And the stars know - the sad story of the San in Bushmen drawings and poetry
Rock art a link with the past
And the stars know, because the stars are maidens
beautiful dead maidens that the rain has fetched
and of them made flowers in the sky
flowers growing in the water
they are the wives of the water
and should be left in peace
- from the poem "Death" by San poet and storyteller Diä!kwain as re-worked by Antjie Krog in her book The Stars say 'tsau' (Kwela Books, 2004)
Many a hot Sunday afternoon my mother, father and I (and my brother when he was home from boarding school) would walk along the bank of the river that ran past Blythswood Mission, round the wide sweep of the river through the grassland to where an aloe-covered krantz, that looked very high to me then, rose up from the bank.
And then a hot scramble up the rocks and around the roots of old thorn trees took us to a cave, little more than a rocky overhang really, on the walls of which someone had painted, in now fading colours, pictures of giraffe and small buck and eland. Along with some spidery human forms, almost like children's drawings.
I was fascinated by the pictures themselves but even more by the thought that these pictures were direct links to people who had lived in this rocky place a very long time ago, as my father explained to me. Though I believe these particular paintings are most likely only about 200 years old, they seemed to me at the time impossibly ancient.
At about the same time (this would have been the early 1950s) I also became aware of the discovery of the amazing art of the Lascaux caves in France and was fascinated by the seeming similarities between the pictures on that rocky overhang at Blythswood and those in France.
The Bleek and Lloyd notebooks
The meanings and purpose of the hundreds of "Bushmen Paintings" found in sites all over Southern Africa is still a matter of debate among historians and archaeologists. The main argument about the paintings is whether they portray the experiences of shamans during trance dances, or aspects of the Bushman mythology. The proponent of the first position is J.D. Lewis-Williams, while the second position was championed by Dr Anne Solomon. Of course, the two positions are not mutually exclusive, as Solomon acknowledged.
Study of the San or Bushmen on a proper academic basis started with the ethnographic studies conducted by Dr Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd in Cape Town in the 1860s and 1870s. They were able to interview over an extended period Bushman convicts being held in the Breakwater Prison in Cape Town. These prisoners had been evicted from their ancestral lands, which had become "white" farm-lands over time and with the expansion of the white settlement of South Africa. When the Bushmen returned to their homes, they were arrested as "trespassers."
Bleek and Lloyd made detailed notes of their interviews with the Bushmen they interviewed, eventually filling more than 12000 pages in 138 notebooks with the Bushmen's drawings and their explanations and stories. These notebooks have become essential sources for our understanding of the Bushmen culture.
The notebooks have also been sources of literature for other writers down the decades. Two writers have been particularly noteworthy, which is not to say that the other writers were not noteworthy, just that I happen to like these two examples of what has come out of the study of Bushman culture by other writers.
- Extermination of the Bushmen
The Bushmen, or San, were forever immortalised in the Jamie Uys movie and it's sequel, the 'God's must be Crazy'. People all over the world fell in love with the little man wearing only a loincloth who...
The oldest people
From then on I have been interested in rock art form all over the world but still maintain my primary interest in the so-called "Bushmen" of South Africa, the artists who created that open-air gallery that so caught my imagination.
At school and later at university I was struck by the fact that the Bushmen,or San as they are also known, have been the targets of what amounts to ethnic cleansing or genocide since the arrival of whites in Southern Africa, and particularly since the settlement at the Cape of the Dutch under Jan van Riebeeck in 1652.
At that time the San or Bushman people roamed freely all over what later became South Africa, living off and in close communion with all the creatures and plants that lived on the land. DNA research has confirmed what the fossil record and the dating of the paintings revealed of these wonderful people, that the San have lived here for up to 100000 years. They are clearly the oldest group of people living today, an indispensable, wonderful living link to our most ancient forebears.
As such, as a venerable group of human beings, they deserve the utmost respect. What they got was a deliberate attempt to annihilate them.
At one time in the late 17th Century the "Boschjesmans", as they were called by the Dutch settlers, were declared "vermin" to be shot at sight. Their numbers were further ravaged by diseases, especially smallpox, brought by the settlers and to which the San had no resistance. Now in the early 21st Century there are fewer than 100000 left in Southern Africa, and these survivors, most living in abject poverty and neglect, are now at risk from a new scourge - HIV/AIDS.
And the attempts to cleanse the countries in which they still manage to eke out an existence continue. The latest country to make the lives of the San miserable is otherwise enlightened Botswana, which has relocated some of the last San people to live in the great Kgalakgadi (Kalahari) Desert to make way possibly for diamond prospecting. The official Government reason for relocating the Bushmen was stated as, among others, that "hunting-gathering had become obsolete to sustain their living conditions."
Eugene N. Marais
The fist writer is Afrikaans poet and author Eugene N. Marais, who wrote the poem "Winternag" (Winter Night) which is usually regarded as the first literary poem in Afrikaans, as well as books such as The Soul of the White Ant and My Friends the Baboons . The first of these was famously plagiarised by Belgian Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck.
O koud is die windjie en skraal,
en blink in die doflig en kaal,
so wyd as die Heer se genade,
lê die velde in sterlig en skade.
En hoog in die rande,
versprei in die brande,
is die grassaad aan roere soos winkende hande.
O treurig die wysie op die ooswind se maat,
Soos die lied van ‘n meisie In haar liefde verlaat.
In elk’ grashalm se vou blink ‘n druppel van dou,
en spoedig verbleek dit tot ryp in die kou!
"Winter's Night" (translation by J. W. Marchant )
O the small wind is frigid and spare
and bright in the dim light and bare
as wide as God's merciful boon
the veld lies in starlight and gloom
and on the high lands
spread through burnt bands
the grass-seed, astir, is like beckoning hands.
O East-wind gives mournful measure to song
Like the lilt of a lovelorn lass who's been wronged
In every grass fold
bright dewdrop takes hold
and promptly pales to frost in the cold!
Marais' Bushmen book was first published in 1927 as Dwaalstories (wandering tales), and then re-published in English in 2007 as The Rain Bull . This is a fascinating collection of stories that Marais claims to have heard from an old Bushman named "Outa Hendrik" who died some years before Marais wrote down his stories, at more than 100 years of age.
In the introduction to The Rain Bull Marais writes of Bleek's studies of Bushmen language:
"The learned German Dr Bleek, who studied the Bushman language and literature in the Cape about fifty years ago - a literature without letters! - and made a large collection of Bushman tales and poems for the Cape Library, tell how his investigation was made difficult by a surprising discovery he made early on. He found that the in the animal stories each animal spoke its own, distinct language!"
He writes further about the Bushmen's "dwaalstories: "Some of the animal songs and poems remained in existence even after the narrators no longer remembered their meaning. In due course they became a mixture of Bushman and Afrikaans, utterly meaningless. Sound was the important thing, meaning a secondary affair."
Marais said that in this the Bushman stories recembled "the earliest European children's songs and poems that have survived through the ages; also mere words and rhymes with a very obscure meaning."
- Nations of South Africa: The San
The SAN people are the oldest inhabitants currently still living in Africa. It appears that they have been around for more that 20000 years. These people are sometimes also known as Bushmen. Although...
Meaning in the stars?
Meaning, though is the central theme of Antjie Krog's book the stars say 'tsau' inspired by the Bleek and Lloyd collection. She writes "one is tempted to imagine that much of the recorded material could be the starting-point for a South African epic poem such as the Greek Odyssey or the ancient English Beowulf ."
This book is a beautiful collection of poems and the Bushmen's own illustrations, all culled from the Bleek and Lloyd notebooks.
Krog writes of the method she used to turn the material into poetry: "Often the text fell into verse. Nothing else was necessary: the poem was clear and complete." She wrote further that she let herself be guided "more by what would work as a poem than by a faithful rendering of the original."
Krog's book contains poetry from five of the Bleek and Lloyd respondents. One of these was convicted murderer Diä!kwain, a gentle man described by Bleek's daughter Dorothea as Bleek's "favourite murderer."
Diä!kwain's poem "The broken string" is one of the most famous of the Bushman poems:
people were those
who broke for me the string
the place became like this to me
on account of it
because they've broken the string
I no longer hear the ringing sound through the sky
the place does not feel to me
as the place used to feel to me
on account of it
the place feels as if it stood open before me
because the string has broken for me
the place feels strange to me
on account of it
I remember looking out from that rocky overhang in the old Transkei down the krantz, past the aloes and thorn trees, across the river and toward the clustered huts of the local Xhosa people and wondering about the people who had left the paintings on the rocks. Wondering what their experience of life was, how they felt about things.
From these two books I have gained some insight into these things, though no doubt imperfectly. I am grateful.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009