Written in the Sand South African San Institute
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UNESCO'S Division for Cultural Policies in the
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CRAM Projects


When the land claim started, community leader, Dawid Kruiper, asked SASI to help him locate people who spoke their ancestral language. Dawid, like others in his community, speaks Khoekhoegowab and Afrikaans. According to the literature, the language spoken in this area would have been ‡Khomani. In February 1997, Petrus Vaalbooi identified his mother Elsie as a speaker of the ‘bushman language’. Elsie Vaalbooi was tested by world specialist Professor Anthony Traill. Using audio material from 1936 Traill demonstrated that Mrs Vaalbooi was a fluent speaker of the ‡Khomani language. Over the following years, community activists, supported by SASI, located over 25 fluent and partial speakers of the ancient language.

There were some surprises in this rediscovery. It turned out that the speakers of the language did not call themselves or their language ‡Khomani. This name had come from another language group. They called their language N|u or N|uki. Their language and civilisation spread over a much larger territory than originally thought. A careful study of the early literature supports the oral history of the elders. The largest San group of this area, speakers of N|u, called themselves: N||n‡e, or ‘Home people’. Their territory spread from southern Namibia to Olifantshoek in the Postmasburg District, some 160 km east of Upington, South Africa.

SASI has worked with linguists Levi Namaseb and Nigel Crawhall to assist the ‡Khomani community in recording, writing down, and teaching the N|u language. A second wave of the project was started in 2002 to assist with Khoekhoegowab literacy in the ‡Khomani community.

Language projects have been guided by San field workers trained in cultural resource management. Magdalena Kassie, daughter of N|u speaker Aenki Kassie has played a major role in promoting the language to San youth, on radio and through courses. Components have included:

  • Developing an alphabet for N|u
  • Teaching N|u to young people in workshops
  • Recording myths and teaching these to young people, including creating plays
  • Talks in local schools by San elders and youth about their language heritage
  • Recording of relevant traditional terminology, e.g. plants, animals, medicine, traditional customs
  • Learning values from the elders and promoting awareness of these

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The ‡Khomani San leadership identified tracker training and bush knowledge as the most important elements of their indigenous knowledge system. Tracking in the bush brings together many different skills, including: spoor identification, animal behaviour analysis, plant identification, medicinal and food knowledge, environmental and conservation knowledge, place names, heritage knowledge, stories and myths.

SASI supports a tracker-training programme run by retired San elder, Karel VetPiet Kleinman. He trains beginner trackers and advanced trackers and trainers.

An Ethnobotanist, Eleanor McGregor, worked with elders and youth to record their botanical knowledge and help sensitise young people to both conservation and management of indigenous knowledge systems.

SASI has worked with Open Channels and Strata360 to put this intangible heritage onto maps to help with the land claim and to educate young San people. Examples of these maps include the history of certain trees in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and a map of place names (see maps).

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When the land claim was started it appeared that there were only about 50 people who still identified as San. Research in the Kalahari rapidly indicated that there were hundreds. The discovery of the N|u speaking elders showed that many San were ‘hidden’ in urban townships and squatter settlements.

The law on land claims requires that a claimant community produce a list of its members and manages this database. SASI started to help create an electronic database and train San people in registration.

The early registration relied on word of mouth spreading from village to village. The ‡Khomani San needed a more systematic way of tracing lost relatives. At a later date, non-San people tried to become registered and for the first time there was need for a mechanism to exclude false claimants.

SASI worked with the San leaders and field workers to develop certain skills, each drawing on the knowledge of the elders:
San field workers were trained in anthropological genealogies
Each major family grouping identified a knowledgeable elder who would review the claimant list and vouch for the authenticity of the claimants they knew personally
Anyone who claimed to be San but could not find an elder to vouch for them has to be interviewed by a San genealogist who then uses that information to double check with elders who may know other parts of the family tree

All of this material is captured on a simple Microsoft Access database.

Genealogies have also been powerful tools in identifying family histories, inter-relationships of families and clans, systems of naming, and locating speakers of the almost extinct language.

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With the support of Open Channels and the British funding agency, Comic Relief, San field-workers, youth and leaders are receiving training in computer technology.

Management of cultural resources requires capturing important information that would otherwise die out with the elders, and being able to use this information in training, materials and exhibitions.

Information Technology has focussed on several themes:
Creating a database for the community membership list;
Recording myths and interviews with elders and youth;
Storing images and sound, creating an archive for CRAM;
Producing educational materials for the community.

New ventures including helping San youth to set up their own websites and work with related technologies such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Internet based marketing, and databases.

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‡Khomani Sîsen means ‘the ‡Khomani are working’. It is the name given to the craft co-operative that has been set up in the Kalahari Desert. The project is independent but receives some technical and organisational support from SASI. San elders and young people produce traditional and innovative crafts for sale to the tourist market. The production and sale of handwork is an important example of how old cultural knowledge is recycled to create new types of livelihoods.

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