Thursday, May 12, 2016

//Kha - The Name of the Lion

Michael - Thursday

It's Wednesday morning and I'm sitting in my hotel room in Reno about to head for the the airport for a flight to Los Angeles and then London, where I'll join Stan tomorrow evening for the Orenda Book event at Waterstones Bookstore in London.  We head off to Crimefest after that.  I'm really looking forward to linking up with Orenda's great group of authors, to say nothing of blogmates, and others.

There's just one problem.  I've just realized that I'll be on a plane when I should be doing a blog.  This confusion may have resulted from the idea of going to London from Johannesburg via Nevada.  I think I was confused about direction. And time. Long story.  

Stan and I are just finishing a short story set in New Xade in the Kalahari in Botswana, and of course that makes me think of the original Xade and the ancient culture of the Bushmen of the past.  And that made me think of stealing a blog from the past...

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 awesome 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 awe-inspiring 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.


  1. Great article! I would like to write as well as you!

  2. Travel safe, and pass along all my best to "all me mates" at CrimeFest! Come to think of it, if you want to be greeted with a smile, pass along a big "Hello" from Barbara first. :)

  3. And I owe you a debt, Michael, for reposting this. I somehow missed it the first time around and it is fascinating.

    Speaking a debts we all owe, today is the 74th anniversary of the birth of our MIE founder. Let's all take a moment to remember Leighton and what a brilliant writer, sterling human being, and loving friend he was. I will never stop missing him.