A few weeks ago I went to the Baxter theatre to see a play someone who reads my blog urged me to go and see called Death of a Colonialist. It’s about a white history teacher in Grahamstown who gets a little obsessed with the Xhosas and the frontier wars and whose teaching methods, as a result, get more and more unconventional until he’s removing his shirt and covering his face and torso with red ochre like the warriors used to do before going into battle and – to the bemusement of his pupils – emulating battle scenes in the classroom. And the play is multilayered and has many themes – white voices and their relevance in the present day, the role power plays in our recordings of ‘history’, the deep love for a country which isn’t, by rights, ours and the emigration of young South Africa people. And it’s a very apt piece of theatre as it addresses so many issues we’re dealing with right now, and I related to many of the demons the protagonist was battling.
As we entered the auditorium this music was playing, Xhosa songs sung by men with deep voices, a magical sound resonant of the earth and the red sand and green fields and rivers and the overarching African sky. It was a sound less like people and more like ancient and forever, and again I started to think of this language issue because – like we saw in the case of Afrikaans and how this new, malleable language was modified and used as a weapon of power and oppression – the words we speak and the way we speak them are what ultimately constructs our reality and defines our world. And what I don’t get is why, in 2014, 20 years of democracy later, my daughter in Grade Four is instructed in Afrikaans three times a week and in isiXhosa, one. And I love that she’s learning Afrikaans, but one isiXhosa lesson a week is just not going to cut it. She’s not going to master this language beyond the sad, inadequate molos and usaphilas I was taught at my apartheid regime school back in the year dot.
And I don’t understand this decision by the Education Department because – if you’re going to call South Africa your home – isn’t that language actually the most important one to know? Because can we ever really attain equality with people when they are consistently having to compromise and speak to us in broken, accented English while ours is all proper and hootah hooh when the least we could do is meet them half way and speak crappy isiXhosa back? Implicit in these interactions we conduct in our mother tongue while the people we’re speaking to have to struggle and use bad grammar are assumptions and something very much like arrogance. And if we were all – and I include myself totally – were that committed to change in this country, to integration, to real egalitarianism, wouldn’t learning Xhosa be the very least we could do?
Because language isn’t just about words – it’s about concepts and ideas and ways of interpreting the world. In many ways it holds the key to who people are inside. Language unlocks belief systems and unveils truths about how reality is perceived. As those of us who speak Afrikaans know, it’s impossible translating this language into English, especially in its orginal Kaaps form. It just won’t bend the right way. While you could spit on Denmark from Sweden, the different way Danish and Swedish have developed tells you a lot about the people you’re dealing with. In Denmark, for example, the fact that there is no word for ‘please’ is an important clue that these folk are direct, no-nonsense types who like to call a spade a spade.
When you speak to a Swede, by contrast, not only will they say please (‘snälla’) and thank you very much (tack så mycket) a lot, their sentences are peppered with the word ‘käns’ (pronounced shence) which means ‘feel’. Being generally more sensitive than their cousins across the ocean, for Swedes feelings are paramount, and you’ll hear a lot of ‘I feel…’ or ‘how did that feel?’ in conversation, whereas in Danish the equivalent word doesn’t exist. In that language, instead of a ‘käns’ there are words for ‘I think’ and words for ‘I believe’ – which tells you they’re less interested in the emotional aspect of things.
And – like most of us lazy, swak white South Africans – I don’t know isiXhosa so I can’t use examples from that language, but by the way many Xhosa people speak English and Afrikaans you can hear there are vast differences and from that infer that a lot is getting lost in translation. And while I love the sound of this language and have a read a little bit about how complex and nuanced it is, and sometimes when I drive I practice the different clicks to myself and think it’s big fun to say, ‘hayi suga wena’ and ‘jonga!’, I don’t google Xhosa lessons in Cape Town and go and sign up and learn how to speak it like I should. And I don’t know why I don’t. Laziness and intertia, I suppose. But I think it really would make a difference.
I couldn’t find the exact song on YouTube (it’s called ‘Nontokasi’), but this has a similar sound.