Thursday, January 20, 2011

// Kha - The Name of the Lion

Wilhelm Bleek
Dorothea Bleek
Between 1870 and 1880, two linguists – Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd recorded the stories and beliefs of five /Xam Bushmen.  By that time, the Bushmen of the southern region – south of the Orange River – were in decline, and it was clear that the /Xam culture would soon be gone.  Bleek had several of the /Xam live with him at his house in Cape Town and learned their language.  This was a remarkable feat for two reasons – firstly at that time there was essentially no written version of the language and its dialects, and secondly its structure involved the frequent use of five clicks each changing the meaning of what followed in the context.  The linguists had to develop a character set to represent these (and other) features of the language.  Thus the five special clicks are written /, //, ≠, ! and Θ.  The names of the five /Xam teachers who shared their customs and beliefs with Bleek and Lloyd in their own language (with the Western names they were given) are /A!kuηta (Klaas Stoffel), //Kabbo (Oud Jantje Tooren), Diä!kwain (David Hoesar), /Haη≠kass’o (Klein Jantje Tooren) and ≠Kasiη (Klaas Katkop).  The material was compiled in extensive notebooks.  Some forty years later one of Wilhelm Bleeks daughters – Dorothea Bleek – first published them.

One of the /Xam teachers
The interest in what is recorded for the ordinary reader is in the picture that it gives of a vanished culture and its beliefs.  The /Xam lived in semi-arid savannah conditions and shared the environment with all the big game for which Africa remains famous.  Of these none was more overawing and terrifying than the lion. Even today sitting in the (relative) safety of an open Land Rover in a game reserve, few things are more awesome than a lion roaring a few yards away.  And the casual glances they give you with big yellow eyes as they walk past seem to say, “You have the upper hand now, but things may be different later.”

Perhaps it is hardly surprising that the Bushmen attributed powers to lions that went way beyond their daunting physical prowess and co-operative hunting skills.  Lions understood human speech.  Owls and crows spied for them.  Worse still, they had swarms of flies which they could send out to listen to what people said and report back.  Thus, children in particular where warned to be careful not to insult a lion; it was best to euphemistically refer to “hair” (“Hair" was here, see there are "Hair’s" footprints) or to indicate the same with one spread open hand.  Then the flies wouldn’t know.  (Presumably flies don’t have enough intelligence to bring to learning such matters.)  Not only would owls report to the lions on where people where, they could also make the sun set quickly – taking away the light people needed to fight or escape.

It is hard to imagine living not only in nightly danger from these large predators, but also endowing them with demon-like powers.  Yet, with great courage, the /Xam would sometimes steal part of a lion’s kill, maybe even driving off an animal or two to do so.  But there is a do-as-you-would-be-done-by moral to that tale.  It was understood that part must always be left for the lions, otherwise they would track the thieves to their homes and demand a human in compensation.
Diä!kwain told it like this:
            “Our parents used to say that if the lion did not find food at the place of the kill, he would be angry and say to himself, ‘Just you wait a bit; because you seem to have carried off all my food, I will do as you have done to me, I will follow your footprints, I will go and seize one of your men in his sleep and eat him.  For you seem to have forgotten that I, too, am hungry.”
(Customs and Beliefs of the /Xam Bushmen, edited by Jeremy C Hollman, Wits University Press.)

These stories and the many others that Bleek and Lloyd laboured to understand and record, give us an insight into a time and a way of life that is now gone in South Africa at least.  

I think we owe them a debt.

Michael - Thursday


  1. The second picture of the lion, with those yellow eyes, is mesmerizing. There is an intelligence in those eyes; it is easy to imagine that lion delivering the warning. He is the king of the jungle and he wants respect.

    He is not the prototype of a stuffed animal.

    He is magnificent.


  2. Since I was a child I've been fascinated by lions. I lived across a hollow from the Pittsburgh zoo and never quite got used to hearing them roar. And at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History I was inexplicably drawn to an exhibit showing two now extinct Barbary Lions attacking an Arab courier and his camel. I think I saw it first when I was seven and every time I'm back to that museum I seek it out. Apparently I'm not alone, for I understand it's the museum's most popular exhibit and has been for over a century. Lions just fire the imagination.

    As for the Xam bushman, I could not hope to grasp their language, though their idea of leaving the "lion's share" does sound familiar. A bit like an agent, perhaps?

    As for the

  3. Hi Jeff,

    There does seem to be something deeply embedded in the human psyche which generates a fascination with the king of beasts (to coin a phrase). Where are the crowds at the zoo? Why is there a traffic jam in a game park?

    But imagine sleeping out in the bush with essentially no protection while lions are around, and then, to make it a bit more scary, endow them with all sorts of suoernatural powers. Actually the Bushmen also regarded them as being like people - bad people. Hence the lion's reasoning in the story.