African Library: Keeper of the Kumm by Sylvia Vollenhoven

kumm_omslagKeeper of the Kumm (2016)
Sylvia Vollenhoven
Publisher: Tafelberg
ISBN: 9780624063087

Following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe, many African authors (like Sylvia Vollenhoven in the text profiled here) have in more recent times written texts that begin to retrieve the histories of our continent. The owners of the world’s ink-pots and the controllers of its publishing firms having previously heeded the sneering falsehoods of scholars such as the German philosopher GWF Hegel (that Africa "has no history") and those of British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (that "African history did not exist before European explorers and colonists began to write it"), there remains a deep and rich pool of historical-cultural awareness about African ways of life, social structures, discoveries, undertakings and upheavals – difficult of access, to be sure – that authors have begun to re-imagine. In Keeper of the Kumm, Sylvia Vollenhoven – an award winning, internationally published journalist – describes how her personal, familial and cultural past began hammering at her consciousness and demanding that she do the arduous work of retrieving some of its significance. She recounts her own often harrowing search in this text; a journey that allows her eventually to call herself a "Keeper" – ie one who of those entrusted with – of the "Kumm", which is the story or the store of cultural lore of the Bushman people. Her narrative is subtitled Ancestral Longing and Belonging of a Boesmankind in acknowledgement and celebration of an identity she did not know herself to belong to; it is the tale of a quest that began in severe unease and actual illness.

Some readers might find it interesting to start with the final page (300) of this text, where the single page seems hardly sufficient to outline the multitude of this author’s achievements and creative undertakings – as filmmaker, TV producer, playwright, developmental activist and educator on top of and beyond her productivity as an internationally published journalist. The intriguing and often amusing titles of her 38 chapters also serve to entice the reader, while their grouping into four Parts respectively titled "Mixed", "Coloured", "Black" and "Khoisan" indicate the trend or direction of the author’s story of identity, adaptation and discovery. Most significant, however, is her text’s Dedication, which reads: "This book is dedicated to //Kabbo, my grandmother Sophia Petersen and all the gifted !gixa of our people whose exceptional and often unrecognised talents have helped us survive and thrive" (np). With respect to "//Kabbo", readers can see by the photographs of an older man on the front and back covers of Vollenhoven’s text that he is the most famous of the speakers of /Xam (a Bushman or San language spoken in the northern Cape Province; now almost extinct) to whom the 19th-century German philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his British sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, gave pride of place in their thousands of pages of transcribed and translated cultural knowledge concerning the /Xam language, lore and practices provided by the South African teacher informants. Vollenhoven’s grandmother is, like //Kabbo, frequently cited and described in the narrative, while by "the gifted !gixa of our people" the author refers to the diviners among her people; the inheritors of the Bushman/San, as well as  Khoekhoe people who still practise their prophetic calling. [Those who struggle to pronounce the word !gixa might recall the first word of the famous so-called “click song” that was often performed by Miriam Makeba; the isiXhosa word igqirha having been taken into that language, also with the meaning "diviner"; probably because the Xhosa people "employed" Bushmen as diviners and learnt divining skills from them.]

Vollenhoven’s narrative does not have an easily discernible linear structure; it doubles back on itself many times to take a second or third look at an experience or perception, but slowly builds up towards resolution, with many dips or regressions before reaching the clarity of communal and self-understanding. It is also not a story with a single starting point. For this profile, I thought to start with what is only one of many beginnings, where Vollenhoven informs us that "early experiences" with her grandmother (with whom she stayed much of the time when she was a little girl), along with her own dreams, "opened [her] up to a magical world". She tried, she says, "to shut these doors of perception", but unsuccessfully. She believes that she was drawn instinctively "into the archive where //Kabbo’s story was kept" because of (her grandmother) "Ma’s way of talking up a Christian storm while keeping Bushman mysticism alive"; the same "Ma" who showed a "loving interest" in Sylvia’s dreams (42) and analysed them with her. She quotes a wonderful passage in which //Kabbo (whose own name means "Dream") explains the visceral experience of visionary insight:

We carry our letters, our stories in our bodies/ Our stories talk, they quiver, they tap/ Our letters make our bodies move/ Our stories make our people silent/ [….]/ We feel a sensation/ I hear it whisper soft like my breath/ In tune with my heart I follow the !gwe/ Like a story in a book/ The !gwe touches my ribs (43)

She also remembers that it was only when her maternal grandmother Sophia Petersen (whom she called Ma) told her stories that she fell asleep easily.

Vollenhoven was the first child of her (then) unmarried mother; a child usually referred to as a "voorkind" in the Western Cape. When her mother did marry later, it was not to her father (who was a Muslim gentleman by the name of Ebrahim or "Braima" Hendricks), but to Freddie Vollenhoven whose surname became hers. Her maternal family (of staunch Seventh Day Adventist stock) could not approve of a relationship with a Muslim, but accepted the Freddie Vollenhoven match because it was considered a socially upward move. Sophia ("Sofie") Petersen was a countrywoman born – as was estimated – around 1902 on a white-owned wheat farm in the Swellendam area, who began her working life at the age of eight, helping out in the farm kitchen by doing chores such as dishwashing; so small still that she had to stand on a bench to reach into the washbasin. The farm owner’s wife seems to have been a terrifying employer who would give the little girl hidings for even the least transgression. As a young woman Sofie tried to run away to Cape Town, but she was caught in the attempt and severely punished by the farm owner, a Mr Streicher; whose chastisement (with a hosepipe) left her with a bump at the top of her head. Her granddaughter feels this links Sofie, not only to herself – a similarly located head wound from a childhood accident stakes the claim – but with another grandmother; the relative of a Bleek/Lloyd informant who was also mistreated and nearly killed by her white farmer employers. By the end of World War I Sofie [Ma] was ready to try escaping once more and this time she made it to Cape Town, where she had just found employment when she succumbed to the influenza epidemic of the time, though she survived (unlike many thousands of South Africans). She would live to be nearly a hundred years old, but Swellendam, despite her harsh early life there, would remain to Sofie her "heartland" where she loved to go visit her relatives who had remained there. In this way, the country customs, the landscape and the locally spoken version of the Afrikaans language became part of Vollenhoven’s own "memory-scape" [she herself spoke English much of the time among her Cape Town family]. The accounts of her family history, however, never went far back; a lack that grandmother Sofie would explain as a deliberate and ethical choice made by "the old people" because they did not want to sadden and burden younger family members with their grim stories of dispossession and exploitation or maltreatment at the hand of white employers and officials.

Although the reader is from the very outset – the text’s title and subtitle and cover images; its dedication and Prologue and the title ("Khoisan") of Part 4 of the narrative provided in the list of contents – aware that her Bushman heritage features centrally in this book, there are initially only occasional glimpses of Vollenhoven’s link to her cultural heritage and Bushman (San) ancestry. In the present account of her text, some rearrangement of the sequence of the author’s slow, staggered discoveries and the revelations of her heritage has been inevitable. The intertextual link of Keeper of the Kumm with the Bleek/Lloyd archive is shown to have begun quite blindly and in desperation for a cure of the inexplicable, painful and debilitating illness that Vollenhoven suffered from for years; a state of ill health that started during her early middle age. She started studying the Bleek/Lloyd records kept in the archive of the UCT library (and available online), so starting what she refers to as "my ancestral journey with //Kabbo" (1). For, even though her grandmother’s practices bore traces of ancient Bushman beliefs, ways and tales, in actuality the ancestral memories went back only very slightly more than the two preceding generations. The rest was lost in obscurity and there were no records. Vollenhoven often reminds the reader that the 12 000 handwritten pages of the full Bleek/Lloyd archive have been entered into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register – such is its importance. And yet people like herself – whether referring to themselves as "Coloured", "so-called coloured", or "Black" – are in general not aware of, or even ashamed of their aboriginal African ancestry in Bushman and Khoikhoi inhabitants – who are the great grandparents of all humanity. "Until we see ourselves in //Kabbo and engage with the //Kabbos in our own histories," Vollenhoven declares, "we will continue to flounder in a sea of social problems" (3). For what is missing in and for those who are ignorant of or deny this heritage is that vital element of ancestral pride and a claim to history that are essential for cultural self-respect. One could see the task attempted in Vollenhoven’s text as the teaching not primarily of the identity "Black Consciousness" (in which she like many others formerly found space for a foothold), but (call it) "Khoisan Consciousness". In Vollenhoven’s own words, "The Keeper of the Kumm is [her] intuitive and creative response to a social current that is moving us away from the dangerous shores of division. Away from the systematic dispossession of being coloured to being an African with a claim to the land and its story" (4). Possibly such a switch in "consciousness" is more important for a people’s well-being than ownership of land and material prosperity.

The high spiritual calling of preserving and transmitting ancient lore is articulated by Vollenhoven in recurrent explicatory statements such as the following:

It is given to a few to be the guardians of the story, to protect the treasures that touch the hearts of people. These guardians are the Keepers of the Kumm […] My Ancestor //Kabbo is one such Keeper, a timeless visionary weaving story threads [that], delicate but powerful, [are] enough to hold the world in place. (9)

The authority and dignity of this ancestor figure is emphasized by the provision of his name in full: "//Kabbo /Han#i#i /Uhi-ddoro Jantje Toorn" (10) – the last of these two names evidently the given "colonial" name and surname of his period as captive at the Breakwater Prison and at the home of Bleek in Mowbray, Cape Town, where he was the teacher-informer of Bleek and Lloyd, the latter’s sister-in-law who would continue and carry forward the work on and dissemination of the /Xam heritage after Bleek’s death. Accepting that this heritage is deeply pertinent; making the choice to take it up, is described by Vollenhoven in words she cites from the PhD thesis of the aptly named Dr Memory Biwa: that there are "perceptions, which seem to have gone underground and been lost, [but that] remain in the body and await to be named" (quoted p 81).

Picking up the thread of Vollenhoven’s own childhood during the 50s and 60s in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg [= wine mountain], she tells us that this area stood out as "an affluent island in a sea of growing apartheid chaos" for "coloured people" (29) who actually had title deeds to their plots in this area and could therefore not be legally subjected to forced removals. As a little girl, Vollenhoven sensed but could not explain that the leading, home-owning inhabitants of the area could be described as belonging (as she later would term them) to "the almost-white families of Cape Town’s almost-white suburbs [who] protect[ed] fragile identities with coded behaviour" – such as the attitude of her Primary School headmaster and his teachers towards the "dark-skinned, curly-haired" (66) pupils like herself. There was at this time of course, no awareness in her own family that

The people of Swellendam are descended from the great Hessequa or People of the Trees, the indigenous Khoikhoi who the colonials called Hottentots, the San (who today prefer to be known as Bushmen), the slaves who came from the East and other parts of Africa and, of course, from European colonials. (55)

It was only the last, the "white" inheritance, that was considered honourable. Before her mother’s marriage into the Vollenhoven family, they lived with her grandmother "in a wood and iron garden shed next to the school fence in the back yard of Uncle Willie and Auntie Gracie Davids’ run-down house with the fancy name […] 'Privet Villa'" (20). The Davids family, however, are described as "warm and comforting people" (36). Vollenhoven’s evocation of her little-girl life is entertaining and candid; childish sorrows and sadness there were, but life had the glamour of excitement and interest of a child with her own friendships, who is hardly aware of the humiliating class and race distinctions respectively affecting her immediate and wider environment. Her two best friends were (until his death) the Welsh grandfather in the Davids family and a tall youth, Claudie – known as a "malletjie" in this neighbourhood because he is mentally handicapped and cannot speak coherently.

During the early years of her mother’s married life in the Vollenhovens’ home, little Sylvia stays mostly with her grandmother; Ma is the "cook general" to an immigrant (Dutch) family. Even though work for foreigners is considered the pinnacle of domestic employment, with no bathroom of their own Sylvia brushes her teeth at the garden tap, and "we wash late at night when no-one can see us in the yard" (38). When the Sonnevelds are out, they make "unofficial" use of the bathroom in the big house, but it is at a risk of detection. In a nearby play park, little Sylvia bears the brunt of not only rough white boys’ racist taunts but of a middle-class white woman siding with the nasty boys to chase them out because "This park is only for white children" (39). Mrs Sonneveld nearly dismisses Ma for an accident with a pressure cooker, but thinks better of it when she sees Sofie praying. When little Sylvia’s younger half-sister is born, the Vollenhoven mother-in-law "likes showing Lottie off to visitors. Everyone talks about how beautifully straight her hair is" (48). At her primary school, Sylvia is taunted with the term "kaffirtjie" – as she says, for insult power this racist taunt ranks "alongside Boesman or hotnot" (67). Sylvia manages the situation by teaming up with the only other dark-skinned girl in her class with whom she beats up the leading racist girl in a physical fight. The other thing that matters is her superior, advanced verbal skill; half acknowledged by their headmaster.

Once Sylvia is enrolled at South Peninsula High School, "where the only criteria are academic and sporting prowess, the transition shatters [her] obsession with skin, nose and hair so fast [that] it’s almost traumatic" (72). At SP [High], the teachers are almost all politically radical in the parlance of the time – in other words, they are outspoken anti-apartheid activists. The teacher whom Sylvia especially admires is none other than the legendary Richard Rive, who introduces himself with the words: "'I have a Master's from Columbia University but I’ve chosen to come and teach you snot-nosed brats, so don’t waste my time'" (75). Vague rumours of this teacher’s sexually predatory tendencies do circulate in the school; nevertheless, he remains Sylvia’s hero for doing things like sharing extracts from banned books while supposedly teaching "Roman history" in the Latin class. It is during these high school years that Sylvia’s sexual as well as her political initiation takes place. She takes a leading part in upholding anti-apartheid boycott actions, but years later begins to recognize (and to admit to herself) that anti-black racism and prejudice is embedded in the mind-set and practices of most Cape Town "coloured" families, only to discover, much later, when she has started making a deep study of the Bleek/Lloyd transcriptions, that there are discernible traces of it present in //Kabbo’s testimony. Strangely, it comforts her to know that her own advances in "non-racial" thinking and action resist a tendency that even the "Khoisan" ancestors had. She concludes: "Apartheid worked because we were sucked into the grip of a detailed vortex of refined racism" (86, emphases added). When she starts her first job as a journalist for The Cape Herald – described as intended (by its white owners) to provide a "weekly dose of sport and sensation primarily for the coloured people of the Western Cape" (90) – Sylvia is, however, placed firmly "back in a coloured box" and not long after joining the nearly all male, foul-mouthed and sexist group of journalists there, she has a “nervous breakdown” and is hospitalized for a prolonged period in the psychiatric ward F3 of Groote Schuur (90). It will be here, during a counselling session, that Sylvia is at last able to acknowledge that both she (and her younger half-sister) had been sexually molested by her step-father. Much later, the sangoma whom she consults points out to her that one of the Bleek/Lloyd recorded tales – that of The Day’s Heart Star Child (113-122) – is a disguised account of incest; something that was known and acknowledged in the ancient Bushman culture. Her sangoma wisely says: "'Some of the stories are very cruel. […] The world was cruel in those days but now we tend to look back and see only beauty'" (121). In the contemporary South African environment, the author’s mother clearly tries to fob off this disquieting account as stemming from her daughter’s imagination.

Having given up her initially carefully maintained goody-goody Seventh Day Adventist ways under the relentless pressures of the tough newspaper world, Sylvia succumbs and becomes the proverbial "wild girl" – the unholy trinity of drink, drugs and sex start determining the rhythm of her days, nights and weekends. Of course, she also encounters a crowd of weird and wonderful, interesting and (in their own off-beat way) empathetic characters, both in the boarding house she shares with fellow tenants of a wide range of sexual persuasions and professional activity (or more often, inactivity), but also in the psychiatric ward, where she eventually leads escapades that end in her being all but expelled from Groote Schuur. Back at The New Age, she has to get ready for joining the Argus Cadet School course for journalists, held over three months in Johannesburg, where she has never set foot. She had before her hospitalization been told that she was being sponsored for this course by the (white) editor and is quite surprised to hear that the offer still stands, although she is terrified of going to Joburg. The cadet school courses are conducted at the offices of The Star newspaper. Sylvia discovers that "of a class of 14 cadets, only two of us are black" (127). She also makes the unpleasant discovery that she is unwelcome in the staff restaurant, as she is not ‘white.’

These revelations of racist attitudes and practices are, however, offset for Sylvia by the introductions that Don Manaka, her sole black fellow trainee, gives her to the splendid group of journalists of The World newspaper, who take her around with them to parties and shebeens and (more importantly) take her (in her own words) “into the underground struggle” (129). The daredevil Sylvia begins to take form: a young woman who quickly spots the opportunity when it is demanded that she find cheaper accommodation, to obtain free board and lodging and pocket the ‘low’ rental to pay for monthly return flights to and from Cape Town, and who under slight pressure drives a brake-less Volksie all the way into Botswana for a white fellow cadet from there who makes her take her place on a date with Ian Khama (the son of Sir Seretse Khama). Vollenhoven writes that her time in Joburg filled “huge gaps” in her “political education” (138), especially when the banned writer and poet Don Mattera took her under his wing and began not only lending and giving, but discussing books by leading black writers with her. She starts rejecting the label “coloured” for herself and her people, and – while studying beautiful, inspiring /Xam stories like The Girl Who Made the Milky Way (translation cited 143-145) –begins “to weave [her]self back into the fabric of [her] continent” (145).

In her next job, at the Sunday Times, Vollenhoven discovers with clear indignation that this paper’s unarticulated code is about “keeping South Africans entertained while the country burns” (150). A few months after meeting Bob Seddon at the Press Club, and desperate to have a child before she’s too old, she decides on marriage and (she writes:) Bob, whom she describes as “lonely and a bit depressed in that reserved, British expat way, […]  goes along with the plan” (150-151). They go to the village of Harlington in the UK, where Bob’s parents live, for the wedding, mildly shocking the locals with their unorthodox ways, and return to apartheid Cape Town to cohabit ‘illegally’ in a flat where before long the police frame them both on a trumped up charge of dagga [marijuana] possession. Vollenhoven is too well known internationally as an anti-apartheid journalist to use the Immorality Act against them, it seems. Pregnant though she is, Sylvia is held and appears before a disgusted magistrate who is angry that there is no evidence; advising Vollenhoven that it is her right to sue for wrongful arrest. Early in 1981, with her sister looking after her small son while she works, Vollenhoven begins a stint as a journalist for The Argus. Initially her presence is virtually ignored, then she is sent (in the company of a senior reporter) to cover a school protest in Gugulethu – unable to understand why such a ‘minor’ event merits this level of attention. However, she is arrested (even if soon bailed out) for not having a permit to be in the area (she had got out of their vehicle to talk to the protesting pupils); warned by the editor not to “get involved” (168). Much later when she has at last begun to be given proper assignments, she often works with a photographer for whom she feels great respect and affection – Willie de Klerk is his name. Because he is seemingly fearless and streetwise, Vollenhoven is profoundly depressed when even he eventually says that going into Khayelitsha to cover protests and state retaliation has become too risky. Later on, when she has moved to the Sunday Times Extra (the so-called "coloured" edition of this paper), Sylvia goes to Crossroads township to cover protests there; she witnesses police sjambokking people and is flung to the ground when a grenade is thrown (presumably) at “the notorious [police] Captain Dolf Odendaal”; injuring him, several policemen and also some white media people. Getting home at last, Vollenhoven in an unexpected outburst of fury at the ‘safe’ political activist talk of her husband and her best friend Annie, first flings a wine glass that barely misses Annie and then stabs Bob in the shoulder when he half comforts, half restrains her – or attempts to do so. Inevitably, this marriage ends in divorce not long after. Vollenhoven links this period to a /Xam saga of a devouring monster; //Kabbo, she says: “tells a story of how we learn to deal with the forces of creation and destruction” (180).

Having caught the eye of the international media because of her “marriage activism” (as she terms it) and other writings and at a time when the “Swedish people develop a renewed interest in our country” (186) [the South African secret service being suspected of having had a hand in the Olaf Palme assassination, because of his and his country’s strong anti-apartheid stance], Vollenhoven is offered a post as a stringer for a leading Swedish paper, Expressen – a post that will eventually grow to make her their southern African correspondent. She leaves The Sunday Times and South African newspapers behind, she says, “with a sense of anger, sadness and relief” (189). At this stage she also “replace[s] psychotherapy with work therapy”: however, the “crazy lifestyle of a journalist immersed in geopolitical dramas” (190) will end up exacerbating her deep-seated psychological problems. She describes how she made her arduous way (using her wits and her gumption) to the site of the plane crash that killed Samora Machel and to his funeral, following this up with a hair-raising trip to the north of Mozambique; Renamo dominated territory and extremely dangerous, so as to report on the social, political and military conditions in the region. She achieves this, initially, by pretending to be a relative [even a daughter] of Archbishop Tutu who visits his Mozambican flock around this time, and after this manoeuvres her way into a media group going to Savimbi’s headquarters in Angola at a time when the UNITA rebellion is still raging. Then it is 1989 and Expressen instructs her to report on the release by the de Klerk government of Walter Sisulu. Vollenhoven successfully manoeuvres her way into this event (cajoling her friend Strini Moodley to help get her in there). When Sisulu and other released ANC leaders such as Govan Mbeki fly to Lusaka to meet the rest of the leadership, still in exile at this point, Vollenhoven like other journalists follows them there and soon attracts favourable attention (due to a combination of her journalistic connections and the luxuries – such as good whiskey – she is able to dispense) from ANC leaders.

The obvious highlight of her career, though, is the release of Nelson Mandela and the fact that he singles her out with the words: “‘I followed your stories when I was in jail’” (220). “Covering the Mandela era” for Expressen, states Vollenhoven, changed her “fundamentally” (224), especially since she became something like his favourite, favoured journalist, and could spend considerable time in his company. It is around this time of a changing South Africa that her grandmother passes away. Not long after, she gets married for a second time, writing that

Marrying Basil Appollis was an easy decision. The kind of choice you make when you move in with your best friend because you get on so well. […] [She also understands that] a serious relationship and marriage still have a strong Calvinistic link in my book. Basil, an actor with a finely tuned sense of fun and the heart of a Boland boy, arrives in my life a few months after my grandmother’s death. (234)

For the marriage (in Paarl, where Basil is from), they wear African kaftans; only to find out later that as the marriage couple they are rumoured to be a “prince and princess from Nigeria” (234)! Sylvia’s next appointment is as a TV producer with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, where she finds that their 8 to 5 days are filled with “wall-to-wall” meetings (235). But there are “no real agendas” for these meetings and, says Vollenhoven, “like a tangled family we lurch out of a dark past without much of a roadmap for the future” (237). The idealistic group of would-be transformers end up extremely discouraged; the sick institutional culture at the state broadcaster (which persists to this day) having eroded their aspirations. Nevertheless, Vollenhoven would remain there for a full 12 years; years of (mainly) frustration that would end up eroding her second marriage, too. It was in the midst of these two dwindlings, the author surmises, that her illness started – initially showing only small signs of its presence in an unidentifiable unease – that would eventually nearly engulf her life. For although BC had “rescued [her] from colouredness”, its ideas did not “contain the potential for an identity linked to [her] history” (241); this she would find in the /Xam cultural lore recorded in the Bleek/Lloyd archive.

She starts seeing comforting correspondences in the events of her own life and experiences, with beliefs and practices described by //Kabbo and the other /Xam speakers who taught William Bleek and  Lucy Lloyd. One such detail is the remark that “When we die the wind blows dust/ It intends to blow away our spoor/ The moon lies hollow” (translation cited 246). For herself, although she has only “frozen shards of memory / To reclaim, to regain her terrain/ She frees the fragments of her story/ Now the wind can decide to take it for a ride” (247), as Vollenhoven muses. The quotation on p.247 cited here introduces the final section of The Keeper of the Kumm, which is titled “Khoisan” to indicate the author’s assumption, or resumption, of this identity. After describing a momentous workshop she attended and a stint of important work in Ghana (where she made wonderful friends), the last part of Part 4 of the text deals with Vollenhoven taking the advice of her sangoma to “‘Talk with the Ancestors just as you would talk to a trusted older relative’” for, he adds: “‘You can’t move forward without their help’” (268).

As she first senses //Kabbo’s presence and then starts imagining conversing with him, Vollenhoven is told that she must start by “‘writing the story [because w]riting is the healing work [she is] being called to do’” (268-69). She begins to adapt her metaphysics; to grasp that the divine “/Kaggen, the Mantis, [represents and incarnates] the essence of the paradox of the universe [because, despite being s]mall and fragile, [he] yet loom[s] large in any shape or form he chooses” (269). She now wishes that she had “grown up with /Kaggen stories instead of the forbidding God of the Old Testament, since the Bushmen’s divine Mantis, who as /Kaggen is “sometimes benign, sometimes cruel and mostly chaotic” (270), answers better to her own experience of life in South Africa and the world. Now she derives “deep comfort” (271) from looking at available photographs of //Kabbo (like those on her book’s front and back covers), for she realises how strongly he resembles many of her own relatives. Vollenhoven recounts the story of how //Kabbo had a wound inflicted on the side of his head in a fight over his older, impressive wife; a confrontation that left him with a permanent bump marking the encounter. She then decides to avail herself of the services of a German expat hypnotherapist specializing in teaching her clients how to achieve “past life regression” (274). Out of this encounter, Vollenhoven gleans the ‘knowledge’ or awareness that in a previous life she had been the orphaned niece, named Bara-ta-ken [meaning “Pathway of the Horses”] or Betje, whom //Kabbo had brought up as his own child, but whom he had had to leave later. Vollenhoven emerges from the hypnotic trance with the reassurance that //Kabbo had not wilfully abandoned the niece he had loved and cared for, and that in her present life it is her task “to help people see the things that they have stopped seeing” (275). As one of the “real storytellers” she has a huge responsibility and task to aid “struggling, ordinary people” who “need [her] talent” (276). Consulting her sangoma, Vollenhoven learns that it is time for her to do the pahla ritual requiring the aromatic herb buchu, pipe tobacco and dagga in small amounts to help her call upon and to communicate with her Ancestors; to her this feels “like a homecoming” (279).  

For two years, Vollenhoven lives in a cottage at Betty’s Bay (made available to her by her friends, who own it), “unravelling ancestry, heritage and identity” (282). She discovers a “simple truth”: that when she writes, her “life and health” improve, whereas everything deteriorates when she does not. Her work of and for recovery (in the two senses of that term) is not a simple upward graph, however; she has a particularly serious setback after being in the presence of three deceased people’s bodies that eventually requires her participation in the terrifying Bushman exorcism known as the Femba ritual. Although, even after this rite, the “return of [her] health is a slow, exacting experience”, this “negotiation with the seen and unseen” reminds her that “/Kaggen the Mantis always regains his power after the many skirmishes that diminish him” (287). Now, Vollenhoven writes: her “eyes have opened to the battles of indigenous people all around the world” (291), with whom she finds common cause. Almost at the end of her account, Vollenhoven quotes the long poem in which //Kabbo included the words “I await the return of the moon” (cited 294). She tells readers that, on Saturday mornings, she attends classes in the Khoekhoe language taught at the Castle in Cape Town by Bradley van Sittert; finding “the sound of the language […] like a joyful song in [her] heart”, for she is a “Boesmankind first and last” and because “we are all children of the San” (295). These are the concluding words of her account.

Told with great candour and in her inimitable, forthright style, Vollenhoven’s is one of the most important South African autobiographies to have appeared. Her account is an enrichment of the African Library, but no dry and factual tale; it challenges readers and interrogates assumptions about our identities and roles. Writing it did not come easily; we must thank Sylvia Vollenhoven for producing this, her single most important work of reporting.

Kommentaar

  • Ek't haar boekbespreking by kunstefees te Kovsies bygewoon. Uiters interessant gevind, aangesien ek 'n groot belangstelling in die San-leefwyse en -geskiedenis het.

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