Katrin Esau: Last remaining speaker of South Africa’s oldest language

“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.”

Katrina Esau

The world has more than 7,000 languages, and according to UNESCO, by the end of the century, more than half will be extinct. The continent of Africa has more than 2,000 languages, a third of the world’s 7,000 languages. According to studies, Africa has the highest genetic diversity of any place in the world.

Language forms an integral part of the identity of a particular race, tribe, or country. In terms of language, African languages are more diverse just as the Africans themselves. The continent has some of the world’s oldest languages, but recent studies are getting us worried. According to studies, the use of indigenous African languages is declining over the years due to the influence of the English language. This has led to a majority of the continent’s population who have stopped or neglected the attitude to speak their indigenous African languages. It is said that Africans will soon speak the English language as their first language, which might have already happened.

In all of these, an 88-year-old South African woman is fighting a battle of preserving the identity that makes her unique, her language. Katrina Esau, popularly called Ouma [meaning grandmother] is the last survivor of South Africa’s oldest language, Njuu. At 88-year-old, grandmother Esau is working very hard and smart to ensure the preservation and survival of the Njuu language. The Njuu language is one of the many languages spoken by the San community in South Africa. Njuu is considered to be the original language of Southern Africa. But time is running out to preserve it.

Grandmother Esau

Simon Sauls, the younger brother of grandmother Esau died in June 2021, making grandmother Esau the last remaining speaker of Njuu. Apart from grandmother Esau, there are no other Njuu speakers in the world, thus making it ‘’critically endangered’’ as described by the United Nations.

But how can an 88-year-old woman like Esau prevent the Njuu language to become extinct?

Grandmother Esau lives in Rosedale, a small township in Upington, her community granted her the status of a chief. In the fight to preserve the Njuu language, grandmother Esau has been teaching the children in her community the 112 sounds and 45 distinct clicks of Njuu. In an interview with the BBC, grandmother Esau said ‘’I am teaching the language because I don’t want it to become extinct.’’

Why is the Njuu language, the oldest in South Africa is not widely spoken?

Indigenous South African languages were widely spoken by South Africans before the arrival of the Europeans. Just like West, East and North Africa that experienced the brutal atrocities of slavery and colonialization, Southern Africa wasn’t exempted. The Dutch/Germans invaded South Africa in the early 1600s. The intrusion of the Dutch affected the cultural diversity of the indigenes of South Africa. During the apartheid-era South Africa, many South Africans, like Esau were not allowed to speak their indigenous South African languages. They were forced to abandon their native languages to that of the white man’s language. Even in their workplaces, South Africans were not allowed to speak their original languages. This inhuman and barbaric act by the Dutch gave birth to the language most South Africans speak today, Afrikaans. Afrikaans is a language related to the language spoken to the Dutch settlers at that time. So many South Africans during that era let go of their indigenous languages due to circumstances that they couldn’t put under control.

Many South Africans, after the apartheid-era South Africa thought the Njuu language had extinct. In the late 90s, a Njuu speaker called Elsie Vaalboi during a program on local radio in South Africa called on other Njuu speakers to surface. According to a report by the news, the call saw approximately 20 elderly men and women that are Njuu speakers from the Northern Cape region came forward.

How is Katrina Esau preserving the Njuu language?

Grandmother Esau doesn’t know how to read or write, but in her home in Rosedale, she teaches young children aged 3 to 19 the basics of the Njuu language such as greetings, names of animals, short sentences, and body parts. As someone who never had the opportunity to sit in a classroom, grandmother Esau uses songs, images and games to teach the children Njuu. Before now, there was no record of Njuu as a written language as it had been passed down from one generation to the other orally. Luckily for grandmother Esau and the kids, through the help of Sheena Shah from the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS] in London and Matthias Brezinger of the Center for African Language Diversity in Cape Town, grandmother Esau was able to create a Njuu alphabet and basic rules for grammar teaching purposes.

Grandmother Esau was awarded one of South Africa’s highest honours, the Order of the Baobab in silver, in praise of her efforts to preserve the San language and culture.

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