Should I have remembered the name ‘Cupido Kakkerlak’ or ‘Cupido Cockroach’? I now know I came across his name several times when I read a book written by Ido Enklaar on the Dutch scholar and missionary Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp (1747-1811). In The Netherlands he founded a missionary society and he himself, after having lost his wife and only child in a boating incident, travelled to southern Africa to work for the London Missionary Society (LMS). During the course of his work in Graaff Reinet he met Cupido Kakkerlak, a Khoi who was married to Anna, a San. 

Cupido Kakkerlak is the protagonist is in this novel by the late South African writer André Brink. He started work on this novel with strong historical roots and research in 1994, left it by the roadside for some years and finally finished it in 2004.

In the first part of the book (titled c. 1760 – 1801 Koup to Kamdeboo) we discover that the birth of Cupido is shrouded in many different stories. Even his death is near, when he as a baby is already covered for his funeral. A green praying mantis suddenly appears on his covering. This appearance is a sign of good fortune. The people nearby see that the little boy is still alive. His mother proclaims that he will be a free man. We follow Cupido on his journey through life. His mother works in the house of farmer Nooi. Cupido is impressed by the daily prayermeetings in the house. At these meetings he discovers the power of the written word and he wants to learn to read and write himself. During one of his outings in the neighbourhood he has a meeting with the god Heitsi-Eibid. At this meeting Cupido receives supernatural powers over animals and he becomes a famous hunter, but he looses this power by mentioning the name of Heitsi-Eibid. One day the musician, trader, storyteller, missionary Servaas Ziervogel turns up at the farm. When, after a long time, he takes leave Cupido joins him. They travel from farm to farm and Cupido learns the ways of the world with women, writing and booze. Near the small settlement Graaff-Reinet gets a job on a farm. Here he meets his future wife Anna Vigilant, who is a brilliant soapmaker. From her he learns about the Sam god Tkaggen. After some time they move to nearby Graaf-Reinet as independent people. At this small, during turbulent times, Cupido meets Van der Kemp, the LMS missionary. Cupiod and Anna (and their four children) decide to follow christian instruction from the missionaries. At his baptism in 1801 Cupido nearly drowns in the river. 

In the second part of this novel the focus is on one the mission workers James Reads (I did remember his name). James saved Cupido from drowning and the two men have a special bond. In  his thoughts James Read compares Van der Kemp and Cupido, both men with a strong conviction in faith. Read thinks about his own reasons for becoming a missionary in a far away land and his thoughts bring him back to England and a meeting with a displayed black young girl at a fair and how she was mistreated. Read marries Maria, a Hottentot woman. Three years later Van der Kemp marries Sarah, a former slave girl. It is clear this happened long before a colour bar was created in South Africa. In this period Cupido writes letters to God in his own very special style and with a striking directness. Outside opinion on the way Van der Kemp and his associates work is general negative, one of them was the Dutch Governor who visited the new settlement at Botha’s farm. Read and Cupido research the way Afrikaner treat the Hottentot and Khoi and San. But the way they research and present before the court does not help the mistreated people. According to Read he failed in a strong way. Cupido himself takes up a bit of miissionary work and some years later he is named a missionary in his own right and he moves to the settlement Klaarwater (later Griqualand). Later on he moves to a remote settlement among the Karo. This place is Dithakong. He is joined by his second wife, a Hottentot lady named Kathryn. Anna had passed away some years earlier. 

This brings us to the third part of the novel (1815 – ? Dithakong). We see Cupido with a strong desire to do the Lord’s work in this remote place. But loneliness enters their marriage and Kathryn finds it very hard to continue at this place. The poverty is all around. Supplies promised by the LMS do not reach Dithakong. No visits by James Read as promised. After a long time he receives the message that Read has been dismissed by the LMS. He gets a one time visit by the senior missionary Moffatt, based at Kuruman (indeed the father-in-law of David Livingstone). This visit is npot an easy one, for Moffatt is very critical about Cupido and his missionary work. The work at Dithkong is an uphill struggle, a wandering congregation with whom he can hardly communicate. He is left all alone. Cupido keeps on writing letters to God and he struggles with God like a psalmist. Where are you, God?? What have you done?          

André Brink has taken some liberty with historical facts in this novel and he shows in the extensive finale NOTE the sections in the book where liberty can be found. Next to that he mentions the books that have helped him in research. One of the books he mentioned is the one by Ido Enklaar. 

The praying mantis appears several times in this novel. When he appears outside it is a good sign, when found inside it is a bad sign. This shows in a way the way Cupido lives in a world with the old gods and the new one brought and proclaimed by settlers and missionaries.  

Cupido wants to proclaim this newly brought God to his fellowmen and his is convinced he has bewen called to do this work. Even when the tide is against him he continues, struggling with the communities, his fellow workers and with his God. His struggle during his time at Dithakong is heart wrenching and painful, but still he wants to continue.

André Brink – Praying Mantis – 2005

André Brink Praying Mantis




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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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