Nick Wood – November/December 2006

I've been wondering about words and roots recently; the languages we use to tell our stories and where they come from. This has been sparked by writing a story set in the land of my birth, Zambia, where I raise the issue of land and language - i.e. the naming of things, from the original African names (in this case Mosi-oa-Tunya) to European colonial re-labelling and subsequent post-colonial attempts at African linguistic reclamation. This is an ongoing issue pertinent to South Africa too. I've been looking forward to returning to Cape Town, South Africa, for a little while next year (2007), and will hopefully be flying in to Cape Town International (C.T.I.) Airport - no longer DF Malan (one of the founders of apartheid) Airport, as it has previously been known. Not really an African epithet, C.T.I., but there is some move to include fairly neutral names too, in the spirit of 'national reconciliation'.

I'm hoping to partly justify the carbon monoxide load of the flight by following up writing workshops I've held at Oscar Mpetha High School. Last time I was there the students elected to have it run in English, rather than through an interpreter, despite isiXhosa being their predominant home language. From what I gathered, they chose to use and write in English, as it is seen by many as the language of success and economic/world opportunity. The British Empire may be long gone, but the language of Empire still lingers on.

This may be of some concern for indigenous languages that could become increasingly marginalised, despite being vital repositories of identity and traditional/cultural knowledge. Languages can also die within communities that are facing re-colonisation or being forced into abandoning traditional resources and lifestyles, like the dangers facing the Khoi San in Botswana. There, many San (Bushmen) face forced 'resettlement' camps that throttle their traditional hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle; 'joblessness' and alcohol consumption no doubt ensuing in familiar destructive patterns for indigenous colonised peoples. (This is supposedly driven by governmental directives to facilitate 'integration', yet with a background of diamond companies looking for yet more mining land.)

There is an interesting online National Geographic article about the dying San lifestyle and the issue of names and meanings at:
For more general information on the San people and organisations of support:

South Africa has eleven official languages but I can speak only two; English and an increasingly sparse and frayed Afrikaans, with smatterings of Zulu and isiXhosa phrases picked up over the years - certainly not enough to work without an interpreter in non-English settings. I have had many varied experiences working with interpreters down the years, so I know it's a potentially problematic way of operating too - Rachel Tribe and Hitesh Raval's (2002) book Working with Interpreters in Mental Health offers some very useful advice - but I sometimes wish for the simplicity of a 'Babel fish' inserted in the ear a la Douglas Adams in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But there can also be good reasons for not being privy to all the nuances and details of everyone's communicative exchanges too. Thus, for example, I remember running an art therapy group during the State of Emergency in the late eighties in a psychiatric hospital for blacks only mental health patients in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. (It was also not unknown at the time for political opponents of apartheid to be incarcerated as 'mentally ill' and fairly common for emotional and 'mental' deterioration to accompany torture and prolonged detentions.) The group was run with the help of Zulu staff interpreters and I asked for patients to draw pictures of a hero or model person they admired or wished they could be like. Someone drew Nelson Mandela, who at the time was banned, imprisoned and with state sanctions in place against talking about him. As all visual images of Mandela had also been either officially deleted and/or censored, one of the staff members took the drawing, studied it carefully - and then pronounced it was indeed a very good likeness! He went on to proudly announce that he was also 'clever' because he also remembered what Mandela looked like from the Rivonia Treason Trial. There was a burst of group laughter and much of the subsequent conversation zinged around in Zulu, with minimal interpretation, and maximal rejuvenating energy for the group. The privacy of conversation seemed to afford them a sense of solidarity and no doubt privacy from myself as a marginalised (non-Zulu speaking) therapist/authority figure of - then as yet uncertain - trustworthiness. This was certainly adaptive, given the times, although if it entrenches us-them thinking in more open and current political climates, it may not always be helpful.

Different languages provide a richer repertoire of world-interpretations; i.e. may offer slightly different 'lenses' for 'seeing' the world or carving up experiences - an interesting SF tale extending this premise to language shaping reality is Ian Watson's first novel The Embedding from the early 1970's. Linguistic relativity as suggested by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is a fertile source for research examining the relationship between language and thought:

Having (sufficient) publication opportunities for diverse languages seems one way of trying to ensure their survival - Cape Town's Centre for the Book is one project of a number that supports this endeavour:

I think a tapestry of stories from across the world will be stronger for being based in their original tongues - translations are invaluable and may extend their reach, but will hopefully never entirely replace the original linguistic sources. (Although it is inevitable all languages will evolve with interaction and history; some more so than others.) But I fear we face the threat of too much biological extinction in the global warming years ahead, without needing to add the words so many (or now so few) of us speak too.

With regard to possible reading material for the Oscar Mpetha High School, I've just finished (and hope to make use of) Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's (2005) Zahrah the Windseeker. It's an engaging tale of a young adolescent girl's attempt to rescue a friend who has been bitten by a deadly snake, by venturing alone on a dangerous quest far out into 'The Greeny Jungle' in search of a cure. It is wonderfully described with appealing characters and enriched by the detailed contrasts of organic technology in the static community that fears the jungle and the wildness and diversity of life in the jungle beyond community borders. The book has a mythic resonance emanating from a Nigerian (Igbo) story of The Flying Africans that provides an underpinning for Zahrah's quest and her latent abilities. I think the YA students at Oscar Mpetha High will enjoy the book very much.

And, talking of enjoyment, I mentioned previously a few examples of some of the music I enjoy while writing - but this was only a few examples. I have a broad love of music in many forms, but perhaps not stretching quite as far as gangsta rap and James Blunt.

Till next time:
Salani Kahle (Zulu) Stay well (Plural)
Totsiens (Afr) Till I see you
Salaam (Arabic) Peace
E haere ra (Maori) Goodbye (from a person staying)
Ka kite ano (Maori) Until I see you again
Sayonara (Japanese) Goodbye
Goodbye (Eng)

Naro – one of the Khoisan languages, still spoken, apparently, by a few people in the Kalahari.
[Loaded in graphics to show diacritics correctly – Webmaster].

  • OR, if using IPA (International Phonetic Association) method of transcription:
    Meaning, literally, Stay well, with rain.

  • OR, if using IPA (International Phonetic Association) method of transcription:
    Meaning, literally, You must stay cold, with God.

  • *!?ala (#Hoan) - 'peripheral Khoisan etymology for goodbye' - I used a Google(c) search for this one and I have little idea about phonetic pronunciation I'm afraid; although I do know languages of the Khoisan are amongst the most ancient of spoken languages still existing and that many have 'clicks' in them.

Nick Wood - Nov/Dec 2006