The dying world of the indigenous karretjiemense

It just goes to show that it’s worthwhile following up on a positive book review – if the book happens to grab your fancy, that is.


And so it was, that after reading a critique in the local ‘Bolander’ newspaper of ‘My Children have Faces’ by former South African journalist Carol Campbell, I ended up rushing off to one of Stellenbosch’s book stores to do just that.


The novel is based around a family of karretjiemense (the Afrikaans word for ‘Cart People’) and is set in the Karoo, an area of vast scrubby, arid plains and dramatic, soaring mountain ranges in the Cape that makes up about a third of the country’s entire landmass.


The karretjiemense are descendants of southern Africa’s indigenous, hunter-gatherers, the San who, according to the San Institute, are the most ancient people on earth.


Their genetic origins can apparently be traced back over a million years, while their distinct culture has been around for more than 25,000 and, interestingly, they are counted among the 14 known ‘ancestral population clusters’, from which all human beings are descended.


Ironically among the poorest and most marginalised people in South Africa, however, most of them can be found in Platfontein (3,600 or so people), which is about 15km outside of Kimberley, the provincial capital of the Northern Cape.


None remain in the area of the Drakensberg mountain range though, which forms the boundary between South Africa and the kingdom of Lesotho and is famous for their ancestors’ rock paintings.


San legacies


Some 20,000 individual works of art have been recorded in 500 different caves and overhangs in the area, making it the largest such collection in the world and somewhat of a tourist mecca.


Other places that you’re likely to find San people in too, however, are countries such as Mozambique, Swaziland and Botswana, where they are variously known as the Sho, Basarwa, Kung, Khwe or Bushmen.


While all of these names are problematic in some way in that they have been used in a pejorative manner at one time or another, most San people refer to themselves in a collective sense as Bushmen, which is worth bearing in mind.


Another San important legacy, meanwhile, is the click consonants borrowed by a number of Bantu languages such as Xhosa and Zulu, two of South Africa’s 11 official languages.


Although most Khoisan languages are themselves now either endangered or dead, the fact that clicks are still widely used to represent letters such as c, q and x and that 15% of Xhosa vocabulary is of Khoisan origin means that at least they live on, even if it does happen to be in diminished form.


Anyway, to get back to the point, the karretjiemense are a semi-nomadic people who, following white settlement, became itinerant farm labourers working for money and/or food.


Once a common and iconic sight on the dusty back roads of the Karoo as they carried themselves and their worldly possessions around with them on donkey-drawn carts, the karretjiemense spoke Afrikaans as their first language, having forgotten their own a good few generations back.


Dislocated and alienated


But the romantic notion of traveller communities enjoying a carefree life of freedom on the open road was and is belied by the harsh reality of their existence. Although some still scrape by constructing or fixing wire fences and/or shearing sheep during the requisite season, their way of being is essentially dying.


Automation and plummeting demand for itinerant labour have forced a lot of people to move into townships and/or informal settlements at the edge of the Karoo towns in order to survive, leaving them, like all too many indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, dislocated and alienated in the process.


Social ills such as high levels of unemployment and desperate poverty inevitably lead to problems with drug and alcohol abuse, while a lack of quality, if any, education compounds the situation.


And Campbell’s book portrays the plight of one such family beautifully. After hiding out in the veld and living in the traditional way for 15 years, a drought has led Muis’s partner, Kapok, to insist that they return to the small town of Leeu Gamka, to find work before they starve.


Muis is terrified because she knows that her past will come back to haunt her and is adamant that she and her three children must ‘have faces’ for the first time. In other words, her mission is to obtain government identity papers so that the family is no longer ‘invisible’ in order to ensure that action will be taken if anything happens to them.


Without straying into the realms of sentimentality or hyerbole, the novel, although only 140 or so pages long, manages to clearly portray the discrimination that the family is subject to, its disempowerment, its strength and its consummate survival skills.


But in true post-modern style, the ending, and fate of the first-born son, are of course left open – a situation that appears, sadly, to be just as true of the karretjiemense themselves.




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