it between the wheel and the platen. My fingers were still on the knife. It took one year for my fingers to recover and I promised myself I would never, ever make knives…famous last words!”
Juan told me his first memory of making his first knife. He said, “My dad got a machine ready for me to work on and he showed me how to grind something. The next moment the belt came loose and struck him across his arm. A few swear words later, he put a new belt on and told me, ‘There you go!’ as he walked off.”
Juan also told me about he and his brothers having to do all the crappy jobs as kids. When pressed on what the “crappy” jobs were, he told me that the worst job was cleaning the excess glue off of the ricasso after his dad had fitted and glued the handle. He went on to tell me that he left the family business but after working for awhile as a repo-man in South Africa, cleaning knives sounded like the best job in the world!
Antjie, Arno, Sr.’s wife, had very fond memories of how all of her sons would pitch in to help get ready for the knife shows. Boxes and sheaths would be piled up in the middle of the living room floor. Knives would be strewn all around the house. She admitted that it probably wasn’t the safest way to raise her kids, but what else would you expect from an South African knifemaker’s wife?
The family spoke Afrikaans in the home, which is like Dutch. Though I wasn’t privy to everything that was happening because of the language barrier, the camaraderie of the brothers was evident in the way they served one another. I could tell that they genuinely enjoyed being with one another, and the children’s love for their grandparents was seen in the way each one bounced from lap to lap as the glowing orange sun set over the mountains in the distance.
We ate, drank, and laugh-ed together late into the night. I felt like I had been invited to a backyard barbeque in South Louisiana. The only things missing were the wrap-around porch and an ice-cold glass of sweet tea.
The stories I heard from the Bernard family painted a much different picture of South Africa than I had anticipated seeing. I thought to myself that was the part of Africa that most hunters who come for the safari miss out on. As the days flew past, I learned some interesting things about the Bernard family as they found ways for me to experience Africa’s everyday life.
Everyday life. You know, like when your next-door neighbor has a zebra named “Saartjie” (pronounced “Sar-key” with a roll of the tongue on the “rrrr”) and a pet warthog named “Bebe.”
The warthog was like a golden retriever — seriously! It would follow you around, want you to rub its back, and play fetch (Well, just kidding about the fetch part, but that would have been awesome!).
For the record, the warthog is one of the ugliest animals I have ever seen! I didn’t have the heart to tell that poor warthog that just across the street the Bernards were using his brother’s teeth to make knife handles and if he didn’t learn how to fetch, he could be next!
Not far from their home, Juan and Eleanor took me on a mid-morning hike in the Golden Gate National Park.
It’s not very often that I get to see a pack of 40 baboons in the US, and by “not very often”, I mean never!
I insisted that Juan stop the car multiple times. We watched a herd of zebra graze slowly across a lush green valley. We saw wildebeest, impala, dik-dik, bleesbuck, springbok, and some African donkeys.
One afternoon, we got a phone call, and Donnie, Arno’s brother-in-law, wanted to know if I wanted to take a quick flight over Bethlehem in his small prop plane.
In my honest opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a bird’s eye view of the sun setting over the mountains in Bethlehem, South Africa!
Another short phone call
led us to a farm about 20 minutes away that raised white lions, and I got to bottle-feed seven-week-old baby lions!
These were the types of experiences that made my business trip an unforgettable trip of a lifetime! And I didn’t even go on a safari!
In my conversation with Arno on the way back to Jo-burg, I found out that in all the time that they had been travelling to the US, I was the first person from the US to ever actually visit and spend time with them.
My experience in South Africa was not filled with adventures with elephants and giraffes, but with something better — a good time with new friends.
I found that there is not much difference between a family living in South Louisiana and a family from South Africa.
Both love good food. Both love the animals and the land that supports them. Both are fulfilling the destiny of their forefathers in the heart of the country they love.
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Nathan Reynerson is married and is the father of two beautiful girls. He loves hunting, fishing, playing guitar, and Jesus, not necessarily in that order. He is also the U.S. importer/distributor for Arno Bernard Knives (www.arnobernard.com), and works at Reynerson’s Gunsmith Service, his family’s gunsmithing service (www.reynersons.com), in Central, Louisiana.