In a country filled with determined, brave and tough people, few come close to Ouma Katrina Esau, the very last fluent speaker of N|uu, South Africa’s very last San language.
Interestingly, the provincial motto of the Northern Cape – Sa ǁa ǃaĩsi 'uĩsi, meaning “We go to a better life” – is in N|uu.
Ouma Katrina (87), who lives in Upington, is the only remaining fluent speaker of N|uu, following the passing of her elder sisters Hanna Koper and Griet Seekoei earlier this year. N|uu is the sole survivor of the Tuu cluster of San languages spoken in what is now South Africa.
While her sisters also spoke N|uu, they were not actively involved in efforts to save it. Ouma Katrina, supported by her granddaughter Claudia du Plessis, has fought an often lonely, decades-long struggle to save her ancient language and promote its uptake by young people.
Ouma Katrina was awarded the National Order of the Baobab in Silver in 2014 for her efforts, and she is the recipient of several more honours; her community also named her queen of the Western Nǁnǂe tribe in 2015. But awards won’t save her beloved N|uu, and many promises over the years by the government and the private sector to support her in more tangible ways have not materialised.
This has led to her language school, ǂAqe ǁX’oqe – meaning “Gaze at the Stars” – languishing in recent years for lack of funding, frustrating her desire to teach N|uu to children.
This month, Heritage Month in South Africa has the theme “Celebrating South Africa’s living human treasures” – and with it, the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture has published a Living Human Treasures series of books on South Africans who have made significant contributions to arts and culture.
“In celebrating living human treasures, we celebrate the bearers of our indigenous knowledge,” said Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa as he announced the book series, which profiles world-famous Ndebele artist Dr Esther Mahlangu, Xhosa indigenous music preservationist Madosini Latozi Mpahleni and Ouma Katrina. These three books join a fourth, published in 2019, about celebrated Limpopo sculptor Noria Mabasa.
The national government sees national days, and Heritage Month in particular, as “an ideal platform for telling the richness of the South African story … and ensuring that those whose existence was rendered invisible and absent throughout the many years of colonialism and apartheid also become part of the meta-narrative”, the minister continued.
Ouma Katrina was born in 1933, at a time when the centuries-long suppression of her people and their heritage was accelerating.
Two years previously, the San had lost their connection to the land with the proclamation of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and their forced removal. By the time she was a teenager, in 1948, the advent of formal apartheid would institutionalise racism. And the San languages, including N|uu, were derided as “ugly” and forbidden – leading people of San heritage to also begin rejecting them, in favour of Afrikaans.
In fact, N|uu was declared extinct in 1973, only to be rediscovered in the late 1990s when a radio appeal turned up dozens of elderly speakers. But they have all since died, with the exception of Ouma Katrina.
It was only when academics began showing renewed interest in the San languages – and it was suggested to her that she teach her language and culture to others – that Ouma Katrina established her school at her home. A lack of support has meant the school is currently not operational, but Ouma Katrina remains steadfast in her mission.
“The aim of the school is that we want to hear the language. We also want to see it in books. We want to keep it visible. We’re doing this because it’s a matter of the heart for us,” she says in the book about her.
- The Living Human Treasures book series is to be distributed to public libraries