Finding the speakers of ancient tongues

This first of a three-part series is a discovery of small communities in Botswana who still use a diverse range of click languages that have survived across vast time – and landscapes.

Two thousand years ago, before herders, agriculturalists and mercantilists began arriving in southern Africa, only San Bushman languages were spoken. One language, /Xam, dominated much of the area, which became the Cape Colony under British rule. By the end of the 1800s, though, it was no longer in use. 

In the 1870s, linguists Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, had former prisoners who were /Xam speakers move into their household in Mowbray, Cape Town. For more than a decade, they recorded their language and mythologies.

But in a matter of just a few decades, when Bleek’s daughter Dorothea, who as a child heard /Xam being spoken in the household, visited the deep Karoo where the /Xam storytellers had lived, she could not find /Xam speakers or anyone who recalled the stories that had delighted her father and aunt.

Dorothea made wagon trips to the driest and harshest parts of South Africa, as well as to modern-day Botswana, Namibia, Angola and Tanzania, to record Khoisan languages just as they appeared to be dying out. Biographer Jill Weintroub notes in Dorothea Bleek: A Life of Scholarship (2015) that Dorothea spent decades compiling her monumental 800-page Bushman Dictionary. Published in 1956, eight years after her death, it included 28 languages and dialects. 

Undated: A studio portrait of Dorothea Bleek, who researched and recorded Khoisan languages. (Bleek and Lloyd Collection, University of Cape Town Libraries)

One of Dorothea’s trips in 1913 was to Kakia in Bechuanaland (now Botswana). She had heard of a San Bushman band living in conditions of serfdom to their pastoral masters. The trip meant a train ride to Lobatse, south of Gaborone, then by wagon over several arduous weeks into the semi-desert of the Kalahari. This was no jaunt. Water was in such short supply that at one point the oxen got “wild with thirst. We thought they would die.”

In Kakia she took black and white photographs of the Basarwa, a Setswana word for “people without cattle”. These are as disturbing as they are harrowing, showing raggedy people, some with distended bellies, out of place and time.

An iconic photo, taken by guide and interpreter Ompilletsi, shows Dorothea with a friend, Margarethe Vollmer, and three unidentified men who managed the team of 16 oxen that drew the wagon. I wondered where they were going. Where is Kakia? Do Basarwa still live there, and have they retained their language?

Circa 1913: A photograph taken by guide and interpreter Ompilletsi, which shows Dorothea Bleek with Margarethe Vollmer and three men who managed the team of 16 oxen that drew the wagon. (Image via By Small Wagon with Full Tent, Jacana Media)

In search of the Basarwa

Khakhea, as it is now called, shows up on Google Earth, but is not big enough to have its own petrol station. Really good tarred roads across the soft sands of the Kalahari get you there in a couple of hours. At nightfall I pulled off the road, knowing there was no formal accommodation in Khakhea, and found a quiet place to erect my tent. Dorothea’s trip was in mid-winter. She described the bracing cold of the mornings. I felt it too.

One of her photos is of the large dry pan at Kakia, a small herd of cattle standing idly by. Over a century later, I took more or less the identical photo. 

I drove around a cold Khakhea. There were a few shops, schools and a clinic, but hardly anyone was around. I had a copy of Weintroub’s By Small Wagon With a Full Tent (2011) with me and showed it to a shopkeeper, explaining Dorothea’s 1913 journey.

The Basarwa now live at Kotuku, she said. I had passed a sign pointing to Kotuku a little earlier. About 20km away, it is smaller than Khakhea and was not on my map, or on Google. 

Fences demark each property, many with a stick enclosure to break the wind for outdoor cooking. The only activity was at a water pump. People queued, mostly with donkey carts but also the occasional 4×4 with a trailer as well as on foot, carrying a bucket. A tiny goat kid, probably just a few days old, took a keen interest in proceedings.

Goitseone Gadifele, a senior manager 140km away at Jwaneng, the world’s richest diamond mine, is a part-time farmer. He makes weekly visits to the borehole, the strongest water source in the area. We chatted while he waited for his turn at the pump. I asked if Basarwa still live in the area. 

Here comes a Basarwa man now, he said, looking behind us. A man approached, carrying a bucket. He wore a mask with an air vent but with the mechanism missing. And there was immediately a surprise, one of many to come on the trip. He and I could hold an elementary conversation in Afrikaans.

Waar het jy Afrikaans geleer (Where did you learn Afrikaans)?” I asked him. “Van die boere (From the farmers),” he responded.

But we both had limited capability in this lingua franca and being masked did not help. 

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Gadifele told me he has a worker on his farm who speaks SheKgalagadi, which has its base in Sesotho-Setswana and is widely used in the Kalahari. The worker is married to a Basarwa woman and they communicate in SheKgalagadi.

A woman approached. She said she is Basarwa and spelled her name for me, which I wrote down. She scrutinised what I had written and made several corrections until what I had was correct: Kemoetshwaretse (I have forgiven you). The language distance between us, though, prevented any real conversation.

The Basarwa prefer to live in the bush and hunt, but the government wanted them to stay in villages and built houses for them, Gadifele said, pointing to one of the formal houses just behind us. He said that 80% of the inhabitants of Kokotsha, about 60km south of Khakhea, are Basarwa.

Kokotsha was much like Khakhea and Kotuku. Small groups congregated at some houses, waving as I drove past. I chatted to three men, again mostly in Afrikaans, saying I was keen to meet Basarwa speakers. Two of them pointed to the third, saying he is Basarwa, but he and I had no common way of conversing.

Indigenous diversity 

Dorothea had noted that the Basarwa at Khakhea were unable to identify the language they spoke. She suggested this resulted from a life of servitude to their pastoral masters. I, too, could not get an answer to this question. Some said Sesarwa (the language the Basarwa speak), others Boesmantaal (Bushman language).

But it was clear that more than a century after Dorothea’s visit, many people in the Khakhea area identify as Basarwa and a click language is still very much spoken. I mailed University of Botswana linguist Andy Chebanne, a specialist in Khoisan languages, after my trip to ask if he knows which language is spoken in the Khakhea area.

“Southern !Xoon,” he responded. “Sometimes speakers are confused and say it is #Hoan, but it is !Xoon.”

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There are no real firm numbers for how many speakers there are of Khoisan languages in Botswana. In a 2016 paper, Chebanne cites the 2010 census, which found that 96% of the two million population spoke 11 Bantu languages. Khoisan speakers, 3% of the total population, spoke 13 different languages within three language families: Khoe, K’xa and Tuu.

By way of comparison, there are three other language families indigenous to the African continent: Afroasiastic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo. The three Khoisan language families take the overall number to six.

Chebanne writes in another paper of the diversity – and fragility – of these ancient languages still spoken in Botswana: “Most of these communities are small and therefore prone to undergoing language shift, dearth and even death. It is therefore vitally important that these languages should not be left to die before they have even been documented.”

And lest there be any doubt about the importance of language in cultural identity, Chebanne says it trumps all: “Performances, dances here and singing there will not guarantee language maintenance in Botswana. The use of one’s language is the greatest vehicle to reach one’s soul and for the creation of one’s vision of things in existence.”

Returning to Kacgae

I headed north from Khakhea to join the Trans-Kalahari Corridor, a highway that connects Maputo via Johannesburg to Walvis Bay. I had driven the highway 20 years ago when it was just a few years old. Outside Ghanzi, not far from the Namibian border, we stayed at Thakadu Bush Camp, where proprietor Chris Woolcott arranged a tour with San Bushmen.

We were just out of the camp when they started pulling up roots and breaking off twigs and leaves. Everything seemed to have a use. A white farmer, fluent in the language, translated. The stories, in which people and animals are often deliberately mixed up, were enchanting. They answered lots of questions, including on a possible afterlife (they said there was no such thing).

Undated: Left: An original map drawn by Dorothea Bleek showing the distribution of Bushman languages. Right: The map labelled. (Bleek and Lloyd Collection, University of Cape Town Libraries)

We were told a few times they were not afraid of lions, which were “their dogs”. Their trick was to watch a den with cubs. With ma and pa away hunting, they’d take the cubs out and give them a damn good hiding, ensuring a lifetime of respect when they themselves were old enough to hunt.

But most remarkable of all was that the band had a woman with them who had married into it. She spoke her own click language, not a single word of which was comprehensible to the rest of the group.

On our return we stopped at Lone Tree/Kacgae, where a villager told me of a regular visitor, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) linguist Tony Traill, describing him as “fat like you”, even though I was a Comrades runner then and, to my mind at least, did not have an ounce of fat on me.

Back in Johannesburg I met Traill, who visited Kacgae annually over a 30-year period to learn to speak and write !Xoon, eventually producing an English-!Xoon dictionary.

I was mesmerised by his stories and world-view. The new road, then unfenced, meant that cattle were often run over by giant trucks. One day, he and a group of !Xoon men came across a recent kill and stopped to inspect it. No ownership markings were evident.

Traill confirmed that the San Bushman languages can be so different that neighbours do not understand one word of one another’s language. “Just how different are they? Like English and Latin?” I asked. “Like English and Chinese,” was his response.

One man drew a knife and threw sand on the animal, using this to sharpen the blade. Then, in a single movement, he cut off a haunch and climbed on the back of the vehicle. Traill found himself driving what became the getaway vehicle. They turned off the road, one of the men using a branch to erase their tracks, and then found a grassy knoll. The haunch was placed on the knoll, which was set alight to cook the contraband.

Now, 20 years later, I was on my way back to Lone Tree/Kacgae, this time with Traill’s !Xoon dictionary, one of humanity’s most complex languages, a lonesome copy that I had found in an obscure library at Wits. 

Part two:

Part three:

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