On the brink of ex­tinc­tion

The an­cient, indige­nous lan­guage of N/uu is in dan­ger of dy­ing out for­ever, write Eli­nor Sisulu and Lo­rato Trok . One of the two peo­ple still alive who learnt it at their mother’s knee is Ka­t­rina Esau, now in her late 80s, who de­serves to be granted the s

Sunday Times - - Insight Heritage Hero -

The more en­dan­gered a lan­guage and her­itage are, the more firmly peo­ple cling to them, but if the Covid-19 pan­demic has taught us any­thing, it is that time is not on our side and that those in­volved in her­itage work need to be sup­ported with more ur­gency than


This year, the Puku Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Foun­da­tion has de­clared ac­claimed lan­guage ac­tivist Ka­t­rina Esau our “her­itage hero”, to high­light the ur­gency of her quest to en­sure the sur­vival of her mother tongue, the N/uu lan­guage, one the old­est and most en­dan­gered in the world.

Puku be­came in­volved with Esau, af­fec­tion­ately known as Ouma Ka­t­rina or Ouma Geelmeid, through Lo­rato Trok, Puku’s spe­cial­ist mul­ti­lin­gual ed­i­tor, who met her while run­ning mother-tongue story cre­ation work­shops in the North­ern Cape.

Trok was fas­ci­nated by the then 85-year-old woman who, with her three sib­lings, were the last flu­ent speak­ers of the an­cient N/uu lan­guage. She vis­ited Ouma Ka­t­rina at her home in Rosedale, a town­ship on the out­skirts of Uping­ton, where she learnt about her fas­ci­nat­ing life.

Esau was born in 1933 on a farm in Oli­fantshoek, North­ern Cape, one of eight sis­ters and three brothers. Her Motswana fa­ther and Khoisan mother were farm work­ers who spoke N/uu, Setswana and Afrikaans.

One of Esau’s early mem­o­ries is of the farmer who em­ployed her par­ents telling them that their na­tive tongue sounded ter­ri­ble and should never be spo­ken around white chil­dren on the farm. He threat­ened to shoot them if they spoke the N/uu lan­guage, but Ka­t­rina and her sib­lings found a way to defy the farmer and con­tin­ued to speak in their lan­guage when­ever they could.

Her mother told Esau that the farmer had been an­gry that she was given a “proper” name and said: “Ka­t­rina for what? Don’t you see how yel­low this baby is? We’ll call her Geelmeid.”

Esau’s mother taught her chil­dren to speak Afrikaans to pre­pare them for jobs on the farm when they were old enough to work. None of the Khoisan chil­dren on the farm were al­lowed to go to school.

At the age of 16, Esau started work on the same farm as her par­ents.

Al­though she never went to school or learnt to read and write, she was ed­u­cated in the cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal knowl­edge of her peo­ple. She and her sib­lings learnt about medic­i­nal plants, how to hunt and how to make fire.

The fam­ily had to walk more than 100km after Esau’s par­ents had an ar­gu­ment with the farmer and had to leave the farm. Esau be­lieves they would have died of hunger and thirst had they not been armed with the sur­vival skills they learnt in child­hood.

It is this indige­nous knowl­edge that fu­elled her de­ter­mi­na­tion to fight for the sur­vival of her mother tongue, which she de­scribes as “the lan­guage of my soul”.

Esau’s fam­ily set­tled in Uping­ton, where her par­ents died in the 1970s. She has had to en­dure much hard­ship in her life, los­ing six of her 10 chil­dren and being wid­owed at a young age.

She be­lieves her faith en­abled her to over­come ad­ver­sity and find her true call­ing: “I thought I was go­ing to die from the heartache of los­ing my six chil­dren and suf­fer­ing a mis­car­riage. The pain was too deep, but the Lord had other plans for me. He wanted me to do what I am do­ing.”

Grow­ing up in an Afrikaans-speak­ing com­mu­nity, it both­ered her that she had not passed on her mother tongue to her four chil­dren. To try to rec­tify this, and with a re­newed de­ter­mi­na­tion to en­sure the sur­vival of her lan­guage, Ka­t­rina taught the N/uu lan­guage to her grand­daugh­ter Clau­dia du Plessis and to David van Wyk, a mem­ber of the Royal Khoisan Her­itage Coun­cil.

She also runs a sto­ry­telling and lan­guage af­ter­school for chil­dren and teenagers in her com­mu­nity. She has been as­sisted by the Cen­tre for African Lan­guage Di­ver­sity (Caldi) at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, which de­vel­oped an or­thog­ra­phy and teach­ing ma­te­ri­als for N/uu.

Sheena Shah, a post­doc­toral fel­low and di­rec­tor of Caldi’s N/uu lan­guage project, de­scribes the process.

“Based on ex­ist­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, we worked closely with Ouma Geelmeid to iden­tify the dis­tinc­tive sounds of this lan­guage. The prac­ti­cal or­thog­ra­phy con­sists of 112 speech sounds, of which 45 are clicks. Ouma Geelmeid, as­sisted by her grand­daugh­ter Clau­dia, is us­ing the al­pha­bet charts and teach­ing ma­te­ri­als de­vel­oped in the Caldi project,” Shah says.

“Ouma Geelmeid teaches the lan­guage in a fun and in­ter­ac­tive way, and has de­vel­oped many songs and games to teach the chil­dren the N/uu lan­guage. The chil­dren en­joy see­ing them­selves fea­tured in the ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als pro­duced in the Caldi project.

They sing the N/uu songs and play the games even out­side class.”

In 2016, Van Wyk be­came in­volved in the teach­ing of the lan­guage and was in­stru­men­tal in the es­tab­lish­ment of the N/uu lan­guage com­mit­tee in De­cem­ber 2017.

Trok’s en­gage­ment with Ouma Ka­t­rina and with Phenyo Modise, di­rec­tor of the North­ern Cape de­part­ment of sports, arts & cul­ture, in­spired Puku to se­cure sup­port for the “My Lan­guage, My Her­itage” project from the Na­tional Her­itage Coun­cil and the Swiss em­bassy in Pre­to­ria. The pur­pose was to harness the power of indige­nous sto­ry­telling to pro­duce books and dig­i­tal con­tent for chil­dren in the lan­guages of the North­ern Cape province, es­pe­cially the en­dan­gered lan­guages.

The project was in­formed by Puku’s con­vic­tion that the oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tions in indige­nous lan­guages are not re­flected in print and there is al­most no con­tent for chil­dren in the en­dan­gered lan­guages.

Two writ­ing work­shops were de­signed to pro­duce books in Setswana, Nama and N/uu. Par­tic­i­pants were se­lected from a pool of au­thors from Ku­ru­man, Na­maqua­land, Kim­ber­ley and Uping­ton. The orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was to have a work­shop in Uping­ton specif­i­cally for N/uu but that was not pos­si­ble for var­i­ous lo­gis­ti­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive rea­sons. We fi­nally set­tled on a work­shop in Jo­han­nes­burg to which we in­vited Ouma Ka­t­rina, not re­ally ex­pect­ing that she would make it.

There was great ex­cite­ment when not only did she at­tend her­self, but ar­rived with her daugh­ter Lena du Plessis and grand­daugh­ter Clau­dia Sny­man.

With an en­ergy that be­lied her age, Ouma Ka­t­rina par­tic­i­pated fully in the in­tense three-day work­shop in which the young au­thors and il­lus­tra­tors spent hours per­fect­ing the sto­ries in Nama, Setswana and

Afrikaans that they had sub­mit­ted prior to the work­shop.

N/uu was the only lan­guage in which a story was cre­ated at the work­shop by Esau and Du Plessis, who live in dif­fer­ent cities. Ouma Ka­t­rina nar­rated the story in both N/uu and Afrikaans and Du Plessis wrote it down. They then worked with young Soweto il­lus­tra­tor Ter­ence Maluleke to de­velop the first draft of the man­u­script of the first-ever pic­ture book in N/uu.

After spend­ing time with Ouma Ka­t­rina, it is easy to un­der­stand the ac­co­lades she has re­ceived over the years. She has a rare com­bi­na­tion of as­sur­ance and hu­mil­ity. Her calm, serene pres­ence gave a sense of grav­i­tas to the pro­ceed­ings and there was hardly a dry eye in the room when she re­lated her life story.

Esau’s de­vo­tion to her call­ing to save her lan­guage from ex­tinc­tion has gar­nered her na­tional and in­ter­na­tional ac­co­lades. In 2014 she earned recog­ni­tion in the pres­i­den­tial na­tional or­ders when she was awarded the Or­der of the Baobab in Sil­ver.

The Lost Tongue, a doc­u­men­tary by film­mak­ers Dav­i­son Mudz­ingwa and Themba Vi­lakazi on the ef­forts to save the N/uu lan­guage through the eyes of a young San woman learn­ing from Ouma Ka­t­rina and her sib­lings, pre­miered at the So­cially Rel­e­vant Film Fes­ti­val in New York in 2017. It was sub­se­quently screened at 15 film fes­ti­vals around the world and won three awards.

In 2018, com­poser Coe­nie de Vil­liers and the late dancer-chore­og­ra­pher Kevin For­tuin pro­duced a play por­tray­ing Esau’s life through an in­ter­pre­tive dance piece at the Artscape The­atre, ti­tled Ka­t­rina: The Danc­ing Lan­guage.

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa paid homage to her when he spent Her­itage Day in Uping­ton. He vis­ited the Sandile Present Com­mu­nity li­brary to listen to sto­ries read by chil­dren in the indige­nous lan­guages of the area. Ref­er­enc­ing the UN year of indige­nous lan­guages, the president em­pha­sised the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing all of SA’s indige­nous lan­guages, es­pe­cially the en­dan­gered N/uu, Nama and Khwe tongues.

This year, as we cel­e­brate Her­itage Day un­der the cloud of the Covid-19 pan­demic, we ask our­selves what progress has been made in ef­forts to en­sure the sur­vival of the an­cient N/uu lan­guage? If any­thing, it seems that the lan­guage is more en­dan­gered than ever, fol­low­ing the death of Ouma Ka­t­rina’s sis­ters Hanna Koper in March and Griet Seekoei in May. Du Plessis says the death of Ouma Griet is a huge set­back to the sur­vival of the lan­guage as she was very ac­tive in sup­port­ing Ouma Ka­t­rina’s work.

At Puku we are con­vinced that for N/uu to sur­vive it needs a vi­brant chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Our con­tri­bu­tion to help­ing Ouma Ka­t­rina in her mis­sion will be to pub­lish her story in N/uu, Afrikaans and English. The man­u­script is cur­rently being edited and will be published as a chil­dren’s pic­ture book be­fore the end of the year, with the sup­port of a grant from the In­ter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers As­so­ci­a­tion’s Africa pub­lish­ing in­no­va­tion fund, spon­sored by Dubai Cares.

Ouma Ka­t­rina is not short of recog­ni­tion for her ef­forts but this does not trans­late into fi­nan­cial re­ward that can ease her eco­nom­i­cally strained cir­cum­stances and en­able her to in­crease her ev­er­more ur­gent ef­forts.

Sny­man laments the fact that apart from her gov­ern­ment pen­sion, Ouma Ka­t­rina does not re­ceive much else by way of fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion. If re­sources were a prob­lem be­fore, they will be an even greater prob­lem in the post-Covid era.

What is the so­lu­tion? In Puku’s view, Esau’s sit­u­a­tion should be part of a broader con­ver­sa­tion about our West­ern aca­demic par­a­digm that fails to val­i­date indige­nous knowl­edge.

Ouma Ka­t­rina is the world ex­pert in the N/uu lan­guage and the cul­ture of her peo­ple. No-one knows more than she does.

As such, she should be given the sta­tus of pro­fes­sor of the N/uu lan­guage and paid a pro­fes­sor’s salary, which would make it eas­ier to spend the rest of her days teach­ing N/uu. Her school should be sup­ported with the books and learn­ing ma­te­ri­als needed to pro­duce the next gen­er­a­tion of N/uu speak­ers.

If she is eco­nom­i­cally em­pow­ered through the recog­ni­tion of her role as a repos­i­tory of knowl­edge, an ac­tivist, a sto­ry­teller and an or­ganic in­tel­lec­tual, it would be an enor­mous boost to the ef­forts to save the N/uu lan­guage. The con­ver­sa­tion must be car­ried for­ward beyond Her­itage Day or Her­itage Month.

Time is not on our side.

Their na­tive tongue sounded ter­ri­ble and should never be spo­ken around white chil­dren on the farm

This does not trans­late into fi­nan­cial re­ward that can ease her eco­nom­i­cally strained cir­cum­stances

Sisulu and Trok work at the Puku Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Foun­da­tion, based in Jo­han­nes­burg. As part of its 2020 her­itage project, Puku will pub­lish Ouma Ka­t­rina Esau’s book — the first chil­dren's book writ­ten in N/uu — later this year, along­side English and Afrikaans ver­sions. All pro­ceeds will go to Ouma Ka­t­rina.

Pic­ture: Alon Skuy

Ka­t­rina Esau at her home in Uping­ton in 2017. Esau, known as Ouma Ka­t­rina, was born on a farm near Oli­fantshoek in the North­ern Cape in 1933 and is fight­ing to en­sure her lan­guage, N/uu, sur­vives into the next gen­er­a­tion.

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