Lessons from the oldest stories ever told

In this second of a three-part series, a visit to a !Xoon settlement deep in Botswana sheds more light on the world’s most complex language and its speakers’ tales of ancient wisdom.

A few men stood on the side of the road at the turn-off on the Trans-Kalahari Corridor to Lone Tree/Kacgae, a village with 900 residents deep in the sparsely populated country of Botswana. Pulling over, two men approached, one slight and wearing a Kaizer Chiefs T-shirt and thick, trendy glasses.

I could buy a powdery substance or a two-litre bottle of red liquid that he and a friend were offering, but I was much more interested in the fact that we were speaking English. “Can you speak !Xoon?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, and we immediately agreed he would accompany me to Kacgae, 11km off the main road.

In the car, Dithabololo (“Call me Dee”) Magosane told me he was a hustler. I asked how come he could speak !Xoon. “My mother is Mosarwa,” he said, referring to the singular for Basarwa, which is Setswana for “people without cattle”.

Part one:

His phone rang. “Hoesit my bru (How is it, my brother),” he said, beginning an animated conversation. “You speak Afrikaans?” I asked when it ended. “No, bru is brother in Kgalagadi,” he said – as it is in Afrikaans. I wanted to meet someone who could read !Xoon, I told him. “No problem,” he said, a phrase he used often.

We turned off the dirt road as we entered the village, following a set of sandy tracks between fenced-off properties, some with mud houses and others built with brick. We parked near Magosane’s home and walked a short distance to meet his cousin. I had expected that this would be someone with seniority, but his cousin was a relatively young adult. I offered her a pen and notebook to write her name. She responded: “Have you got hand sanitiser in the car?”

Moroba Qhamoke, who had her hair and much of her face covered with a scarf, was wearing blue pyjamas emblazoned with Disney characters. She pulled up a bucket for herself and offered me a chair, her infant son pulling up his own small chair too.

Delight in a dictionary

“Where’s the dictionary?” Qhamoke asked, referring to an English-!Xoon dictionary produced by linguist Tony Traill that I had brought along. She opened it and started reading, flanked by Magosane’s partner, Gaone Peke, who read along with her. A small group gathered, all masked up for Covid-19, including Qhamoke’s wizened grandfather, Koloti Jumase, who squatted to one side. 

The pair read it out word by word, click by click and then translated the phrase into English, the others sharing in the delight of having transformed text into intelligible sounds.

“I don’t want to fight.” Then: “They want them to hunt.” And: “What do you want?”

Having read some of the phrases, Qhamoke would look at me: “Yes, it’s correct.”

I asked what her grandfather thought. She read to him and then translated what he said: “It is correct and written perfectly.” 

Could her grandfather tell us a hunting story from the old days? Qhamoke obliged by writing his spoken !Xoon into English. It wasn’t much of a story. He and others had got some dogs and gone to hunt, but came across a tiger (leopard) and so returned. “But I thought the Basarwa weren’t afraid, even of lions?” Qhamoke looked at me: “It depends whether they’ve eaten or not.”

She said she had been educated at schools in the region and was 30. I asked her what work she does. She looked at me for a moment: “There is no work.”

Koloti Jumase told a hunting story from back in the day, his granddaughter Moroba Qhamoke translating his spoken !Xoon into written English.

Traill, who died in 2007, thanks several !Xoon speakers in his dictionary, which was printed in 1994: “I owe my greatest debt to all the !Xoo who have patiently taught me their language and instructed me in many aspects of their culture. They will never really know how compellingly fascinating this education has been for me.”

He in particular thanked Bolo||xao: “He has been a brilliant teacher with a wonderful sense of humour and an uncanny understanding of the limits of the Western mind.”

Bolo||xao had died a few years before Traill, but we went to meet his wife Beaty Bushe, whom Traill also thanked. Cynthia Xhari, one of Magosane’s many sisters (I read later that most villagers see themselves connected through kinship), read from the dictionary in English, Bushe and her sister Xhomane Xwaase joining in with Xhari as she read the !Xoon translation of the English.

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!Xoon is cited as humanity’s most complex language. In 2009, The Economist went in search of the world’s most difficult to speak languages: “For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones.

“It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).”

A Facebook page under the name of the Khoi Liberation Front features a story that it says was shared with Traill by his teacher Bolo||xao. Traill reads the story. The audio is accompanied with text in !Xoon and English.

A track cut through the Kgalagadi

The 10 000-square kilometres the !Xoon inhabited could seem to outsiders a featureless thornveld, Traill wrote in The Kalahari Khoisan (2004). “A standard map presents the area as largely empty. There is no hint that this empty space was created by Bihi sa bolo who, together with the ancestors of the !Xoo, named every part of it.”

Bihi sa bolo made the communities of vegetation, the pans, waterholes and their drainage lines, the people and animals. “People added their village sites, hunting camps, initiation sites and each, finally, their faces, that is, their graves.”

This was all to change, though, from the 1950s, when a track was cut from the Kgalagadi village of Kang to Ghanzi through the centre of !Xoon country. “!Xoon living in the vicinity of the route were recruited to clear the bush and worked enthusiastically for the rations they were given,” Traill wrote.

30 August 2021: Thakadu Bush Camp outside Ghanzi in Botswana.

Boreholes were sunk to provide watering points to trek cattle across the Kalahari. !aja became Lone Tree; //auba (Small Camelthorns) became Digby’s Wells and later Lokalane. “As the water flowed the !Xoo emerged from the ancient landscape to the east and west created by Bihi sa bolo, to drink and squat around this amazing bounty.”

The track the !Xoon helped cut is visible on Google Earth and runs close to the highway. I drove some of it and, with Magosane, visited what had been the !aja waterhole before being renamed Lone Tree. It is close to the junction where the dirt road to the village meets the highway. This well has not been in use for some time. It is concreted over, a large trough standing empty alongside. The water needs of the village are now supplied nearby from a borehole with a giant shiny tank.

Qhamoke’s grandmother, Cwiigi Pege, remembered the dirt road being put in when she was growing up. She had lived near the new borehole. Later, when the government developed the village on the present site with a school, clinic and a new borehole, she moved there.

Common mythologies

Isolated living in the Kalahari, Traill wrote, with time depths of “thousands and thousands and thousands of years”, meant the Khoisan evolved practical systems to exploit its resources through foraging and hunting while filling the Kalahari “with rich symbolic and spiritual systems to explain it all”.

“This was imagination and ingenuity shaped by tradition, myth and metaphor, combined with a deep pre-scientific knowledge of the environment, in which hypothesising and prediction are also used to understand climate, geology, vegetation, insects, birds mammals and water – or rather, its shortage.”

Even though neighbouring languages were mutually unintelligible, Kalahari Khoisan speakers shared common mythologies suggesting “a single, underlying and ancient source rendered opaque linguistically by the passage of time”.

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Genetic analysis now allows us to peer deep into humanity’s past, the Khoisan having the most ancient of human lineages and the greatest genetic diversity. Brigitte Pakendorf and Mark Stoneking, in The Genomic Prehistory of Peoples Speaking Khoisan Languages (2020), say recent analysis of the most complete geographical coverage of Khoisan-speaking groups have shown a tripartite split into northern, central and southern groups.

The variances for when the split took place is extremely wide on the available data, anything from 25 000 years to 160 000 years ago, but this genetic split does not show up linguistically. The northern group includes speakers from both the K’xa and Khoe-Kwadi families, while the southeastern-central group includes speakers from all three language families.

Death of a rainmaker

Traill tells of a waterhole named //goe ka where “for centuries !Xoo men filling their containers have known that below the rock, beneath the waterhole, lie the buried remains of the !Xoo Aphrodite, killed by the exasperated married men she persistently tried to seduce”.

Neglect had meant that another hole, /nule //goe ka, had an accumulated deposit of soil and had lost its capacity to hold water for long periods. “Nevertheless it is into waterholes like this that /luma, the python, the quintessential water creature, can still be seen returning to earth each rainy season from its home in the immense black rain clouds.”

These may well be the oldest stories ever told, or at least those that the retelling has kept alive for the longest time. In my conversations with click language speakers, I asked if they knew stories from the past, hoping to hear of the escapades of the water snake. But while I did hear of pythons, these were of the real and not the watery kind, big enough to swallow an antelope whole.

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Earlier this year, though, /luma no doubt visited the Thakadu Bush Camp outside Ghanzi, where I pitched my tent and which I used as a base for three days. The bar and restaurant area overlooks a pan, usually dry. So much rain fell in April that enough water flowed out of the pan to create a mini lake, flooding the building. The opening of the camp, which had been in lockdown because of Covid, was delayed for another two months waiting for the deluge to subside.

I had been told by a few people on my trip how to make rain, the key being to collect special plants that give off condensation when put on a fire. My guess, though, was that this was an abridged version, because Traill, in The Kalahari Khoisan, provides detail on the numerous taboos and rituals that have to be met.

“Creating favourable conditions for rain is an intricate matter. There are taboos to be observed, such as never digging up the ritually powerful root of llgaa, Hermannia stricta, during ‘llnahu, the rainy season, and rituals to be followed such as urinating on a fire during llgaa, the hot dry season to cool the fierce heat of the sun, or, if your birth omens are right, ritually burning an appropriate skin whose smoke rises eventually to oho, condense and form rain.

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“The long purring call of the qa’bi, the rufous-cheeked nightjar, another creature of the rain, tells people not to extinguish their fires before sufficient smoke has risen to the sky. The rain is also to be protected from mischievous powers by avoiding its conventional name !qhaa; instead it must be referred to as na’m.”

Traill said that powerful shamans are associated with rain, nowhere better demonstrated than at the moment of death of Tuhuse in the middle of the !ae, the cold dry season of 1996. “He was the patriarch of liq’ua waterholes, a healer, the senior administrator of male initiation and, as benefitting a man of his powers, when breath left his body one black night in August 1996, it was with explosive thunder and drops of rain fell. He revered the rain in his death.”

Some of us scoff at the ancient wisdom of rainmakers now, even though their explanations reigned for “thousands and thousands and thousands” of years. The present scientific-industrial paradigm, dominant for the past few hundred years, has given us all the knowledge in the world, but apparently not the wisdom to know that destroying the planet we inhabit is unimaginably dumb.

1 September 2021: The track through the thornveld that was cut from the Kgalagadi village of Kang to Ghanzi in the 1950s.

Part three:

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