Khoi San centre will keep heritage alive

A hundred kilometres from the closest big town, a San community and the makers of a documentary on their disappearing language are hoping to build a cultural centre.

On land the community has set aside, the team behind award-winning documentary Lost Tongue intend to build a multimedia and skills centre for the community. Even here, in what can be described as the point between somewhere and nowhere, they hope to build a place of memory, an emblematic cultural space to rechart a region’s fortunes and save a culture from extinction.

Davison Mudzingwa, the Lost Tongue director, explains the vision. “With the community we want to build a multimedia skills centre, a central place where the community can come together and use film, photography and sound to tell their own stories.”

It is to be a safe space to remember, celebrate and protect the N!uu language, a space where the community can create, curate, save and share their culture with the world. Construction will begin as soon the community and the filmmakers can find funding.

Producer Francis Hweshe says they have reached out to funders already. But, in tough times, it has been difficult to convince companies and funders to part with cash. “For us, this is the next and important step. We tell people that if they are worried by what we lose when a language dies, then this is the first step. Let’s try to save what we can together.”

The community as partners

For some communities, cultures die because young people are drawn to the cities. In finding their space they lose their sense of home and, eventually, memories of their identity and language disappear.

For a budgeted R17-million, the community and Mvura Ya Afrika Productions will build a centre that uses technology to breathe life into a language spoken only in one small corner of Africa, and broadcast it to the world. They envision that all the content created by the people using the centre will be available online.

Elders see this project as necessary not just to save their language, but also to save their people. Like many forgotten groups, Hweshe explains, “…the youth are on the margins. This is a community ravaged by drugs and alcohol. The future of the youth is also important to the elders. For the community this is a way to empower them as a people.”The centre will also be accessible to the group at all times. The builders are planning to host summer schools and holiday activities. But this is not the only reason the centre will be built in Andriesvale, as opposed to a bigger town.“People are not tourist attractions. We do not want to commodify the community. Outsiders who visit the centre will be there because they have an interest in the community; they will be cultural activists or academics – experts who are there to uplift the community.”

Window to the world

Short films, photo essays and recordings of the community’s mother tongue will be accessible to an audience beyond the dusty streets of Andriesvale. The archive will be accessible to anyone anywhere. And the online radio station will allow the people of the village to reach out to the world.

For Mudzingwa, technology is the most important tool available to help save African languages. “For rural African communities, technology makes the world accessible. It is the best way for us to preserve a culture and a way of life. It makes it possible for anyone to document and archive a culture we are at risk of losing.”

Making the centre a reality matters to the producers of Lost Tongue. They do not want to be remembered as just another production that smiled, shot and then left the place as they found it. “As Africans we are passionate about preserving an African culture. It was never going to be enough to be complimented on our film without something tangible being born out of it,” Mudzingwa explains.Mudzingwa, Hweshe and the community understand the urgency. There are just a handful of N!uu speakers left; according to researchers there may as few as six – all frail and living in communities where their language, and the heritage that goes along with it, is considered unimportant.“

We need to learn from these people. We need to show the value of these people who have clung to their identity despite losing so much else,” Mudzingwa explains. “Imagine if we let go of our own people, tribes and nations in the same way. This centre will help maintain this community, and allow the generations that come after to learn.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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