“Anger and desperation inspire me to help be one of the few voices for our Khoe issues because we are seldom, if ever, spoken about” – a Q&A with Denver Breda, Khoe language and cultural activist
Via Nal’ibali: Column 23, Term 3
By Carla Lever
As a language and cultural activist, what issues do you feel most passionately about in South Africa today?
I’m most passionate about ending the Kakapasa or denial that pervades the South African consciousness, about the people who were found here in the 1600s.
You have campaigned for Khoekhoegowab to be taught in South African schools. Why do you think this is an important move?
It’s important to remind people that this land was not empty, that it indeed had many people who spoke the oldest languages and cultures that sadly were forced to adopt other names, create and speak other languages. Most of all, to show that we are still here and that the country as a whole has a responsibility to restore what was so violently taken.
Language is identity, it roots you, instils in you a set of values. This has but all been lost, especially with Coloured people who are often majority Khoe people. Language loss is actually found among First Nation communities all over the world, yet in South Africa it’s not researched enough.
Every language has its own ‘flavour’ or beauty. What are some of your favourite sayings or expressions in Khoekhoegowab?
Some of my favourite words are ‘Kawakawas’ which in Khoekhoe means restoration, ‘Kakapusa’ which means to forget, ‘Munanai’ (which is what I called my company), means to imagine. Some of my favourite sayings are ‘Ada Hoatsama gon’ which means ‘together we move’. Also ‘Toa tama !khams ge’ which is ‘the struggle continues’. But also to tell people the original name of Cape town ||Hui !Gaeb which means ‘where the clouds gather’.
How can we make sure that indigenous languages – and the cultures related to them – don’t die out?
By first acknowledging that we indeed all have a responsibility towards South Africa’s First Nations people and to learn at least one of the Khoe languages that remain, such as Khoekhoe. We can also put pressure on government and society to support the cause. People can also become what I call Xambassadors – a combination of the word Xam which means lion in the Khoekhoe language and ambassadors.
You have written short story collections, produced a play, self-published a story inspired by your mother’s journey from Graaff-Reinet to the Cape, and you have a podcast, Draadloos virrie Raadloos. That’s a lot of creative words! What inspires you to be so prolific?
Anger and desperation inspire me to help be one of the few voices for our Khoe issues because we are seldom, if ever, spoken about – not on TV, not in newspapers. We can wait to be written about, or we can write about ourselves and that is what I do.
Why is it important for people to share their stories, whether written or spoken?
I believe as Khoe – as Africans – when our stories die, we die. For me, writing stories has been hugely therapeutic. Writing about the Cape Flats, about my mother who had to leave her home in Graaff-Reinet at the age of 16 to work as a domestic worker, about a very dear trans friend of mine who I have known for almost two decades and who now lives on the street, it has allowed me to cope, to understand, to not be as angry, to look at solutions. I believe as a country our stories of pain, of hope can actually bring us together. The truth is that we are more of a family than we wish to consider.
The idea of mothering is something we have extended to language – mother tongue – and even space – motherland, mother city. Do you think there is a good time and place for all South Africans to reconnect – have a family reunion – with their land and their languages? Is it possible?
There is always a good time to connect. Not a specific time, but anytime. At the bus, at work, at schools, at your place of worship to reconnect first with self, which I believe to be more important than with others and with nature. In a way we have to become mothers to our hearts and our souls which carry so much hurt and pain. Learning one of South Africa’s First Nation languages has certainly helped me to connect with myself, others and South Africa. I’m still learning, but something happens when you either connect – or khoennect – with your ancestors or to the first languages of this land. That is truly the start of the decolonisation process.
How can people who are interested learn more about indigenous languages like Khoekhoegowa?
There are a lot of resources on the internet – YouTube particularly – though not as much as I would like to have available. For those in Cape Town, come to our public talks on 9 September at Open Book Festival and hear what one of SA’s oldest languages sound like.
Nal’ibali’s annual multilingual storytelling competition is running this September or Literacy and Heritage Month. Aimed a reviving a love of storytelling amongst adults and children, and connecting South Africans to their rich and vibrant heritage, the theme of this year’s contest is South African Heroes. Enter by telling the story of your favourite SA icon, your personal hero, or a fictional hero in your language, and you could be crowned this year’s Story Bosso! To find out more about Nal’ibali and Story Bosso, visit www.nalibali.org, www.nalibli.mobi, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.