Botswana: Modern-Day Tools for Click Languages


This last in a three-part series takes a look at efforts to produce more dictionaries and other materials in Khoisan languages and provides a glimpse of San life in a small village.

An hour along the Trans-Kalahari Corridor from Kacgae is Ghanzi, a frontier and desert town 300km from Gobabis, the closest Namibian town. Naro is the dominant Khoisan language spoken here. I wondered, over breakfast at the Red Kitchen on a main street, how I could meet a Naro speaker.

The waitress, Caroline Karambuka, 26, said the restaurant was out of coffee and kept me informed as the proprietor went in search of supplies. I asked her which languages she speaks. Naro is one of them. And, not only can she speak Naro, she writes it too. At my request she wrote a selection of words, including her Naro name, Ntcisa.

Forty kilometres up the road at D’Kar is the Kuru Art Project, which sells paintings and lithographs by San artists in a project initiated by the Reformed Church in Botswana, with the help of the Mission of the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. The Naro Language Project, which is busy translating the Bible into Naro, is also based at D’Kar.

Convenor Isaac Saul told me a translation of the New Testament was complete and that they are working on the Old Testament. Saul speaks Naro, G||ana, G|ui and “a bit of SheKgalaghari, Ju’|choansi, Setswana and Kiswahili”. This is an impressive list, but not all out of the ordinary. Most people I met spoke at least three languages; five was not unusual.

I told Saul that I was surprised at how easy it was to meet Khoisan speakers and that I sensed a linguistic vibrancy. He said the Botswana government had until now only allowed the teaching of English and Setswana at schools. But under President Mokgweetsi Masisi, 13 of the country’s 26 languages will be taught, Naro being one of them, from 2022.

This is possible because materials such as the Naro-English dictionary have been in development since the 1990s, the work of Hessel and Coby Visser of the Texas-headquartered Summer Institute of Linguistics. Its mission is to develop languages not yet in written form by producing orthographies and grammars, teaching people to read and write, and translating the Bible into languages not yet in written form. A dictionary is compiled as a first step to producing a Bible.

The Vissers now live just outside Ghanzi. We sat in the garden as frequent flights took off from the adjacent airport, appearing to somewhat unnerve them. The airport is normally inactive; now it was busy, apparently ferrying Covid patients to hospitals in the major centres.

Armed with a rudimentary course in linguistics, Hessel arrived in Ghanzi 30 years ago and met his first Naro speakers. So began the painstaking process of producing a dictionary. The first version took five years. Three further editions have followed. The latest reprint was in 2016.

As tricky as it might be to learn a Khoisan language and implement a system to write it, Hessel said that translating the Bible into Naro was more difficult – there are 18 words for “we” in Naro.

Stories from New Xade

One hundred and ten kilometres from Ghanzi on a bone-jarring road is New Xade, which I had also visited 20 years back. It is like other Kalahari villages, although somewhat drier and harsher. Residents put the number of people living there at between 1 500 and 2 000.

In 1997 and again in 2002, the government controversially relocated G||ana and G|ui speakers from Xade in the nearby vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve to New Xade. I stopped at a store, meeting storekeeper Tikologo Gabelekgolelwe, who previously lived in Xade. Did she ever visit there? “Yes, my parents still live there.”

Coby, who has been active in the Naro language project, gave me the contact details of a member of their church, Cgoa Boitumelo. We walked a few blocks from her house to a modest church, passing a small throng waiting for a monthly allocation of foodstuffs. “Is this only for New Xade people?” I asked. Boitumelo said all indigent people are eligible.

Seated in the church, Boitumelo, in a mauve tracksuit and white sneakers, said she is 35 and Mosarwa. Her father is a Naro speaker and her mother speaks G||ana. She speaks G||ana, Naro, Setswana and English, not counting G|ui, which I was to find she at least understands. Hessel had told me that G||ana and G|ui are relatively similar, like Dutch and Afrikaans.

We chatted about a range of topics: food foraging is part of their everyday way of life while hunting is illegal. Boitumelo owns 40 goats that roam the area. Cultural practices such as initiation rituals are part of the fabric of life in New Xade, one being held by elder women the previous weekend. Only women? Yes, she said, men are not allowed.

I asked Boitumelo about life in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. She related a story told by her grandmother who, with her grandfather, had fallen asleep one night, forgetting to close the door of their hut. A lion entered. The grandfather said to the grandmother: “Something is biting me. It’s a lion.” He told her to take the baby and go outside quickly. She did as instructed.

“My grandfather was left inside with the lion. The lion was still biting him on the leg. He kicked the lion, which let him go, and he ran outside the hut, too, to call for help. The lion meanwhile escaped from the house and ran away.”

“Was your grandfather okay?” I asked. “He was not okay but he survived, with wounds in his leg. He was showing us the wounds.”

I told Boitumelo I was keen to meet a G|ui speaker. She pondered a bit, pulled out her cellphone and called her uncle, Kedago Podi, who lives a few houses away and soon arrived. Podi (which means goat, Boitumelo said) was wearing a two-tone baseball jacket, denim longs, sandals, and, of course, a mask.

And so began an extraordinary conversation, for me, in English-G||ana-G|ui. When hunting was still legal, how long would a hunt last? The answer: up to five or six days. Which animals had he successfully hunted? Podi gave examples of a leopard, giraffe and impala, in cases having to fight off lions “which wanted to take my animal” after he had killed it.

How did he do that? How did he keep the lion away from the dead giraffe? “It was my meat so I was chasing it so I can have my meat.” But surely he was not alone? He had other men with him? “There were two, just two.” But there can be 10 lions? How do you chase them? “It’s simple. We just chased them.”

Straddling the past and the future

Click language speakers in Botswana sometimes hide this fact. Herman Batibo, professor of linguistics at the University of Botswana, said in a blog post: “Often when I ask my students, Who speaks a Khoisan language?, no one raises their hand. Later, students will come to my office to tell me that they do speak a Khoisan language but didn’t want to say so in front of their classmates.” Hessel told me that this was “also very common in school situations”.

But it was not my experience. After introducing myself, I would ask if the person was a Motswana (singular for Batswana). In the Kalahari, the answer was usually Kgalagadi (or Ba-Kgalagadi), with Basarwa (or Mosarwa) being the next most likely answer.

Ketelelo Moapare is a New Xade resident who embraces his San identity. Moapare, an orphan brought up by his grandparents, completed his schooling at Ghanzi before attending college in Gaborone and winning a scholarship to study engineering at Michigan State University in the United States.

He features in a 2016 documentary, A House Without Snakes, with another young man, Kitsiso Gakelekgolelwe, as they ponder village life and their futures. The title comes from the houses, some of which have walls of tree branches rather than brick or mud, meaning snakes can slither through.

Moapare said he sees a lot of hopeless faces in New Xade. “People here are undergoing a lot of change and we are losing our way of life.” We met an elderly woman resident and he asked how she is. “I’m not here,” she replied. “It’s just my shadow.”

Writing in the Kalahari Review in 2016, Moapare tackled a BBC report that he said portrayed “New Xade as disease-ridden and impoverished, with residents struggling to adapt to modern life”. He took exception to a photograph used in the article that depicted San men wearing clothes made from animal skins. “This is another attempt by the BBC to show that the San long for a ‘primitive life’, evoking the fallacy of the ‘noble savage’.”

Rather, he said, “the residents of New Xade, including myself, have embraced modern developments, and have used these opportunities to pursue a better life … the San have moved from relying on hunting and gathering to more modern forms of livelihoods. My own family has fully embraced this, and my grandfather keeps goats, sheep, cattle, and sells them to make money.”

Moapare said that while studying in Gaborone his schoolmates constantly asked him about the San after he told them he was a “Bushman”. Did he know how to hunt and gather, they asked, laughing when he answered no.

“Most residents and village leaders of New Xade recognise the positive gains from the relocation programme,” Moapare wrote. “The San face challenges brought by modern life, but are committed to overcoming them.”

I had been unable to contact Moapare via the internet, but chatting on WhatsApp with Boitemelo, she said she knew him and that he was back in the village. She gave me his phone number and I called him from Johannesburg.

Having completed a four-year economic geography degree and a professional certification in geographic information systems at Michigan State, Moapare is planning to return to the US to complete a masters in urban and environmental planning at a university in Texas, and is in the process of securing scholarship funding.

Which of the Khoisan languages does he speak? “G||ana, G|ui and about 90% or 95% of Naro.”

Away with the sticks

I met perhaps half a dozen people in New Xade. Half of them spoke of a Japanese linguist who visits regularly. Hirosi Nakagawa, who completed his PhD in linguistics in 2007 at the University of the Witwatersrand and was a student of linguist Tony Traill, is now at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. A specialist in G|ui, Nakagawa has, in collaboration with anthropologists Kazuyoshi Sugawara and Jiro Tanaka, a 3 000-word English-G|ui dictionary in progress that he aims to publish this year.

Nakagawa, who told me by email that he speaks G|ui and “passively understands” G||ana, has been working on G|ui for 29 years. “I visited the Xade village, Central Kalahari Game Reserve in August 1992 for my first field work.”

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