port of harlem magazine
nubia k essentials
The Incredible Quest to Preserve a Dying South African Language
April 21 – May 04, 2022
karina esau

Early Years and Family Life

Katrina Esau was born in 1933 on Farm Klapien in Olifantshoek, Upington, Northern Cape Province. They were a family of eight sisters and three brothers.

Esau’s father was a Motswana and her mother a Khoisan. They were farm workers and all their children were born and brought up on this farm. While they were growing up on the farm, the farmer did not allow them to speak their native language, Nluu. Esau recalls the farmer telling them that their language sounded horrible and ugly and should never be spoken around White children on the farm.

The Nluu language was the only language that Queen Katrina, as she is sometimes called, and her siblings understood and knew. It was their mother tongue. They tried to protest, but the farmer threatened to shoot them if they were caught speaking the language. Many Khoi people stopped speaking their Nluu language; they knew the farmer’s threats were not empty threats.

Esau believes this contributed to the language’s subsequent disappearance. It was already a minority language. But Esau and her siblings always found a way to defy the farmer and continued to speak in their language whenever they could.

Esau’s mother taught her children to speak Afrikaans to prepare them for jobs on the farm when they were old enough to work. All the Khoisan children living on the farm were not allowed to go to school. As children of farm workers, they were expected to work on farms like their parents. Esau never went to school and she started working on Farm Koeipan, the same farm which employed her parents, at age 16.

She was then called Geelmeid her whole childhood and the name stuck and is still used to this day. “Geel” means yellow in Afrikaans and “meid” means maid, Yellowmaid.
Queen Katrina says when she was born she was yellow in colour, as are most Khoisan babies. When the farmer learned what the baby’s name was, he was angry that he she was given a proper name for “proper” children.  He said this to Esau ’s mother as per the recollection of Esau ’s memory when her mother told her this.

“Katrina for what? Don’t you see how yellow this baby is? We’ll call her Geelmeid!” She was then called Geelmeid her whole childhood and the name stuck and is still used to this day. “Geel” means yellow in Afrikaans and “meid” means maid, Yellowmaid.

Growing up Khoisan

Esau says their knowledge of the land, trees, and herbs is what the Khoisan people pride themselves in. They know which plants are deadly and which are edible and healing.

As is the history of the Khoi people, they used creative ways for survival. For example, after a hard day in the veld (field) hunting Springboks, a medium-sized antelope found mainly in southern and southwestern Africa, one of the first things the hunters would do after that hard kill was to take out the Springbok’s stomach and press it hard until water came out. They would drink the water to quench their thirst.

They used the Nha plant, a cabbage like plant, ripped the folded leaves apart to get to the stem of the plant. They would then scratch two stones against each other next to the stem of the Nha plant. The stones’ friction would cause fire and catch the plant, which they would place under firewood or dried grass.

Esau says when they moved out of the farm they walked more than 100 kilometers and could have died of hunger and thirst if they did not have these survival skills and knowledge. It is this cultural knowledge driving her to preserve her language since the culture has been eroded by modern ways of life.

The Khomani San School:
Queen Ouma Katrina Esau’s Legacy

Esau runs a school from her home (a donated corrugated makeshift room) teaching the neighbourhood children her beloved Nluu language. The children’s ages range between 3 and 19. She teaches them songs and Nluu oral literature.

She cannot read nor write, but the language never left her soul, she said. Ouma means grandma in Afrikaans and people often call her Ouma Katrina. Her 31-year-old grand-daughter, Claudia du Plessis, is the only one in her generation who has learned to speak, read,and write the language fluently. Esau's four children cannot speak the language.

du Plessis teaches the children to formally read and write the language while Esau teaches the cultural aspects of the language and ensures it’s preserved orally. The Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) at the University of Cape Town developed a new orthography for Nluu which is now being taught to the learners.

This is what Dr. Sheena Shah, a postdoctoral fellow and director of the Language Project, said to the Daily Maverick, “Based on existing documentation, we worked closely with Ouma Geelmeid to identify the distinctive sounds of this language. The practical orthography or set of conventions for writing a language consists of 112 speech sounds, of which 45 are clicks. Ouma Geelmeid, assisted by her grand-daughter Claudia, are using the alphabet charts and teaching materials developed in the (Centre for African Language Diversity) CALDi project.”

Note: Lorato Trok has been working extensively with the Northern Cape Department of Education and Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, particularly running successful mother tongue story creation workshops. She is the author of several books including Against The Odds: The Story of Rosina Sedibane Modiba.

From Our Archives: Lorato Trok and The Politics and Economics of Language.

More on photo provider: Puku Children's Literature Foundation is a reading promotion and book curation organisation that aims to ensure that all children have access to quality, culturally relevant literature in all South African languages.

Video (Hear the language and the unique clicking sound): My Language, My Heritage by PUKU

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