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And the stars know - the sad story of the San in Bushmen drawings and poetry

Updated on March 27, 2011
The Rain Bull by Dia!kwain from the "stars say 'tsau'"
The Rain Bull by Dia!kwain from the "stars say 'tsau'"

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.

Dr Wilhelm Bleek. Image from Wikipedia
Dr Wilhelm Bleek. Image from Wikipedia

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.

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. Image from Wikipedia
Eugene N. Marais. Image from Wikipedia
Little Reed-Alone-in-the-Whirlpool. An illustration to one of the wandering stories by Katrine Harries
Little Reed-Alone-in-the-Whirlpool. An illustration to one of the wandering stories by Katrine Harries
Illustration by Katrine Harries to the story "The Rain Bull"
Illustration by Katrine Harries to the story "The Rain Bull"

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."

Dia!kwain. From "the stars say 'tsau'"
Dia!kwain. From "the stars say 'tsau'"
The kani plant from "the stars say 'tsau'"
The kani plant from "the stars say 'tsau'"

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.

Copyright Notice

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


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      In almost every translation of the Afrikaans poem: "Winternag" into English, the word "skade" is interpreted as shadow (probably from skaduwee) instead of "damage" or "desolation" which I suspect refers to the scorched earth policy of the British army during the Angl-Boer war.


    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - your words are so kind and I really appreciate them.

      Thanks for the visit.

      Love and peace


    • mulberry1 profile image

      Christine Mulberry 

      9 years ago

      Very interesting, but I always know I can count on you for a good education, even though some of it's quite sad.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Love it - really fascinating, but then I am biased as I love Africa and all its people.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for all your comments. It was both a joy and a great sadness to write this Hub. I find so much joy in the beauty left by these wonderful people, and so much sadness at the treatment they have received from so-called "civilised" people.

      Love and peace


    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      10 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Sad Sad Sad!

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 

      10 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      Wonderful. I learned much from this. Excellent piece and fascinating to me. As of late, I've been very interested in African history again. I'm reading The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency and the history and the people in there are so interesting. I'm soaking up everything I can from anywhere I can. You're tie ins here are right up my alley. Thank you.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I loved this very much, interesting and thought provoking. Much like what happened to some of my native ancestors here in America as well as the Scots and so many others.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      10 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Gulp. Thank you for this -- it is a powerful indictment against colonialism and a tribute to the San. The poetry is very moving.


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