The storyteller’s map of the /Xam Bushmen

The Bitterpits

The Bitterpits is a nondescript place, far from anywhere in one of the most arid parts of South Africa, the Karoo flatlands of the Northern Cape. Some maps name the area Bushmanland and the more immediate surrounds the Kaiingveld.

The Bitterpits is little more than a row of four green plastic water tanks, filled from a wide, deep waterhole by a solar-powered pump. There is also an old round storage dam made of hewn rock and concrete, rendered useless by water so salty it has eaten away the cement.

A storyteller’s map brought me to the Bitterpits. His name was //Kabbo and he lived here over 100 years ago. He spoke /Xam, a Bushman language, and the Bitterpits was where he collected and told his stories.

//Kabbo the /Xam storyteller, who owned the Bitterpits waterhole and whose map shows his places and those where his people lived. Illustration from The Courage of ||Kabbo, UCT Press

//Kabbo owned the water hole at the Bitterpits, as well as others in the area and key features of the landscape, including a koppie and animal engravings on the hard, dark rocks that break its surface.

His map is more a sketch, really. It was drawn in September 1871 in Cape Town by Wilhelm Bleek, a German linguist, from information given to him by //Kabbo.

Bleek arranged for //Kabbo and other Bushman prisoners to be released from Cape Town’s Breakwater Prison and to live on his property in Mowbray.

//Kabbo’s prison number was 4268 and he is recorded as being five feet tall. Bleek described him as having a large swelling on his left shoulder caused by a blow from a knobkerrie and said he was an excellent narrator of old stories and mythologies.

Bleek and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, worked out a system to write /Xam and the pair spent years documenting the stories of the /Xam.

The sketch map was the result of Bleek asking //Kabbo to locate the places he spoke about in his stories and where people, including some of the other prisoners, lived. The map is an intriguing document written in the extinct /Xam language, as well as English and Afrikaans/Dutch.

The map sketched by Wilhelm Bleek in 1871 showing the places //Kabbo spoke of in his stories. Image of //Kabbo and map from pages 194 and 210 of The Courage of //Kabbo: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Publication of Specimens of Bushman Folklore, edited by Janette Deacon and Pippa Skotnes (UCT Press: 2014). Reproduced with permission from UCT Press and the authors.

Key parts of the map are a hard-to-decipher scrawl. Two lines longer than others indicate routes: the one “15 days”, the other “25 [or perhaps 15] days (A sheep path)”.

Map data ©2015 AfriGIS (Pty) Ltd, Google

The only obvious modern place on the map is Kenhardt, a town about an hour’s drive south of Upington. Kenhardt is at the top edge of the map, just left of the centre, above a red dot. Today the area shown on the map is a triangle with Kenhardt at the apex and Vanwyksvlei and Brandvlei making the other two points, about 140 km apart.

Most of the sketch is in black ink, although blue circles indicate water holes with red text showing the locations of the different /Xam Bushmen groups who spoke differing dialects, including Grass and Flat Bushmen.

I first come across the map a few years back and was keen to visit the area, to read //Kabbo’s stories where he had told them, and to explore some of the routes by bike, because it would take too long on foot.

Archaeologist Janette Deacon has managed to locate most of the places on //Kabbo’s map. But finding the Bitterpits took a bit of work. Deacon writes in My Heart Stands in the Hill, co-authored with Craig Foster, how she found the Bitterpits:

“More than 100 years later (the map was drawn in 1871), in 1985/6 … I began trying to locate the places mentioned marked on Bleek and //Kabbo’s map. Many are almost the same as they were in the 1870s: Breekkirie, Droehout, De Naauwte, Bloupits, Rietfontein and Olifantsvlei.

“The Bitterpits remained elusive. It is a name used quite often because of the low rainfall and natural salts in the ground tend to make the groundwater salty or ‘bitter’ but it has not been retained as a farm name in this vicinity.

“The map showed it to be located west of the Strontberg (now Strandberg), but none of the farmers I spoke to knew of such a place.”

After making inquiries in Kenhardt Deacon was directed to the local butcher. He knew of a Bitterpits to the east of the Verneukpan and suggested that she inquire at the farm Arbeidsvreugd.

The water tanks and old stone storage dam at the Bitterpits.

Arbeidsvreugd (joy of work), has been owned by the Reichert family since 1948. Present owner Nak Reichert was born on the farm, as was his mother.

Nak and his wife Alma have a cottage at their homestead where, since Deacon, a steady stream of academics have stayed while researching the story of //Kabbo.

In the winter of 2014 my wife Lucille and I travelled to the area in search of the Bitterpits and the other landmarks on //Kabbo’s map.

On the road from Kenhardt to Vanwyksvlei we noticed one of them: Rietfontein, the home of one of //Kabbo’s fellow prisoners, /Kan-/kan-!kuite or Jacob Nijn.

Jacob Nijn, photographed in 1871. From Bushman in a Victorian World. The Remarkable Story of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushman Folklore by Andrew Bank (Double Storey: 2006)

//Kabbo told Bleek the following story about Nijn:

“A man (Jacob Nijn) hunted a leopard. He goes to shoot the leopard with his arrows. The leopard springs upon his head. The leopard bites it with the leopard’s teeth … His head’s skin is torn off because the leopard biting tears it out.

“He grasps it for his head is bone (skull). He grasps his head’s skin while it (the scalp) hanging stands. He (the man) grasps (covers) his head bones. He binds his head with his thread (springbok sinews).”

In a portrait photograph of Jacob Nijn arranged by Bleek we see a thick scar runs from his one ear to near his eye and then across his forehead.

Arbeidsvreugd.

At Arbeidsvreugd we were warmly greeted by Nak and Alma Reichert, who run the 6 000-hectare farm without the help of labourers.

Without too many formalities, we asked to see the Bitterpits, which is about five kilometres from the farmhouse.

Deacon’s 1986 publication, My Place is the Bitterpits, identifies what is shown on the sketch map as //Gubbo, marked with a small blue dot, south-east of Kenhardt:

“//Gubbo, (Jantje) (Bitterputs) (a few hours) the Bitterputs (also spelled Bitterpits) is //Kabbo’s place”

The Bleek-Lloyd papers also refer to //Xuobbeten, after //Kabbo’s aunt of the same name.

//Kabbo told Bleek that his aunt was killed by a lion near there. His aunt and uncle were married for just four months when a lion entered their hut and attacked the sleeping husband.

“The young wife attacked the lion with a knobkerrie. The animal left the husband, who was much wounded, and turned to the wife, whom he carried off and devoured.”

Nak Reichert, the present owner of Arbeidsvreugd, at “the white rock”, a landmark described by /Han#kass’o, //Kabbo’s son in law, to Lucy Lloyd as “a boulder which is white. It stand on the dry river bed or Lichte.”

Nak Reichert is an outsized man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his farm. He continually points out features of the flora and fauna, including what can and cannot be eaten.

During a stint of national service back in the 1970s he developed tracking skills and used these to discover the living site of the /Xam Bushmen on the farm.

We got into the bucket of bolts that is his old bakkie and rattled over a landscape where rocks appear to have been smashed to smithereens and then again and again so tiny bits of rock wash across the landscape, in places as far as you can see.

After driving for a few kilometres, opening and closing several gates, Nak stopped at a place no different to what we had been driving through for 20 minutes or so. There was nothing to see besides the smithereened rocks. But much closer inspection, with Nak’s guidance, showed ash hearths, bits of ostrich shell, grindstones and circles of rocks to anchor huts. In cases, the small stones used to grind cereals and ant larvae, still sit atop the large base grindstones, exactly where they had been left over 100 years ago.

Janette Deacon excavated the site in the mid-1980s, finding evidence of at least 11 places where huts would have stood and their associated hearths and grindstones.

The mantis and the moon

//Kaggen is a trickster deity who can take many forms. He most often appears as a mantis. But he can also be an eland or a snake. //Kaggen is said to have made the moon from his shoe. Photo: Flickpicpete on Flickr.com under a Creative Commons licence

The Tafelkop, also known as the Brinkkop, a koppie about a kilometre from the Arbeidsvreugd homestead, has many animal engravings – including a mantis.

“Watch out for the moon rising,” said Nak as he bade us goodnight. “It will rise over the koppie.”

We were braaing lamb chops as – sure enough – the bright moon popped up, washing the koppie, its engraved animals and mantis, in its white light. The Mantis and Moon, the first story //Kabbo told Bleek, has since passed into South African folklore and is even the subject of children’s books.

In the morning we went to the Tafelkop, an outcrop of doleritic rocks about 30 metres high, in otherwise largely flat surrounds. The elevation of the koppie is thought to have provided a good lookout spot for hunters. They are said to have made the engravings while waiting for hunting opportunities.

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Video: Many of the rocks on Tafelkop, which the /Xam used to climb to better see the animals on the plains below, have been etched with animal figures.

The engravings included eland, rhino, ostrich, and elephants. It is hard to imagine elephants in this terrain now, but some rocks have been noticeably rubbed. By elephants, reckons Nak.

Nak knows where every engraving is and even the location of a rock which can be played like a gong. Without his guidance it would be near impossible to find this artwork.

Slideshow: //Kabbo owned the koppie and the engravings on its rocks.

The arid landscape seems an unlikely habitat for elephants.

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Video: Beating on gong rock.

His attachment to the farm, which he bought from his parents so that there would be no issues with his siblings over inheritance, borders on the spiritual. He worries deeply about the future of Bitterpits and has nightmares, for instance, of people on motorbikes popping wheelies on the sacred living site.

Arbeidsvreugd seen from the Tafelkop.

A sociable weaver nest on the telephone pole outside the guest cottage.

Many of the researchers who have stayed at Arbeidsvreugd have left copies of their books so the stay comes with an impressive library documenting //Kabbo’s story. Some have made numerous visits. Nak has stories to tell of some of them.

One researcher can spend a whole day on a koppie doing no more than imbibing the atmosphere; another drove from Pretoria just to stand at the living site, immediately getting back in his car and driving home; while yet another did not wash for three weeks, presumably to better acquaint himself with Bushman life.

Historian Andrew Bank in his book Bushmen in a Victorian World, has done yeoman work in providing a chronology and context to the /Xam prisoners and the work of Bleek and Lloyd.

Bank says there is only one story //Kabbo told of growing up as boy, the story dating to when he was 10 or 11:

“I walk out, while the lion is lying down. I pull out the stick, [the] gemsbok’s horn stick. I beat his head, while he lies. He springs off the ground. He runs away.

“I scream after the lion. The lion has startled me. My heart is shaking (with terror). He runs away while I stand in his foot’s dust. He goes to lie down, while I stand looking …

“I walk to my house. I go and tell my mother, for my mother waits … [at home] for me. I tell my mother that the lion has startled me. My heart shakes with being startled.”

There were times of plenty, as related in one story told by //Kabbo to Lloyd. He and his son-in-law, /Han#kass’o, made a fire on the Brinkkop as they waited for game.

“We in the dark ascend the Brinkkop. We make a fire, we are two, I and my daughter’s husband. [He] sees springbok coming and the springbok are many. We creep up to the springbok as they walk long.

“I again get a male springbok. [He] also gets another springbok. We both get springboks while the sun is warm. We carry the springbok home. We go and cut the springbok up with our knives. We hang up the springbok meat. We cook the springbok meat. We eat it, while the sun is warm.

“We again go hunting. We again climb to the top of the mountain. We again light a fire.”

There were also times of hunger, of prolonged drought. Bank recounts the visit of a traveller George Thompson who in 1824 came as far north as Kenhardt, but about 200km to the west. Farmers closer to the Cape had warned that the rivers had been dry for five years, but Thompson and his Khoikhoi guides pressed on. One advised him to tighten his belt to starve off hunger pains. They came across a group of Grass Bushmen. Thompson wrote:

“These poor creatures at this time subsisting almost exclusively on the larvae of ants, which they dig from the ground with a pointed stick.”

Bank notes that at about this time //Kabbo’s father died of a sore throat. Two of his elder brothers and an aunt died from starvation. She died at Jagddrift or !xwanna which was “rather near //Kabbo’s place”, //Kabbo recalled.

Kevin Davie about to ride across the Verneukpan, a place where land speed records have been set.

Haasfontein

I asked Nak to work out a likely route from Arbeidsvreugd to Haasfontein, the eastern arm of the triangle on //Kabbo’s map. The sketch map shows Haarfontein – in the bottom left corner with a blue dot – but Deacon confirmed to me in a phone call that Haasfontein is the modern equivalent.

Nak’s route took me over the Verneukpan, where world land speed records over 5km and 8km of 347km/hour and 337km/hour were set by Malcolm Campbell in his car Bluebird in 1929.

Captain Malcolm Campbell and Bluebird, the car in which he broke the land speed record, arriving in Cape Town. Photographs from Historical Media.

An advertisement for motor oil lauding the achievement of Campbell on Verneukpan.

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Video: Riding across Verneukpan.

Some of the route traversed farms and a few of the gates were locked. I had to heave my bike over the gate; this route would not be possible in a car.

Haasfontein is about 160km from the Bitterpits. Along the way I came across the hamlet of Swartkop, shown on the sketch map as Zwartkop. I came to realise later – from a further reading of Bank’s book – that Zwartkop was also one of //Kabbo’s places.

Many of the locations on //Kabbo’s map are more or less correctly placed in relation to one another, but some are not even close to their actual location. Swartkop, which is more or less due south of the Bitterpits, floats off to the west on the sketch map – it’s almost directly above Haasfontein with a red dot encircled by blue. Haasfontein is situated more or less correctly in relation to the Bitterpits, although is a little too far west.

Modern day map of the area covered by //Kabbo’s map. Source: Google maps

/Han#kass’o, //Kabbo’s son-in-law, told Lloyd that it was at Haarfontein that //Kabbo’s son, Smoke’s Man “saw the wind”. He was in the employ of a white farmer, watching sheep, when he threw a stone at a bird, presumably hunting it. In /Xam mythology the elements were able to take different forms. The bird was the wind, the stone-throwing provoked a violent storm that terrified Smoke’s Man, until it disappeared into a hole in the mountain.

The main feature of Haasfontein today is its abundance of water. The farm had its own lake-sized dam with more water than I have seen anywhere in this area.

The farmer was away. I tried striking up a conversation with some farm labourers, but they were more intent on cleaning tons of chicken faeces from a shed than exchanging pleasantries with a cyclist.

The real drama of the day, though, was that Lucille had a puncture on the way to pick me up. Near Swartkop, she arranged with a farmer, Giel Lubbe, to pick me up. Our city slicker off-roader it turned out, comes with one of those biscuit spare tyres which is pretty much useless, especially on dirt roads. There was also no new tyre which met our specifications for at least a 1 000km radius. We would be cutting our visit short, even though overnight Giel did manage a temporary repair. We limped back to Nak’s.

Klein Lemoenkop

I was keen to ride the other long route shown on //Kabbo’s map. This is to Klein Mummenkop, identified by Deacon as Klein Lemoenkop now. //Kabbo’s map places Dia!kwain, a Grass Bushman who was also a mine of stories for Bleek and Lloyd, at Mummenkop.

Nak drew me a map. These parts are so remote that soon you get into areas that the farmers visit no more than a couple of times a month or so.

But, after being in the area for just a few days, and on Nak’s advice, I could already identify edible plants which would help keep me alive in an emergency.

The second farm from Nak and Alma’s was Jagdrift, possibly the site where //Kabbo’s relatives had died of hunger while he was still a boy. I had expected, based on what Nak told me, that the farm would not be inhabited, but it was. The present owner had been there for eight years. So disconnected are these parts that, although the two farms are only 30km apart, the owner did not know Nak.

The hot, flat landscape means that wind is a feature. Dia!kwain said the /Xam people each own their own wind, that this wind blows when we die, blowing away the spoor we leave while still alive.

That afternoon I felt the wind. I battled it on the way out, but when I turned after a short break at Klein Lemoenkop as the light was already failing, the wind changed and I struggled with it for some of the return distance too. At about 9pm I opened the gate at the Bitterpits. The sheep that hang about it during the day were gone. The solar pump was silent. The place was desolate, soulless.

The ride was about 90km each way. I have no way of explaining how the two routes are given as 26 and 15 days on the sketch map. Adventurer and naturalist extraordinaire William Burchell found Bushmen could move at an impressive speed. He writes in Travels into the Interior of South Africa, 1824:

“The two Bushmen, whom I sent off yesterday at about one o’clock in the afternoon, had made such surprising expedition, that at four o’clock this day, they returned with the two oxen; having travelled on foot a distance of sixty miles within fifteen hours; from which is to be subtracted the time required for their meals and rest.

“After a short rest and some refreshment, they started again, to return home.”

This is 100km in 15 hours or 6.6km/hour. The 15 days shown for the trip to Klein Mummenkop by //Kabbo would have been completed by the men hired by Burchell in just over 11 hours.

We limped out of Arbeidsvreugd the next day, heading for tar roads and a tyre shop that could sell us a replacement. There were places on //Kabbo’s map we still wanted to visit, but they would have to wait until year-end when we returned.

Olivantsvlei

A rock etched with buck near Olifantsvlei.

Our first stop in December was a farm near Olifantsvlei on the map. The farmer, Rina van Wyk, welcomed us and drove us to a koppie which has rocks with some 200 engravings. Rina pointed to one engraving on a low rock which showed two buck drinking at a small lake.

“We only found this one five years ago,” she said. “My father never saw it.”

As simple as it was, it was one of the best engravings I have seen. Rina left us to wonder on the koppie. I made a note to photograph the lake engraving once we had looked at the others, but could not find it again.

Now retired, Rina, perhaps because she does most of the work on the farm, is the picture of health and with a physique several decades younger than her years. A schoolteacher at Kenhardt for most of her life, Rina was born on the farm, but has sold it and was planning within a few months to move to nearby Vanwyksvlei.

The farm is sited on one of the few perennial water sources in the area. Back in the early 1900s, she told us, there was so much water here that at times the water source could resemble a small lake. But those days are long gone.

The etching of buck drinking from a lake in a photograph taken by a researcher, Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper.

We drove to Arbeidsvreugd, passing the turn-offs to several of the farms on the map: De Naute, Droehout and Blouputs.

It was mid-summer and hot. Our beds at Nak’s place had been set on the stoep, the custom here being to sleep outdoors during the summer.

‘The last rain was in April 2014. I don’t know what the sheep are eating. Some of the older females are dying.’

Our previous visit had been in June 2014. “The last rain was in April,” said Nak then. “I don’t know what the sheep are eating. Some of the older females are dying.”

But he also seemed resolved to living without rain, remarking too that each day that passes without rain is one day closer to when the rains come.

In the morning Lucille and I returned to the living site. From a short distance we speculated which was //Kabbo’s hut and decided it would have been the most prominent and central. We chose a rock each as a seat and sat, thinking about times past.

Ruins of the old farmhouse at Hartogskloof. //Kabbo and his family worked on this farm.

Hartogskloof

//Kabbo’s map helps us to make sense of his world. Most of the places he and his fellow interlocutors spoke of are on the map. One which looms large in //Kabbo’s story, but isn’t on the map, is Hartogskloof, a farm about 30km southeast of Swartkop.

//Kabbo told Bleek that he and his family had worked on this farm which belonged to Jacob Kotze, a boer who married a /Xam woman, Silla. Historian Andrew Bank, who has taken a close look at this story, concluded that //Kabbo stayed on the farm even though Kotze had killed //Kabbo’s aunt, her daughter, four of her children and later, her husband.

The mother and four children were shot, while lying down, during a fight. “The bullet [was] represented to have gone through the row of them. The father ran a little way, but was [also] shot down,” according to Bleek’s record of his conversation with //Kabbo.

Bank writes:

“The memory of this trauma was deeply impressed in //Kabbo’s mind. His ‘representation’ through gesture of a single bullet’s path through his niece /Xamme-an and her four children was presumably a means of heightening the sense of family tragedy rather than an accurate description of an event.”

Bank concludes that notwithstanding the trauma of these killings, //Kabbo worked for Kotze at Hartogskloof after this event.

“How, may we ask could //Kabbo bring himself to work for a man who had killed his aunt, her daughter and son-in-law and their four children? Was this the true sign of just how desperate the struggle for survival had become in that period when the Namaqualand magistrate Louis Anthing wrote of the parlous state of the land and of the last 500 or so /Xam survivors that still inhabited it?”

We drove through the Verneukpan to Swartkop, shortly beyond it turning left at a fork, and headed east. Most of the farmhouses were unoccupied. About 20km along the road, at a junction, stood the farmhouse at Hartogskloof, also abandoned. But this farmhouse was of relatively modern design. More interesting, about a kilometre or so back, was what looked like the original farmhouse.

We drove back. There was a small rectangular house with walls made from rock a metre thick and no windows, with just a single door for an entrance. The roof had long since gone. I have seen similar frontier houses drawn by William Burchell. In front of the house was a large circular area defined by upright slabs of slate with the remains of a rock wall behind. This was possibly a kraal for animals. I have seen similar such arrangements in the houses of frontier farmers in the Roggeveld.

A rough circle of rocks, similar to those at the /Xam living site near the Bitterpits, possibly the remains of //Kabbo’s home near the ruins of an old Hartogskloof farmhouse.

This is likely to have been Kotze’s place. We looked around for a possible site where //Kabbo and his kin may have stayed. About 50 metres or so from the farmhouse was a rough circle of rocks not too dissimilar to those we had seen at the living site at Bitterpits. One rock, which could have been used as a base for a grindstone, appeared to have been rubbed. I do not put too much store in this as this is a job for an expert, but we fancied that this may have been where //Kabbo lived while at Hartogskloof.

These were the end of days for //Kabbo. Deacon records in Voices from the Past that the world of the /Xam had been shrinking since the arrival of Khoikhoi herders along the waterways of what we now know as the Orange River 1 000 years before.

Map of Southern Africa showing the Cape Colony in 1878. Sourced from Wikipedia

White settlers – trekboers – had moved to the Zak River and put pressure on the British government to extend the boundary of the Cape Colony to the Orange River. This was done in 1847. By this time //Kabbo and his people had already spent time working for the boers, had Dutch names (//Kabbo was Oud Jantje Toeren) and could speak at least some Dutch/Afrikaans.

Deacon says that the introduction of the hardy merino sheep made farming possible in the previously arid Karoo. The situation was exacerbated by a war between the Khoikhoi and the British with the remaining /Xam being caught in the crossfire.

By this time //Kabbo had become the leader of what a University of the Witwatersrand linguist, the late Tony Traill, described as the notorious Toeren gang, raiding livestock. Some Khoikhoi leaders were arrested and sent to Robben Island. Other /Xam, in indigent condition, were relocated to farms across the Cape Colony to work as labourers.

The Breakwater Prison building, which is now a hotel and the University of Cape Town Business School at the Waterfront. According to Janette Deacon, this is not the same building in which //Kabbo was imprisoned in the 1870s. Only one wing remains of that original, smaller set of single-story buildings. Photo: BKP, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

//Kabbo and some of his people were arrested for stock theft (notably while eating springbok) and were sent to the Breakwater Prison in Cape Town.

After two years in prison and two at the Bleek household, //Kabbo grew increasingly homesick. He left Cape Town in October 1873 to return to the Bitterpits, which he found occupied by “Boers or Basters”.

Research by Deacon showed that his place, the Bitterpits, had been sold in his absence.

“In 1870 (Government Notice No 467. November 22, 1870, Cape of Good Hope Government Gazette), the Government offered for lease a large number of farms from the Orange River to south of Kenhardt and it was part of [magistrate] Jackson’s duty to see that ‘marauding Bushmen’ were no longer a threat.”

Says Deacon:

“Dorothea Bleek [the daughter of Wilhelm Bleek] notes that when a Mr van der Westhuisen bought the farm around the Bitterpits in 1874, there were 42 Bushmen who subsisted there on ants’ eggs, uintjies, tortoises, porcupines and game, chiefly springbok, ostrich and springhare.”

//Kabbo died on January 26 1876 at a little over 70 years of age, at /Ku:xau, the farm of a Mr Devenish, shown on the sketch map about half a day’s journey south from De Naute. This farm is yet to be located in modern times.

Ouma and the lion

Entering Vanvyksvlei.

When Dorothea Bleek visited this area in 1910, she was able to locate relatives of those /Xam people, who had lived in the Bleek household in Mowbray, but they were living in the towns and had already lost contact with the land.

Dorothea tried – unsuccessfully – to find storytellers who knew the stories that had so delighted her father and aunt. She wrote “not one of them knew a single story. The folklore was dead, killed by a life of service to strangers and the breaking up of families.”

Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper, a Spaniard folklorist who has visited Arbeidsvreugd six times, has taken a close look at this claim. Jose’s attachment to the story is shown in this comment he left in Nak and Alma’s visitors’ book in June 2014: “The sadness of the past, the silence of the absent, the joy of the here and now and of being, once again, in Bitterpits.”

De Prada-Samper says in The Courage of //Kabbo, edited by Deacon and Pippa Skotnes, that Dorothea was an inexperienced researcher when she visited and did not try hard enough to find storytellers.

“In 2005, when I first visited the former /Xam territory, I was surprised to see so many people, judging by their physical appearance, were obviously of Khoisan descent,” he says.

Since 2011 De Prada-Samper has been recording local stories. He met two sisters who, as part of a family of karretjie people, had had no schooling but had been educated in the oral tradition of storytelling.

One, Magdalena, related a story about an old woman and a lion. Jose realised she was telling a story //Kabbo and Dia!kwain had told to Bleek and Lloyd over a 100 years earlier.

On a subsequent visit to Swartkop and Vanwyksvlei, Jose interviewed about 30 people. “The information from this field trip confirms that stories (some of them clearly connected with those in the 19th century) and other forms of traditional knowledge are still very much alive in what was the home territory of the informants of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd.

“Although the modern inhabitants of the area and the traditional knowledge of which they are bearers reflect the complex and troubled history that reduced them to their present condition, the fact that they are there makes the notion that the /Xam are an extinct people, highly inaccurate. It is true that their language is dead, but the demise of their language has not meant the obliteration of their culture and identity.”

Lucille and I spent quite a few hours in Vanwyksvlei, trying to get a sense of the place. A painted sign welcomed visitors. There was a main, treed road with a butchery that sold biltong, a bottle store and a couple of other shops. Off the main road was a supermarket which was busy with customers, but had an impossibly slow payment system that required not one, but two people, to register purchases.

There was lots of open, dusty space. A row of windmills, which had lost their propellers, stood forlorn and hopeless.

But what defined the place more than anything else, perhaps, was a set of five or six corrugated iron shacks which stood in an ordered and numbered row. One man, who had a cart but no job, had made a place to make a fire behind a windbreak. A woman sat, drinking a cup of coffee, in her hut which had been strung together with bits of rusted tin at best to provide notional shelter.

The numbered row of rusted shacks, the owners karretjies (carts) outside.

A makeshift home, Vanwyksvlei.

Kukummi

//Kabbo’s spaces today are as raw and exposed as when he left them. They support few people. I am yet to find a farm which is home to more than one generation of a family. When the kids become adults either they or the parents move to town. Each sheep needs 10 hectares and farms typically employ no more than a few workers. Many farmsteads are no more than outposts where the sheep are watered. In areas you can drive for long distances without even seeing any sheep.

But people survived here before windmills and sheep. You see this in the rock art they made. On a farm near Olifantsvlei we marvelled at this art – animals and motifs – and the people who made them. These people, though, are usually obscure to us. Their times and worldview are so different to our own, that they are hard, even impossible, to know. But, thanks to Bleek and Lloyd, this is not the case with //Kabbo.

The difference is kukummi, the /Xam word for stories, news, talk, information, history, myths and folklore.

Famed rock art researcher David Lewis-Williams, one of the first to spend time with the Bleek-Lloyd archive, produced a book, Stories that Float from Afar, the title coming from //Kabbo who told Bleek that kukummi float from afar. “Like the wind, kukummi moved invisibly from place to place.”

He said that a story is like the wind, it comes from a far-off quarter, and we feel it.

Kukummi were central to who he was. //Kabbo contrasted a life of swapping stories back home with that of his daily routine in Mowbray, Cape Town:

“I do here the woman’s work’s house. My fellow men are those who listen to afar-off stories, those which sail along. They listen to other places’ stories. For I am here. I do not hear stories, while I feel that I do not visit, that I might hear stories which sail along …”

I knew some of //Kabbo’s stories before visiting the Bitterpits. Being in the place where he told them made me want to read more. His kukummi are a window into past times markedly different from our own.

Some are short, just a few lines while others are long enough to be books and took weeks or even months to transcribe. Some are of recent vintage and others of the ancient times of the early race, before people were people.

There are kukummi about the deity //kaggen who made both the moon and the eland from his shoe. My favourite is about a man who was promised a dog by his brother, but when he collected it, he had somehow taken possession of a lion cub. Still he assured everyone that the animal was a dog, not a lion. His wife was not impressed. She remonstrated with him for bringing a lion into the household and warned that as it grew older this would end badly.

//Kabbo, I would venture, is the country’s greatest storyteller. He may have some competition from his fellow interlocutors, especially Dia!kwain, who had both a way with words and stories, but there is something in the character of //Kabbo which makes him his own story.

His map allows us to peer into his being; his stories into his soul. The map took me to the Bitterpits. The stories will keep me coming back.

A kokerboom near Olifantsvlei.

More reading

  • Andrew Bank Bushmen in a Victorian World
  • Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd Specimens of Bushman Folklore
  • Janette Deacon and Thomas Dowson Voices from the past
  • Janette Deacon and Craig Foster My heart stands in the hill
  • Janette Deacon and Pippa Skotnes The Courage of //Kabbo
  • David Lewis-Williams Stories that float from afar.
  • Pippa Skotnes Claim to the Country
  • The Digital Bleek and Lloyd Collections

Credits

Kevin Davie is the Mail & Guardian‘s business editor.

Visuals by Kevin and Lucille Davie.

Video editing by Lauren Clifford-Holmes.

Layout and copy editing by Laura Grant.

Thanks to Janette Deacon and Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper for sharing their expertise and insights and to Nak and Alma Reichart for showing us the Bitterpits’s many treasures.

Published by the Mail & Guardian © 2015

 

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