/ 25 November 2011

Diamonds lost in translation

My favourite uncle was visiting from the Eastern Cape (which my extended family still refer to as the Transkei) last weekend. He is a natural storyteller who can find an audience in any gathering. His intonations and inflections when speaking isiXhosa and English result in crisp and lucid speech.

On one of the evenings he told us a wide range of stories, including some of 19th-century Xhosa battles and wars against European settlers and Voortrekkers — an interesting version of the story of Jan van Riebeeck and a vivid description of the Mfecane, and he even sang us a song while divulging his theory on the story of Nongqawuse and the Xhosa cattle killing of 1856.

He had our full attention. I felt myself getting agitated every time he took a sip of his whisky and the others shared my impatient disappointment for every toilet break he took.

One of the stories he told us was of the etymology of the word spanspek. The story goes that former Cape governor Sir Harry Smith’s Spanish wife, Lady Smith, preferred the sweet fruit (found only in the new colony) to bacon at breakfast. She loved it so much that her servants referred to it as spaanspek, literally ‘Spanish bacon”. I found that little story quite amazing — that there was something that had always existed, but it was renamed and given a new story, as if it had never existed before.

An indigenous language, beautifully used to tell indigenous stories, was captivating, albeit not for some of the young children. Two of them, siblings aged five and three, cannot speak isiXhosa, the language of their parents, and they anglicise the pronunciation of their names. They are not likely to learn the language or anything of their ethnic history. Sadly, this generation of ‘­diamond chips”, the children of ‘black diamonds”, is being shaped by a shiny new set of traditions.

Inspired by my love of history, I was up one night editing factually inaccurate Wikipedia articles on isiXhosa history. It is so easy. I didn’t have to log on to change the information. Who is telling our stories? But, most importantly, are there enough people who care about knowing them?

There are myriad theories and stories we cannot prove because it was never Southern Africa’s tradition to record our history on paper. But now that we have countless ways of disseminating the information, why is the single Wikipedia entry for Cape governor George Grey longer than that for the whole of Xhosa people?

It is indicative of a people who have become too used to standards being set for them, things being named for them and their own stories being told to them by others. We can’t blame Europe, colonialism or apartheid forever.

We may have evolved beyond our oppressors in that we can speak their languages and sing their songs, but of what value is that progress if we can’t use it to state our place in history?