The sun sets on the horizon, tickling the sea before an apricot spread in the sky. The boats undulate with the waves, rocking in the harbour, and Hanna watches the colourful uncertainty in the stillness of the dawdling approach of dusk. It might be her last sunset.
She is ninety five years old. Nowadays, almost every sunset for her passes with an implied, muttering goodbye. Her ancestral Bushmen were known to throw pebbles and softly pray to appease the spirits when passing the graves of their ancestors, asking for good luck. Yet, not many of them lived past sixty, no matter how much they muttered or how many pebbles they threw. She walks quietly among them.
I’ve come to Cape Town to hear and write Hanna’s story. She is graceful enough in these minute moments of fame that I think she might not really understand her own importance. Gaunt and slow, she moves at her granddaughter’s side and fires off short bursts of idle talk. What do I really write about, I think to myself.
Hanna lives in a small cinder block house, in Cape Town’s largest township – a remnant of an Apartheid system of housing based on racial segregation. That area was for the blacks. Life in the townships was hard. The land reserved for the housing of workers travelling daily to the city was always too small for their great numbers and its soil too poor to farm. It was designed to keep the population in poverty, entirely dependent on the city economy run by whites next-door. Alas, this isn’t a story of South African townships. Or one of the cruel history of Apartheid. I’m here to talk about Hanna.
I was told, in turn, that, expectedly, she rarely had more than hand-me-downs on her body and pap in her belly. She grew up in poverty. She had no formal education or career. She worked as a maid for just two white families all her life. Before the family would send their children to school, a maid usually served as a nanny too, staying uninterruptedly attached to the white family’s home for months. Maids were often paid to replace the white mothers and thus could not afford being good mothers themselves, at least not to their biological children. Such was just the mere reality of trying to provide material well-being for their offspring. Consequently, Hanna’s daughter was never really fond of Hanna the Mother. She had great respect for Hanna, as one does for their elders, but any love or even endearment was saved for the later generations. That is why Hanna’s granddaughter, Josie, is the one with us today, walking along her grandmother’s side and looking quietly at me. I keep staring at Hanna though. I wonder what I’ll end up telling about her in the end. Or what I’ll end up telling at all. She looks ahead as she paces innocently forward, worried for the dinner and the taxi fare home, with inherited destitution and natural frugality. Money would not change her much; as much as poverty does not define her.
She has a secret treasure with her anyhow, one that is enlarged when shared. She, just like her granddaughter, guards something immensely valuable. This was the actual reason I am with her, although now I’ve become unsure. She holds the secrets of a language of the San – the wandering Bushmen of Southern Africa. And for that, if not for her inherent kindness, she has the watchful eyes of many at her side. I sincerely begin to appreciate something else of hers – the unceasing, relentless energy behind her spoken word.
Like all San (some would argue: all Khoisan) she loves telling stories. In fact, all of the San are known as passionate storytellers. Their stories are all that kept their culture and language alive until now. The San are, therefore, a people indebted to story. Almost a century ago, a European anthropologist said, “The Bushman is a good lover and a good hater – very loyal, very revengeful. He remains all his life a child averse to work, fond of play, of painting, singing, dancing, dressing up and acting, above all things fond of hearing and telling stories.” Hanna seems too winded for love or hate, as she slowly blinks at the sun. After all, her years of giving might have caught up with her. She has no one left for revenge and remains loyal only to her stories. Her drowse abruptly ends as her granddaughter mentions an old tale to me, in her native Afrikaans, and she becomes a playful child of ninety five. Josie, the granddaughter, rarely listens to the old San legends, told through spoken word from generation to generation. But this time she opens up to one, out of courtesy to me.
As we walk along the windy Cape Town pier, Hanna thinks of the oldest of the Bushmen tales and crackles an array of clicks and vowels I’ve never heard before. Josie quickly cuts in: “Ouma, asseblief. In Afrikaans.” Hanna then continues to tell me the story of the wind, in Afrikaans. For the Bushmen, the wind used to be a person; an old hunter that turned to feathers and disappeared into the sky, forever flying and scouring for his prey. He has a short temper, says Hanna, as we walk along the wharf. Just then, the gust turns to gale and she laughs loudly as if she’s teasing the Wind himself. It’s not so coincidental for the wind to spontaneously pick up on the South African coast, so I laugh too, safe that the story of the spectral hunter is just that – a story. And then I think not so much about the Wind but about the consonants, vowels, and clicks, that for a short while carried the onsets of this tale. This treasure that Hanna keeps is a rhetorical one. One of Oral talents. Vocal diamonds. A tacit tool for storytelling. I ask what this language is called and Josie tells me: Nǁuu – skilfully detaching her tongue from the roof of her mouth, allowing a mite of air to slide past a distinct “n” and a long “u”. It’s a feat I could never pull off. It has never been codified before. The sounds have no correlating symbols but live in the memories of a few speakers of Nǁuu, Nǁng or Nǁŋǃke, or whatever other name this moribund language might be given. It has no written form but is passed down from generation to generation orally, skilfully delineating the subtle differences in clicks and vowels that are unique to one of the oldest African languages, through no other means but storytelling. I thought just how beautifully fragile this is. An entire language left to rest on a person’s memory. What faith in man the San must have had and power of story. But this long lineage is presented with a great threat. Not all men understood the ways of the San. With the first Bantu migrations, the San were split and pushed away from their ancestral nomad lands. They adapted to the savannah and the Kalahari Desert continuing to forage and tell their stories. With the arrival of the white man, his farm and prospect of work, many of the San, the Khoikhoi and other roaming tribes settled behind fences. They were taught Afrikaans and told not to speak their confusing language, not to mumble and talk. Not to huddle by the fire and gossip; not to make their noise. So for generations, those banished from their land, restricted from crossing the vast expanses of their native land, the San neared the Boer farmer for the scraps they were given asking for them in his language. How unruly history must be. How tragic. Eons of history and legend might disappear forever taking with them the language of the San. It all hinges on Hanna and on story.
I remain unsure of what to write. As Josie and Hanna talk about the evening’s meal, I can think of nothing else save the importance of story; the act of telling one, composing one, its structure and its inherent system, and ultimately the story’s purpose. I am a guest at their home and for both Hanna and young Josie, the meal is their chief concern, while I think of just what to say. Hanna tells me how the Zebra got her stripes; how the baboon lost his power of speech and Cagn revived his son Cogaz. We sit long into the night beside a fire. Many men join us and leave, and we lose ourselves in food and drink and story. I observe Hanna’s burrowed face, her deep wrinkles, as she blinks and nods her weary head. I see her off to sleep but return myself to camp for more. I admire her. Her passion and her story. We sit by the fire, and we see the break of sunrise. She might live forever after all.
There, I’ll write about that.