//Kha - the name of the lion


The Bushman quotes at the beginning of each part in DEATH OF THE MANTIS are chosen to try to describe the mood, rather than the content, of the next set of chapters.

They are taken from the remarkable work of two linguists - Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. Recently a new compilation of their work was published by
Wits University Press: Customs and Beliefs of the /Xam Bushmen, edited by Jeremy C. Hollmann.

Between 1870 and 1880 Bleek and Lloyd recorded the stories and beliefs of five /Xam Bushmen. By that time the /Xam, the Bushmen who lived south of the Orange River in South Africa, were in decline, and it was clear that the /Xam culture would soon be gone. Because western culture was foreign to them, and because of prejudice against them, the /Xam were often in trouble with the law. Bleek met some of them at the Breakwater prison (now a hotel on the Cape Town waterfront!) and arranged for several to live with him at his house.

There he learnt their language, a remarkable feat for two reasons – first, at that time there was essentially no written version of the language and its dialects, and second, its structure involved the frequent use of five clicks, each changing the meaning of what followe
d. The linguists had to develop a character set to represent these (and other) features of the language. 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 are (with the Western names they were given) /A!kuηta (Klaas Stoffel), //Kabbo (Oud Jantje Tooren), Diä!kwain (David Hoesar), /Haη≠kass’o (Klein Jantje Tooren) and ≠Kasiη (Klaas Katkop). Bleek and Lloyd compiled the material in an extensive set of notebooks. Forty years later one of Wilhelm Bleek’s daughters – Dorothea Bleek – first published them.

Their work gives fascinating insights into 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 and frightening 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. Lions understood human speech. Owls and crows spied for them. Worse still, they had groups of flies that they could send out to listen to what people said and re
port back. Children in particular were 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 aren’t intelligent enough to learn such things.) 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 to escape.

It is hard to imagine living not only in nightly danger from these predators but also endowing them with demon-like powers. Yet, with great courage, the Bushmen would also 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 the tale. Bushmen understood that some meat 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 thus:

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.

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 all but gone. But the language lives on in the motto on the South African Coat of Arms: !ke e: /xarra //ke which means “Diverse people unite.”