With an incredible 45 clicks in its repertoire, the San language N|uu is one of our most startlingly beautiful examples of cultural diversity.

On the outskirts of Upington, in South Africa’s Northern Cape, there lives a queen. The queen is elderly and when she dies it may not just be she who is gone, but an entire realm.

Katrina Esau is 88. Her community crowned her Queen of the Western Nǁnǂe (ǂKhomani) San in 2015. A year earlier, then-president Jacob Zuma presented her with the National Order of the Baobab in Silver.

For the previous eight decades, Esau had gone largely unnoticed. Her people, the San – of whom the Western Nǁnǂe (ǂKhomani) are one group of many – are good at that. Their survival depended on it: first for the countless centuries that they had South Africa to themselves, living deftly on the land as hunter gatherers. And then, with the arrival of other groups, to evade the scrutiny of those who meant them harm.

Esau was born on the farm where her parents worked. The farm’s Afrikaner owner obnoxiously renamed the young queen “Geelmeid”. “Meid” means “maidservant” while “geel” (yellow) is a crass reference to skin tone. Today, some still know her – lovingly – as Ouma (Grandma) Geelmeid. But often it’s Queen Katrina.

The farm owner also forbade Esau from speaking her mother tongue, N|uu; a language with roots to humanity’s very origins. Instead, the newly minted Afrikaans language (a mere 300 or so years old) would be Esau’s camouflage for almost her entire life.

Cut off on the isolated farm, speaking Afrikaans, Esau began “burying” the language that she had “sucked from [her] mother’s breast”. This act of burial was just one funeral of many: the language, a descendant of those spoken by the first humans, had already been dealt its death blow a decade or so earlier.

The year 1931 saw the opening of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (now incorporated into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park). The terrain here is semi-desert, with two dry riverbeds, the Nossob and Auob, that flow once in a blue moon. Yet for the ǂKhomani, the last community of people to speak Esau’s language, the landscape was home. The park’s opening saw the ǂKhomani families evicted and scattered, smashing the one remaining circuit board of the language. ǂKhomani children would henceforth be born into a world of Afrikaans.

Along with !Xun (spoken in Namibia), ǂAmkoe and Taa (both spoken in Botswana), N|uu is one of our last linguistic links to the earliest humans: the hunter gatherers of southern and eastern Africa. All four languages are endangered: ǂAmkoe has 1,000 or so speakers; Taa 3,000 speakers; and !Xun 14,000 to 18,000.
N|uu, meanwhile, has just two: Esau and her brother Simon Sauls.

We don’t know when the N|uu language developed – it is too ancient to age precisely – but certainly its roots could not be deeper. Yet if it becomes one of the 600 to 800 languages likely to disappear in the near future, it’s not just its antiquity that we should mourn. N|uu’s richness and beauty are also astonishing: English has 44 distinct speech sounds (phonemes), for instance, while N|uu has 114.

Then there are its clicks. The bar in “N|uu” represents a click consonant – specifically a dental click, articulated with the tongue tip sucking quickly away from the upper teeth. A century ago, at least 100 indigenous click languages were likely spoken in the southern and eastern regions of Africa. To those unfamiliar with clicks, it can seem as if a click-language speaker’s mouth has morphed into a percussion instrument. Consider that N|uu makes meaningful distinction between an incredible 45 clicks; to hear the language spoken fluently is to experience a linguistic fireworks display.

The star of the N|uu click repertoire is the phenomenally rare bilabial “kiss click”, which sounds uncannily like an air smooch and features in just two of the world’s 7,000 or so other languages. (One of them is Taa, which has 111 click phonemes.)

As Esau’s years have advanced, her urgency to sow new seeds of N|uu has increased. In the early 2000s, she started teaching the language to her community from a schoolroom built in her front yard in Rosedale, a township near Upington, using song, dance and play. Her pupils, who range in age from three to 19, are the only students of N|uu in the world.

In recent years, others have bolstered Esau’s efforts. A team of linguists has helped create an orthography and educational materials for N|uu, meaning that her granddaughter Claudia Snyman can teach the written language (Esau can’t read). Tortoise and Ostrich, a children’s storybook in N|uu, Afrikaans and English was published in May.

But the beauty of N|uu should not be used to paint an unduly romantic picture of Esau’s people – the San. Michael Daiber is manager of the !Khwa ttu heritage centre, an hour’s drive north of Cape Town, which calls itself the “embassy” of the San. He says the centre, which also offers accommodation, is an antidote to the “sunsets and silhouettes and smiling people” image of the San.

“Establishments used to promote that naked hunter-gatherer Bushman image,” Daiber explained. “All that ‘the last surviving’, ‘unique encounter’, ‘come and see it while it’s still here’ language. The leaders who founded !Khwa ttu back in 1996 were saying, ‘This is not our story. Our land has been taken away from us. We have had a really tough history.'”

“Where San live, it looks like unoccupied land,” added Joram /Uiseb, a San of the Namibian Hai||om group, who is heritage co-ordinator at !Khwa ttu. “Land is life. Only take from nature what you really need.” For the San, land was about stewardship not ownership, and South Africa was easily wrested from them.

“In the 1980s, I was told there were no Bushmen left,” Daiber said . “And here 40 years later I’ve had a career working only with San people. How do you measure it and who decides?”

The “it” he’s referring to is San identity. Even “San” itself is an exonym for South Africa’s original inhabitants. It was introduced by the Khoikhoi, a people who arrived from modern-day Botswana. The term “Bushman”, meanwhile, is a translation of “Boesman”, which is what the Dutch – who settled the region from the mid-17th Century – called the hunter gatherers. But while the San’s languages and lifestyle have been mostly erased, the people live on.

“It’s incredible the way that they have survived,” said Daiber.
There are between 120,000 and 140,000 San living today in southern Africa: around 60,000 in Botswana, 40,000 in Namibia and the rest in South Africa, with a small number in Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. !Khwa ttu represents the San as they are now: survivors with no land of their own on which to practice their traditions. Sheena Shah, who worked alongside fellow linguist Matthias Brenzinger to establish a N|uu orthography with Esau, believes the centre has a special energy thanks to its role as a place of learning as much for the San as for visitors.

“San learn computer literacy and finance management here. But they also get training in how to use traditional knowledge like ethnobotany for ecotourism. They then practice their skills with visitors,” Shah said. “We loved our tour through the fynbos, with a San guide who showed us the plants he uses in traditional medicine or as food.”

“Visitors to !Khwa ttu meet San at all levels: tour guides, waitresses, shopkeepers,” added Daiber. “It’s beautiful to hear the stories from the San themselves.”
And hearing them is a privilege.

“San people are very shy,” said /Uiseb. “They don’t want to say, ‘I am a San’. Only a few people say ‘I am a San’.” For a glimpse of their disenfranchisement, consider that South Africa has 11 official languages and none of them has anything to do with the country’s first people. It’s rare, moreover, that San have land rights or access to natural resources. Where they are granted use of land, it is usually shared with cattle farmers who overgraze it.

Elinor Sisulu, executive director of Puku, the children’s literature foundation behind the N|uu children’s storybook project, is keenly aware of the politics around San identity. “The Western publishing paradigm has been very exploitative towards indigenous languages,” she said. “Katrina Esau is the expert, so we have been very clear that she must be paid. We are all leveraging off her knowledge. She should be recognised as a professor, but the academic paradigm doesn’t recognise original knowledge.”

“We are powerless now,” said /Uiseb. “Two thousand years back the San were so powerful, but now we are spectators, watching people destroying the land. If Table Mountain could speak… It has witnessed many things: from the tip of Africa we populated the whole world. It is very important that we should be recognised one way or another.”

But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. On 1 April, the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act come into effect, which opens the door for San and Khoikhoi representatives to have a say in South Africa’s National and Provincial Houses of Traditional Leaders. “It gives us power to negotiate from the inside,” said /Uiseb. “If they allow the process to take place then you yourself are now a lawmaker.” The Act may ultimately facilitate future land claims by the San.

One person who is absolutely not afraid to say “I am a San” is Esau, queen of a South Africa that she dearly hopes will not die with her.

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