Katrina Esau is working hard to save the language of her childhood from dying out.
At 84, Ms Esau is one of the last three fluent speakers of N|uu, one of the languages spoken by South Africa’s San community, also known as Bushmen.
N|uu is considered the original language of southern Africa.
With no other fluent speakers in the world apart from this family, the language is recognised by the UN as “critically endangered”.
“When I was a child, I only spoke N|uu and I heard a lot of people speaking the language. Those were good times, we loved our language but that has changed,” says Ms Esau in Upington, a town in the Northern Cape Province.
For centuries, the San roamed this region freely, gathering plants and hunting animals to feed their families.
But today the traditional practices of the San have all but died out and their descendants tell me that language is one of the only things left that connects them to their history.
Inside a small wooden hut, she teaches the 112 sounds including 45 distinct clicks of N|uu with the local children.
“I’m teaching the language because I don’t want it to become extinct when we die,” Ms Esau says.
“I want to pass on as much of it as I can but I am very aware that we don’t have a lot of time.”
Ms Esau has been running the school in her home for about 10 years.
The people in this community, including Ms Esau now mainly speak Afrikaans, which is related to the language spoken by the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 17th Century.
“We would get beaten up by the white man if we were caught speaking our language,” she tells me.
“Because of our history, people today do not want to speak the language any more, there is so much pain around it.
“We abandoned the N|uu language and learned to speak Afrikaans, although we are not white people – that has affected our identity,” she adds.
Ms Esau’s two sisters Hanna Koper and Griet Seekoei – both over 90 – are listening intently as she speaks with bitter fondness of their childhood.
They don’t speak much but nod in agreement as she speaks.
Ouma Geelmeid, as she is affectionately known, says she is hoping to remove the shame around speaking N|uu today.
During lessons, with a stick in her hand, Ms Esau points out the N|uu names for body parts on the white board as the students read in chorus.
Like many other African languages, this language had been passed down orally over generations – but this is now threatening its survival.
Until recent years there was no record of it as a written language.
Ms Esau worked with linguists, Professors Sheena Shah from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London and Matthias Brezinger of the Centre for African Language Diversity in Cape Town to create a N|uu alphabet and basic rules of grammar for teaching purposes.
“From the work we did with Ouma Geelmeid’s community, we learned that these communities view language as an important marker of their identity.” says Ms Shah.
Experts say personal identity is becoming increasingly important in a world that is embracing globalisation.
Language is about more than simply an idea to communicate with one another, it is also tied in with culture and a way of life for a community, the experts tell me.
“When you look at the African languages, you learn that they help communicate different perspectives on life, relationships, spirituality, the earth, health, humanity,” says Mr Brezinger.
“There is a wealth of knowledge on survival that has been passed down through the years in indigenous communities that the Western world knows very little about and when these languages die, that unique knowledge is also lost,” he continues.
Back in the classroom, there are about 20 children, most of them under 10 years old and a few teenagers.
Mary-Ann Prins, 16, is Ms Esau’s best student and hopes to one day teach this class.
“I love learning this language. It makes me feel like I belong, like I am connected to my great-grandparents. I’m told that they used to speak it and today I can be a part of that too,” she says with a broad smile.
No place to belong
N|uu is not the only language at risk of disappearing in South Africa.
Three hours away, in the town of Springbok, Nama speakers have been lobbying the government to have their language made an official language.
Despite being historically widely spoken in South Africa, Nama is not recognised as one of the country’s 11 official languages.
“It’s very sad that our children cannot speak Nama. It breaks my heart that our children will never be able to communicate with their elders in their own language,” says Maria Damara, 95, one of the only Nama speakers here.
“What future will they have, what will happen to our culture?”
South Africa’s top six mother-tongue languages:
- Zulu: 22.7%, Xhosa: 16%, Afrikaans: 13.5%, English: 9.6%, Setswana: 8%, Sesotho: 7.6%
- South Africa has 11 official languages altogether
- English is the most commonly spoken language used officially and in business
Source: SA.info/Census 2011
Why SA students want to be taught in English
Community leader Wiela Beker, 56, agrees:
“If you don’t have language, you don’t have nothing. I’m talking in English to you now but I am not English. I want to speak Nama because that’s what and who I am.
“Unless we do something about it, our culture is going to die. We are fighting for our culture when we fight for our language,” he says.
But without a shift in language policy and government intervention, this community say they are worried that it won’t be long until their language finds itself in the same boat as N|uu – on the verge of extinction.
And so for these communities the fight is for a shared identity, a sense of belonging – and therefore a legacy for future generations.
Read more from Pumza on African cultures:
‘I would prefer to die than see my traditions die out’
Has voodoo been misjudged?