Queen Katrina
Lorato Trok together with members of the Khomani San School team
The Incredible Quest to Preserve a Dying Language in the Northern Cape

Saide’s African Storybook South African Country Co-ordinator, Lorato Trok has been working extensively with the Northern Cape Department of Education and Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, particularly running successful mother tongue story creation workshops. Through these engagements Lorato recently had the privledge of meeting Katrina Esau, Queen of the Khoisan people in Rosedale, a township outside Upington. The 83-year old Ouma Katrina is the driving force behind the quest of preserving her dying language N/uu which is thought to be one of the oldest languages in the world.

Early years and family life
Katrina Esau was born in 1933 on Farm Klapien in Olifantshoek, Northern Cape. They were a family of eight sisters andthree brothers. Katrina’s father was a Motswana and her mother a Khoisan. They were farm workers and all their children were born and brought up on this farm. Katrina’s parents spoke multiple languages, including Setswana and Afrikaans. While they were growing up on the farm, the farmer did not allow them to speak their native language, N/uu. Queen Katrina recalls the farmer telling them that their language sounded horrible and ugly and should never be spoken around white children on the farm. The N/uu language was the only language that Katrina and her siblings understood and knew. It was their mother tongue. The farmer threatened to shoot them if they were caught speaking the language. Many Khoi people were scared of the farmer as they knew he meant every word with his threats. They stopped speaking their N/uu language. Queen Katrina believes this contributed to the language’s disappearance. She and her siblings always found a way to defy the farmer and continued to speak in their language whenever they could. Katrina’s mother taught her children to speak Afrikaans to prepare them for jobs on the farm when they were old enough to work. All the Khoisan children living on the farm were not allowed to go to school. As children of farm workers, they were expected to work on farms like their parents. Katrina never went to school and she started working on Farm Koeipan, the same farm which employed her parents, at age 16.

Queen Katrina says when she was born she was yellow in colour, as are most Khoisan babies and children. When the farmer learned what the baby’s name was, he was angry that she was given a proper name for “proper” children.  He said this to Katrina’s mother as per the recollection of Katrina’s memory when her mother told her this, “Katrina for what? Don’t you see how yellow this baby is? We’ll call her Geelmeid!” She was then called Geelmeid her whole childhood and the name stuck and is still used to this day. “Geel” means yellow in Afrikaans.

Her parents left the farm after her father fought with the farmer and moved to Upington. They died in the 1970s and she and her siblings have been living in Upington ever since.

Growing up Khoisan
Queen Katrina says while she was growing up, there were no medical doctors but they grew up eating medicinal plants to survive. They knew which plants were deadly and which were edible and healing. As is the history of the Khoi people, they used creative ways for survival. For example, after a hard day in the veld hunting Springboks, one of the first things the hunters would do after that hard kill was to take out the Springbok’s stomach, press it hard until water came out. They would drink the water to quench their thirst. They used the Nha plant, a cabbage like plant, ripped the folded leaves apart to get to the stem of the plant. They would then scratch two stones against each other next to the stem of the Nha plant. The stones’ friction would cause fire and catch the plant, which they would place under a firewood or dried grass. Katrina says when they moved out of the farm they walked more than 100 kilometers and could have died of hunger and thirst if they did not have this survival skills and knowledge. It is this cultural knowledge driving her to preserve her language since the culture has been eroded by modern ways of life.

The Khomani San School: Queen Katrina’s legacy
Queen Katrina runs a school from her home (a donated corrugated makeshift room) teaching the neighbourhood children her beloved N/uu language. The children’s ages range between 3 and 19. She teaches the children songs and N/uu oral literature. She cannot read or write but the language never left her soul, she said. Her grand-daughter, Claudia du Plessis, is the only one in her generation who has learned to speak, read and write the language fluently.  Queen Katrina’s four children cannot speak the language. Claudia and David van Wyk, a council member for the Royal Khoisan Heritage Council, who also learned the language from Queen Katrina, are teaching the children to formally read and write the language while Katrina teaches the cultural aspects of the language and ensures it’s preserved orally.

The Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) at the University of Cape Town developed a brand new orthography for N/uu which is now being taught to the learners (Daily Maverick: Giving breath to a dying history, Marelise Van der Merwe, 23 January 2015). Dr Sheena Shah, a postdoctoral fellow and director of the Language Project said in the same Daily Maverick article, “Based on existing documentation, we worked closely with Ouma Geelmeid  to identify the distinctive sounds of this language. The practical orthography consists of 112 speech sounds, of which 45 are clicks. Ouma Geelmeid, assisted by her grand-daughter Claudia, are using the alphabet charts and teaching materials developed in the CALDi project.”

The children identify themselves as first language Afrikaans speakers, as are most people in Rosedale. They are taught to read and write the language three times a week by Claudia and David. On other days, Ouma Katrina teaches them songs and tell stories about the Khoisan people and their culture. The children’s written work gets marked and corrected by Claudia and David. The school was gutted by fire some years back and they unfortunately lost all the charts developed by the CALDi project and other donations. It has been three years and her request for the renovation of her school as well as financial assistance to purchase teaching aids and materials from the local municipality and other government departments have not been successful.

In 2014 Queen Katrina received the Order of the Baobab in Silver for her excellent contribution in the preservation of a language that is facing a threat of extinction. She was congratulated for her determination in making the project successful and inspiring young generations to learn.