Ouma Katrina with granddaughter Claudia Snyman.
24 May 2021 was a momentous day at Dawid Kruper Local Municipality in Upington, Northern Cape. The National Library of South Africa and its partners launched the first ever book written in the endangered N/uu language.
South Africa’s history has created language inequalities that resulted in indigenous languages becoming almost invisible. The N/uu language is one of the unique languages among the Khoi and San people of Southern Africa. The language faces inevitable extinction, with perhaps only one remaining speaker, Katrina Esau, affectionately known as Ouma (grandmother in the Afrikaans language) Katrina.
At the peak of colonialism, during the sixteenth century, Africans were characterised as a people without writing but on a chilly Monday morning on 24 May, Ouma Katrina, aged 90, demystified that myth at the launch of her children’s book “Tortoise and Ostrich” written in the N/uu language. Further, African literature is deeply rooted in oral tradition but Ouma Katrina achieved what was seemingly impossible during the dark days of apartheid by authoring a familiar story in the San culture.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o aptly articulated that a “language is a communal memory bank; if we lose our native languages, Africa would lose its social memory and its very own identity”. This sentiment has led the NLSA to partner with, the Northern Cape’s Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, Puku Children’s Foundation, National Heritage Council, New Africa Books and the National Arts Council to publish Ouma Katrina’s book in the N/uu language. The South African government declared 2021 “The year of Arts, Culture and Heritage in the year of Charlotte Maxeke”. The launch of Ouma Katrina’s book is a wonderful celebration of that theme.
South Africa’s Constitution places a special emphasis on the development and promotion of the Khoi and San languages which are no longer being learnt as a mother-tongue by children. The NLSA is one governmental agency working on the promotion of indigenous languages. The objective of these efforts is to ensure that all languages are recognised and remain viable.
The NLSA’s Executive Director: Ms Nokuthula Musa expressed that language is a weapon that transcends generations and contributes towards community livelihood and development. It is known that the elders utilised indigenous games, dances, storytelling, songs, proverbs and so forth to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next. “All these are still effective tools of indigenous African ways of knowing”, Ms Musa informed the audience. Further, Ms Musa said that we are therefore privileged to have the Ouma Katrina’s wealth of wisdom to sustain and disseminate knowledge through the N/uu language.
The NLSA is committed to supporting literature that re-examines and restores the role of indigenous languages in our communities towards sustainable development.
Tortoise and Ostrich by Ouma Katrina.
Executive Direcor Nokuthula Musa with Ouma Katrina