One of Africa’s resources that must never be erased from history is language. African languages are as diverse as the people themselves. With more than 7,000 living languages in the world, UNESCO predicts that more than half will be extinct by the end of the century. It recently stated that Africans as a whole speak a combined total of around 2,000 different languages, which roughly equates to about one-third of the entire world’s linguistic heritage.
Recent studies have shown a steady decline in the use of indigenous African languages, and there are fears that most African countries will soon speak English as a first, and perhaps the only language, leading to a loss of culture and identity. Human rights experts have advised countries to “recognize, protect and promote indigenous languages through legislation, policies and other strategies in full cooperation with indigenous peoples.”
In South Africa, an 88-year-old woman is already working hard to ensure the preservation and survival of the language of her childhood. Katrina Esau, affectionately known as Ouma (grandmother in the Afrikaans language) Katrina is the only known fluent speaker of N|uu, one of the languages spoken by South Africa’s San community.
Simon Sauls, who was Esau’s younger brother, died last month, making Esau the last remaining speaker of N|uu, considered the original language of southern Africa. Since the language has no other fluent speakers in the world apart from Esau, it is recognized by the UN as “critically endangered”.
Living in the small township of Rosedale, in Upington, Esau has the status of a chief in her community. For over 10 years now, she has been teaching children in the community the 112 sounds including 45 distinct clicks of N|uu. “I’m teaching the language because I don’t want it to become extinct when we die,” Esau told BBC. “I want to pass on as much of it as I can but I am very aware that we don’t have a lot of time.”
In her community, people mainly speak Afrikaans, which is related to the language spoken by the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 1600s. While growing up on a White-owned farm around the Kalahari Desert in apartheid-era South Africa, Esau said her employer never allowed her to speak the language she had learned from her mother. Esau, like many other South Africans, was forced to abandon the N|uu language and learned to speak Afrikaans.
Many later thought that the language was extinct until the late 90s when Elsie Vaalbooi, a N|uu speaker, called on other speakers to come forward during a program on local radio. This was after the country had transitioned to majority rule. About 20 aged speakers from the Northern Cape region came forward, according to a report by inews. The number of speakers reduced as the years went by. Today, Esau is the only known speaker who is teaching the click-rich language as part of moves to preserve the San language and culture.
Her school in her home caters to pupils aged from three to 19 who learn basics such as greetings, animal names, short sentences and body parts. Esau, who was never taught to read or write, uses songs, images and play to teach the language. Until recently, there was no record of N|uu as a written language as it had been passed down orally over generations. Thanks to academics Sheena Shah from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London and Matthias Brezinger of the Centre for African Language Diversity in Cape Town, Esau was able to create a N|uu alphabet and basic rules of grammar for teaching purposes, BBC said.
“What Ouma Katrina desperately wanted were teaching and learning materials,” Shah was quoted by inews. “She said children in her community went to school in the morning and had textbooks for maths, English and Afrikaans. But at her after-school classes, they had no printed material. She wanted her language to be treated on the same level.”
After having transformed the oral language into a written one, Esau in May this year launched her children’s book “Tortoise and Ostrich” written in the N/uu language. According to the National Library of South Africa, this is the first-ever book written in the endangered N/uu language. As Esau continues to teach the language while aging gracefully, audio and video recordings have also been made of her to ensure that others get to hear the language in the future.
“Other people have their own languages. Why must my language be allowed to die? It must go on. As long as there are people, the language must go on,” Esau said recently after she was awarded one of South Africa’s highest honors, the Order of the Baobab in silver, in praise of her efforts to preserve the San language and culture.
Currently, N|uu is not the only language at risk of dying out in South Africa. Several communities are trying to revive languages such as Nama, which was a Khoisan language spoken by about 250 000 people in parts of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. “When you look at the African languages, you learn that they help communicate different perspectives on life, relationships, spirituality, the earth, health, humanity,” Brezinger told BBC recently.
“There is a wealth of knowledge on survival that has been passed down through the years in indigenous communities that the Western world knows very little about and when these languages die, that unique knowledge is also lost,” he said.