Foundation for Endangered Languages
1. Guest Editorial
A must-visit for any linguist touring South Africa is the new San Culture and Education Centre, !Khwa ttu, which means ‘water pan’ in the extinct !Xam language of the Cape of South Africa. We had the rare privilege of a visit to the centre before its official opening - thanks to Nigel Crawhall and Mikael Grut. A coach drove us there at the end of the FEL conference – about 75 kilometres north of Cape Town, and half-way up in the hills above the Atlantic. The Centre consists of a cluster of white farm buildings, some new, some 200 years old, on an 800-hectare farm.
It was started about seven years ago, when the Khoi San peoples, (a cover-term for some of the original inhabitants of Southern Africa) realised that tourism represented both threat and opportunity. A San chief, Mathambo, said that tourism is like a raging bull in a village; if you don't capture it, it will destroy the village. And the !Khwa ttu centre is an attempt to catch that bull.
It's a two-way centre; San people learn to deal with tourists (and the dealings cover anything from language to craft to marketing to intellectual property rights). And tourists can learn from the San, who are skilled trackers and observers of nature. The money from tourists goes to making the Centre sustainable - that’s the goal of the Ubuntu Foundation of Switzerland and WIMSA (Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa) which provided the capital to start the Centre. But the !Khwa ttu people have been very busy on the treadmill of one-off grants, and they know that once the Centre is open, people will expect them to be more self-sustaining. This is a heavy burden, which faces indigenous culture centres in other parts of the world. No agency is ever prepared to keep providing the salary and utilities bills needed to keep such centres running.
On arrival at the centre, we entered the restaurant, a fine old farm building which has been carefully and austerely restored. We were introduced to some of the workers, most wearing blue smocks and green baseball caps.
From Namibia come Roman Nedja who speaks Khwedam and Kondino Samba who speaks !Xun. Others include Johannes Vaalboii, Kerson Jackson, Pieter Poulo and Grukie Thys. Michael Daiber, the coordinator, speaks Afrikaans and English. They explain the function of the Centre to us, and gracefully answer our many questions about San languages.
South Africa’s 11 official languages don't include any of the indigenous Khoi San languages. That’s an indication of the dispossession of their speakers, who are the poorest in a country where the width of the gulf between the rich and the poor is a shock to visitors from the first world. It's caused a problem for signage in the centre - how many languages should signs be translated into? The solution for the toilets seemed easy - silhouettes of male and female eland. But the difference was a bit subtle for some linguists.
In fact, while signage in Khoi San languages would make an important statement, the most effective linguistic promotion is done by the guides, speakers of San languages. Among the buildings are two small containers which have been converted into a school for the twenty or so children of the workers. The school was set up three years ago with help from Comic Relief, when the nearest school refused to enrol children from the centre who spoke San languages, but not much Afrikaans or English. So the energetic Bets Daiber negotiated with the local school department, bought a distance-education program close to the Government system, and started the !Khwa ttu Community San School school. Bets talks in Afrikaans, and the mothers translate into the different languages. We met some of them, Alfreda Jackson who speaks Khwedam, Paula Samba and Donika Dala (!Xun), Baba Rosie and Ollie Thys (Afrikaans). As well as teaching, some of them prepare lunch for the children. The kids (ranging from 5 to 14 or 15) have been learning Afrikaans and English and now are scoring well on the primary examinations. They showed off their knowledge to us, singing songs in Afrikaans, English and !Xun and Xhosa. Creative accounting is needed to keep the school running, and of course donations would help.
Roman and Kondini showed us local plants and animals on the hayride to an excellent lunch on the top of a hill. We returned to the centre to hear Louis Nel from the Western Cape Provincial Government’s Department of Culture and Sport’s language unit (visit www.capegateway.gov.za/language). It was established in part to look after languages that deserve special attention: Khoi and San languages and Nama. We were provided with a booklet on the language policy of the Western Cape Province (in the three official languages of the province, !Xhosa, Afrikaans, English). Obligations include promoting the use of official languages, elevating the status of indigenous languages such as the Khoi and San languages, promoting the principle of multilingualism, empowering and affirming speakers of previously marginalised languages (including !Xhosa). He talked to us about the complex linguistic history of the Western Cape in recent years, including the Griqua group that formed around Adam Kok in the nineteenth century. This complex history led first to the absurdity of the apartheid classification scheme – Nama speakers were classified as mixed race – to the modern difficulties of determining the Khoi and San languages within the boundaries of the Western Cape (exacerbated by the fact that there is no census data on Khoi San speakers), and to the controversy surrounding revival of the Cape Khoi San languages, a controversy sharpened by the recognition of how much work it has been to promote !Xhosa.
Louis also told us of the work on promoting Nama by Nama speakers, in particular Pedro Dausab. Some of the areas Mr Dausab thought important for work included place names and geographic names, and the influence of Khoi San languages on Afrikaans and !Xhosa. They have since held 18 workshops in the Western Cape introducing several hundred people to the language – these are awareness workshops rather than attempting to build mother-tongue fluency. The communities are very poor, and Mr Dausab had to devise ways of keeping people’s interest. A number of people came to the first workshops because there was a meal, but the second time around they came and not for the meal. People have started composing speeches and dramas in the language, as well as psalms.
From the workshops, the Western Cape Language Committee produced a basic introduction to the Nama language (a little booklet with useful phrases and some comments on writing and pronunciation which might be a good model for other groups needing to promote their languages). However, they were forced to take the lowest tender for printing, and their printer was unable to cope with the fonts needs for the four click sounds. So Louis and Mr Dausab had to draw them by hand. This is an indication of the long way Louis and his committee have to go in raising the profile for indigenous languages. [Sigh.] Language problems - gowab !gomsigu as we learned from the Nama booklet.
Places like !Khwa ttu aim to get people away from their obsession with the Big Five (major animals which every tourist apparently wishes to see, and which ornament bedspreads, tourist shops, placemats, etc.), and they aim to return control to the San of how they interact with tourists. It’s a praiseworthy aim, and if our experience is to go by, future visitors to !Khwa ttu, linguists and non-linguists, should enjoy the remarkable privilege of meeting and learning from speakers of San languages like Roman and his co-workers.
!Khwa ttu Culture and Education Centre
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