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/Xam folktales

as cautionary rememories

in the face of extinction

H Jonathan Klijn

Harvard ES

Expository Writing E-42A

Dr. Elizabeth Sharp McKetta

May, 2020

Writing a Non-Fiction Book

Harvard ES


Dr. Christina Thompson

August to December, 2020

Like many South Africans, I grew up listening to strange Bushman tales about lions that take on human form and set about seducing freshly initiated young men; or shamans with bloody noses, locked in battle, hurling lightning bolts at each other. But, I was doing what so many had done with the /Xam, their stories, and their rock art. Not really noticing. As time went by, however, I felt compelled to dive back into the arcane but afflicted world of the South African /Xam Bushman and see what else I may have missed. It has proven to be a rewarding—redemptive—undertaking, with the slow burn of the resulting writing process encouraging me to evaluate not just the original texts and data but also much of the rhetoric around /Xam storytelling. The result is The Bushman Susurrus, a look at ancient /Xam folktales, in which the last members of the group confront their impending genocide. But it’s more than that—it’s a cautionary tale with contemporary relevance. Currently, another Bushman language, N|uu, is sliding into extinction. Only four speakers remain—each well over 90 years old.

The Bushman Susurrus is a guide. I aim to take the reader through a step-by-step account of the stories in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection—a personal tour of the archive, if you like. Who narrated what to whom? When was what narrated? What was happening in the Bleek household at the time of narration? What does the story mean to its narrator? What does the story mean to us?

Our journey into /Xam mythology starts with a team of philologists, Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, who recorded extensive /Xam narratives during the late 1800s, extracting linguistic and cultural details from their informants. Bleek, a German linguist, came to Cape Town to marry British Natalian Jemima Lloyd and ended up establishing an unconventional household in Mowbray, a genteel Victorian suburb—a domestic arrangement which included Jemima’s unmarried sister, Lucy, and a small retinue of Bushman house guests.

Several /Xam men, drawn into the colony’s violence, had been displaced from their homes and sentenced to hard labour in Cape Town’s Breakwater Prison. Following a request from Bleek to then-governor Sir Philip Wodehouse, three Bushman narrators, Diä!kwain, A!kúnta, and //Kabbo, were transferred to the Bleek residence between 1870 and 1884. Here they were received, initially as former convicts, factotums, and “native informants” as Bleek referred to them, but over time as teachers, narrators, raconteurs, or—as Lloyd phrased it—“givers of native literature.”

Bleek quickly determined the prisoners to be impervious to any faith conversion or missionary attempts. It dawned on him that their resolve and continued participation were rooted in the knowledge that their culture was facing imminent extinction. The group was soon joined by //Kabbo’s son-in-law, /Han≠kass’o, and Diä!kwain’s sister, /!Kweiten-ta-//ken. Bleek and Lloyd approached the /Xam with sympathetic skill, allowing their humanity to glow through their narration.

The southern African Bushman oral literature is a volume of folktales, responding to the slow creep of identity loss. It reveals preservation instinct through rememory—the dynamic continuation of traumatic memories. Bushman folktales are hermeneutic structures, meaning that they are illuminated through the readers’ interpretation. Put another way, the words don’t merely benefit from participation: they demand it, coming alive when prospected for meaning. The /Xam stories in the Bleek and Lloyd collection not only record all that remains of an extinct language, they also hold the key—a Rosetta Stone as it were—to deciphering messages that were painted and etched on southern African rock surfaces over thousands of years.

The Bushman Susurrus is constructed around transcriptions of /Xam stories, the symbology they contain, and contemporary commentary. It is the story of colonial expansion and separatist growth spurts. They are tales of predatory greed and its jaundiced bedfellow, apathy. The kind belonging to a cognitively dissonant dominant ruling class, plowing on with harum-scarum arrogance. An elite inclined to craven ostentation, preferring defiance over dialogue, persecution over peacekeeping, and jingoism over justice—tried and tested during the genocide of the /Xam.

Bleek and Lloyd’s transcriptions of the /Xam stories were founded on the storytellers’ profound need to be remembered. The native speakers were motivated to assist, tell their stories, and share details of their lives as a means to live on—even if only on the yellowing sheets of meticulously produced notebooks. In the field of ethnography, the genesis of the notated /Xam collection is an exceptional achievement, worthy of accolade and interpretation.

I approach the /Xam output with a sense of wonder, tempered by appropriate atonement. I have the knowledge and experience that comes from growing up in one of the most unequal societies during the distemper that was Apartheid. Having embraced my own degrees of otherness, I have an aversion to acts of antagonism against displays of diversity, and I undertake this project as someone schooled in the push and pull of injustice. Someone inhabiting multiple worlds—with skin in the game.


As a child, dinners chez Klijn were fraught with rants against injustice. Not many outside South Africa realize that the British established concentration camps to house Afrikaner women and children, specifically as part of its “scorched earth” policy during the Anglo Boer war, which raged between 1899 and 1902. The outcome of this, the second attempt by the British to solidify its hold over the region, was bitterness, hatred, dispossession, and a sense of division that would last for decades. As a young girl, my maternal grandmother—from 1680 French Huguenot stock—was incarcerated along with her mother and siblings at the Irene concentration camp outside Pretoria. While in the camp, a stone’s throw from the family farm, my grandmother lost both her mother and infant sister to dysentery. More than a century later, South Africans are starting to appreciate to what extent the social, political, economic, and historical landscape of South Africa was shaped by shared trauma.

The Bushman Susurrus takes stock of the constraints surrounding the recording of ethnographic materials during nineteenth-century southern Africa. And though Bleek and Lloyd were uniquely sympathetic, I’m not blind to their inherited assumptions concerning culture, class, and gender. My purpose is not to blithely comment on the stories of unusual Victorians.

With this work, I explore the intricate—and unequal—power structures that underlay the exchanges of knowledge between Prussian scholar and /Xam hunter; between colonial master and subjugated servant; between the haves and have-nots. I am also motivated to understand what we can learn from these stories that, at times, reflect remarkably contemporary issues. The /Xam tradition deals with familiar themes: otherness, prejudice, forgiveness, tolerance, and sometimes even like KC said, the “do a little dance, make a little love” stuff of life. The things that make us, us.

I believe The Bushman Susurrus to be of value to both armchair historians and casual anthropologists, as well as those who would like to know more about South Africa, and how it got that way. And how some Bushman stories are everyone’s stories.In the best possible way, the /Xam storytelling tradition invites the reader on a collaboration. The storytellers present coded metaphors, opening a provocative portal in the dogfight for human rights, underlining the urgency to establish and formalize a culture of restorative justice. /Xam stories aim for the heart. They hint at our connectedness and consequently inspire us to reflect. At its core, the /Xam storytelling tradition is an origin narrative that frequently erupts as a love story to humanity itself.

In an interview about her book, "Apartheid: Britain’s Bastard Child," Hélène Opperman Lewis remembered how during the heydays of Apartheid, a woman being interviewed on a South African TV newscast remarked: “We Black people are discussing something all the time. I’m tired of it. When are you—the white people—going to discuss anything? When are you going to try to understand why you did, what you did?” Her words have stuck with me.

Over the years, I have often pondered the thing she was commenting on, thinking that she had indeed hit that nail on the head.

This book is me, having that discussion.

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