The heartbeat of Southern African Indigenous peoples
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The heartbeat of Southern African Indigenous peoples

By Shaldon Ferris

As an Indigenous rights radio coordinator for Cultural Survival, an Indigenous peoples’ rights organization, my daily activities include setting up interviews with people from all over the world, with the aim of producing radio content for broadcast all over the world. This provides me with an informal barometer reading on communications in Africa as compared to communications in other parts of the world. Because our work is mainly with Indigenous peoples, it is pertinent to narrow the reading down to the 476.6 million strong, and growing Indigenous people.

My first memory is my own interview with Cultural Survival. It was supposed to be a Skype call on a Tuesday afternoon. I am based in Johannesburg, in Eldorado Park, Soweto, South Africa, and I remember at the time that the underground telephone cables had just been stolen and then replaced, so I was naturally nervous, not certain of the complex web of wires and networks and signal and things would allow me to make the call so that I could make a decent first impression. The time came and I was ready, I had tested Skype with a few friends earlier that morning to make sure that we could hear and see each other, and it seemed fine.

As Murphy’s law would have it, by the time the sun moved a bit further westward, another piece of copper had been stolen somewhere and the internet was down, well partially down. I could take the call, and I could hear only bits of the questions and the folks on the other side could only hear bits of my answers – it was a mess. We tried the telephone and it worked only a little bit better. This went on for probably 30 minutes and eventually we spoke enough to come to a conclusion. Thankfully I got the gig and have been with Cultural Survival for almost four years now.

In South Africa, 26 years after apartheid, infrastructure remains a key issue. It is fuelled by abject poverty and sheer thuggery – cables are stolen every day to be stripped for their copper, which is sold off to scrapyards, which in turn melt it down and sell it off. In the same breath, South Africa is still perceived to be the land of milk and honey from the perspective of the inhabitants of other countries.

In February 2019, I got the chance to go to Botswana to go visit the San Youth Network (SYNET), a grant partner of Cultural Survival’s Keepers of the Earth Fund. I flew from Johannesburg’s state of the art O.R Tambo International Airport to Maun Airport, which is based in a small town in the north-east of Botswana. As soon as I got in the rented Toyota Etios, the first thing I did was to switch the radio on to get a feel of the mood of the country. For a while, there was the familiar sound of commercial radio, complete with throwback hip hop to current pop tracks. As I got closer to my destination in D’Kar, where the San Peoples resided, the signal gradually faded into nothingness and no other stations picked up.

I met with the folks from the San Youth Network, which consists of a group of Indigenous youth from Botswana, who are hell bent on righting the wrongs, turning the tragedies of their people into triumph. In Ghantzi village, they conduct their work in a small office. They have applied for funding from Cultural Survival to re-establish the link between the ancient and the present. The ways of their forefathers were to be taught to the youth.

For this exercise they had gathered a large number of interested youth, probably 50 or more, and for a weekend they were encouraged to remember the ways of the Ncao Khwe, or red people, the Naro speaking people of Botswana. The main challenge faced by this community, as is the case with many other Indigenous folks, is the threat of their language going silent. Language encompasses centuries of place-based Indigenous knowledge and dictates how Indigenous communities see and relate to the natural world. Once a language goes silent, we lose a part of our human heritage.

Preserving cultural heritage

Right next to the office of the San Youth Network, is the office of a Naro language preservation project, also spearheaded by a young lady from the San Youth Network. Some projects by the project include a children’s book that is available in both Naro and English, in an effort to make the ancient language relevant today. We also passed by the Naro Museum which houses objects and artefacts of the people. It is efforts like these that try hard to maintain the languages, communication systems and cultural ways of a People.

I was hosted by Job Morris, fluent in Naro, who is the co-chair of SYNET. I met with Xukuri Xukuri too, the other co-chair. We stopped in front of a preschool and I was introduced to 5-year olds who are fluent in Naro, and I was very proud to see that the youth are speaking the language. Xukuri and Job Morris taught me to say goodbye in Naro, which I most ashamedly cannot remember, but in any case, they bid me farewell, and I was on my way.

My next stop was another 700km away, to another country all together, Namibia. My mission this time was to meet with folks from the Babwata Khwe Peoples, in what was previously called the Caprivi Strip. Potholes aplenty ensured that I kept the speed to a bare minimum, peaking probably at 60km per hour.

I kept the scanner of the car radio on to see what I can pick up all the time, on the long straight road northward to Namibia. I drove with the sound of static coming through the speakers for most of the way. Luckily, I grabbed a flash drive before I left home, and the only company I had was an old radio show I had copied onto it from Eldos FM, in Johannesburg – it looped and looped until I was sure I knew all the words the presenter and guest were uttering, as well as the words to the songs in between the discussion. In front of me was an ambulance travelling at the same speed as I was, a guide to avoid the potholes. I would change the source to the radio from time to time, only to be greeted with more static.

Overnight, I stayed at a small town close to the border, and it had satellite TV with some TV channels from Botswana as well as some from South Africa. I left the familiar voices of the South African Broadcasting Corporation on in the background, and faded away into car-lag induced unconsciousness.

The next day I was up early, and crossed the border, into Namibia. The first thing I saw was a malaria prevention billboard, and I remembered to take my pills, and sprayed myself from head to toe, in the daylight, as per my wife’s instruction. As fate would have it, the last bit of Indigenous communication I received before boarding the plane in Johannesburg was a message from her in Afrikaans, the language taught to her Griqua ancestors by the colonists which read “Moenie ‘n aap wees nie, vat jou pille” – loosely translated “Don’t be an idiot, take your pills”.

The longest dirt road ever followed soon after. The road signs on the dirt road seemed to emphasize that there were elephants on the gravel or in the bush somewhere. Kilometres and kilometres of bush. Mama elephant, papa elephant and two baby elephants is what the picture seemed to say. The bumps on the road were not too friendly on the 3-cylinder entry level Toyota, but the combination of the two kept me awake. Well most of the time. For a brief second I faded out into daydream land, and lo and behold probably 100m in front of me, two mammas, three papas and many elephant babies just stormed out and crossed the road from one end of the bush to the other.

Had I been there seconds earlier that would have been it for the Toyota, and all its cylinders, and who knows what else. I felt my left leg jitter, but I got out and eventually pulled myself together. Not long after that, I met with glorious colonial tarred roads. For a minute there I almost thanked the Germans, but quickly remembered Hendrick Witbooi. His revolt against all things evil earned him a place on some of the Namibian banknotes in my pocket.

The tarred road too, seemed endless. It was another 300km or so until I got to Omega1.Now just hearing the name of the town, you might think about the military, and you would be right. Omega1 and Chetto are the names given to the villages by the South African defence force in the 70s and 80s when there was war with SWAPO, the South West African Peoples Organisation, a liberation movement who fought against apartheid rule.

The army barracks are where the San people are located today – the place that they now call home. Tienie Arbenie and Sonner Geria also wrote to Cultural Survival, requesting assistance to set up a radio station that will broadcast in their languages of !Xun and Khwedam. I had come to spend some time with them to understand their needs, and the visions of their community.

There, I also met with two San grandmothers, who are both over 100 years old. Tienie does not understand them too well, because their dialect of Khwedam is pure, so pure that it is distinctly different. They spoke about the old days, and Tienie attempted to translate. Behind us or close to us all the time, were young kids, puppy dog eyes turned all the way up, trying to separate me from Hendrick Witbooi, which they manged to do at the end of the visit.

Tienie and I drove a further 50 km to where Sonner lives. Sonner explained that the internet signal strength in both villages is minimal. Their wish is to have a radio station that will broadcast in Khwedam and !Xun.

Prior to my journey, I had contacted CRAN, the broadcasting authority in Namibia, and learned that a moratorium had been placed on all community radio licenses in Namibia. I was the one who relayed this news to the future potential station manager and program manager. They had no way of finding this out. Chetto and Omega1 are in the remotest parts of what is now called the Zambezi river region.

We communicate in Afrikaans, they speak it, and I speak it. I am of San origin too, though I did not know it, because it was taboo to know about our roots in apartheid South Africa. Our grandparents knew and could speak the ancient languages, but raised us in English and Afrikaans. The closer you were to the Queen’s English, or the president’s Afrikaans, the better your chances for a better life. It was not until I had done the DNA test, that I was sure. But I knew.

The way I connect with Tienie and Sonner from Namibia is the same way I connected Job Morris and Xukuri Xukuri from Botswana. In fact, I met Xukuri at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, two years prior. We smiled when we met.

Communication with Indigenous Peoples runs much deeper than copper cables, cell phone masts, radio transmitters, gravel or tarred roads. It is spiritual, without a doubt. We connect on a level that is higher than us. Sometimes we do not even know how, and maybe we do not need to know – we just feel the connection, and embrace each other on that level, and that will always be enough.

 

Shaldon Ferris (KhoiSan)Indigenous Rights Radio Coordinator, started out in media by producing music videos. His work with Indigenous people started in 2006 after he went on a countrywide journey to document the origins of his family surname “Damakwa” which is a Khoi tribe of South Africa. On his paternal side, Shaldon’s San heritage can be traced to the Northern Cape, South Africa. His first film “Eldorado” premiered at the Durban International Film Festival and won an award in 2011. Shaldon became involved in radio when he started volunteering at his local community radio station, Eldos FM, eleven years ago in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg. Since then, his live show, “Cleaning Up The House,” which airs weekly on Saturday mornings, has won numerous awards, and is the longest running weekly show on Eldos FM. The show is built on interaction from the community based on current issues. Contact Shaldon at shaldon.ferris@cs.org

 

Photo above: Cultural Survival.org website

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