Other Authors in Oral Tradition
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The Sun and the Children
The Girl Who Made Stars
To the Young Moon
The Broken String
Thoughts About Returning Home
The Bushman Drum and Dancing Rattles
How Dancing Rattles are Prepared
Beating the !Goin!Goin Drum for Honey
The Bushman Dance
Death and the Rain
What the Wind Does After Death
Treatment of Thieves
There are many different Bushmen peoples in southern Africa, primarily in the Kalahari Desert. The San and !Kun peoples from whom the following stories were collected (1870-85), inhabited the Cape Colony and were sometimes referred to as Flat or Grass Bushmen. The !Kun were Bushmen who were encountered beyond Damarland. Although their languages were similar, the two groups could not understand each other. Both languages make use of about five or six different click sounds, which here are not differentiated but indicated by a single exclamation mark. These people may have lived in southern Africa for over 20,000 years; at one time they may have occupied a large part of the continent.
The area the Busmen live in has been invaded by the more robust Bantu populations expanding from the north for about 1,500 years, and by Europeans for about 200 years. The effect has been to reduce the indigenous population from several million to about 100,000 in what is an unacknowledged genocide. In South Africa, !Khomani bushmen retain must of the land rights. The situation is not so good in Botswana.
The following stories give us insight into some of the earliest views on natural phenomena, on dancing and drumming, on the place of poetry, on death and natural hazards, and on the struggle between justice and mercy. The sun spares the backbone of the moon so that it may grow again. The glowing ashes of the Milky Way provide light on dark nights. A poem portrays the sorrow of separation from a friend. A narrator tells of the his sense of separation from his people and his plan to journey home. Significantly, one of the things he misses most are the stories of his people.
The Sun comes, the darkness goes away, the Sun comes, the Sun sets, the darkness comes, the moon comes at night. The day breaks, the Sun comes out, the darkness goes away, the Sun comes. The moon comes out, the moon brightens the darkness, the darkness departs; the moon comes out, the moon shines, taking away the darkness. It goes along, it has made bright the darkness. It sets. The Sun comes out, the Sun comes after the darkness, the Sun takes away the moon—the moon stands, the Sun pierces it with the Sun's knife, as it stands; therefore, it decays away on account of it.
Therefore, it says: "O Sun! leave for the children [the San] the backbone!" Therefore, the Sun leaves the back-bone [of the Moon] for the children; the Sun does so. Therefore, the Sun says that the Sun will leave the backbone for the children, while the Sun assents to the Moon. The Sun leaves the backbone for the children; therefore, the moon painfully goes away, he painfully returns home.
While the Moon painfully goes along; therefore, the Sun desists, while the Moon feels that the Sun has left for the children the backbone, while the Sun assents to him. Therefore, the Sun leaves the backbone. While the Sun feels that the Sun assents to the Moon, therefore, the Sun desists on account of it.
He (the moon) painfully goes away, he painfully returns home. He again, he goes to become another moon, which is whole. He again, he lives; he again, he lives, while he feels that he had seemed to die. Therefore, he becomes a new moon. While he feels that he has again put on a stomach; he becomes large. While he feels that he is a moon which is whole; therefore, he is large. He comes, while he is alive. He goes along at night, he feels that he is the moon which goes by night, while he feels that he is a shoe*; therefore, he walks in the night.
The Sun is here, all the earth is bright. The Sun is here, the people walk while the place is light, the earth is light. The people perceive the bushes, they see the other people; they see the meat, which they are eating. They also see the springbok, they also hunt the springbok, in summer. They also hunt the ostrich, while they feel that the Sun shines; they also hunt the ostrich in summer.
They are shooting the springbok in summer, while they feel that the Sun shines, they see the springbok. They also steal up to the gemsbok; they also steal up to the kudu, while they feel that the whole place is bright.
They also visit each other, while they feel that the Sun shines, the earth also is bright, the Sun shines upon the path. They also travel in summer; they are shooting in summer; they hunt in summer; they see the springbok in summer. They go round to head off the springbok. They lie down; they feel that they lie in a little house of bushes. They scratch up the earth in the little house of bushes, they lie down, while the springbok come.
!kabbo, San People
* A mythical beast known as the Mantis, when inconvenienced by darkness, took off one of his shoes and threw it into the sky, ordering it to become the Moon.
My mother was the one who told me that the girl arose; she put her hands into the wood ashes; she threw up the wood ashes into the sky. She said to the wood ashes: "The wood ashes which are here, they must altogether become the Milky Way. They must white lie along in the sky, that the stars may stand outside of the Milky Way, while the Milky Way is the Milky Way, which used to be wood ashes."
They (the ashes) altogether become the Milky Way. The Milky Way must go round with the stars. While the Milky Way feels that, the Milky Way lies going round. While the stars sail along; therefore, the Milky Way, lying, goes along with the Stars.
The Milky Way, when the Milky Way stands upon the earth, the Milky Way turns across in front. While the Milky Way means to wait, while the Milky Way feels that the Stars are turning back; while the Stars feel that the Sun is the one who has turned back, he is upon his path. The Stars turn back; while they go to fetch the daybreak; that they may lie nicely, while the Milky Way lies nicely. The Stars shall also stand nicely around. They shall sail along upon their footprints, which they, always sailing along, are following. While they feel that they are the Stars which descend.
The Milky Way lying comes to its place, to which the girl threw up the wood ashes, that it may descend nicely; it had lying gone along, while it felt that it lay upon the sky. It had lying gone round, while it felt that the Stars also turned round. They turning round passed over the sky. The sky lies (still); the Stars are those which go along; while they feel that they sail. They had been setting; they had, again, been coming out; they had, sailing along, been following their footprints. They become white, when the Sun comes out. The Sun sets, they stand around above; while they feel that they did turning follow the Sun.
The darkness comes out; they (the Stars) wax red, while they had at first been white. They feel that they stand brightly around; that they may sail along; while they feel that it is night. Then, the people go by night; while they feel that the ground is made light. While they feel that the Stars shine a little. Darkness is upon the ground. The Milky Way gently glows; while it feels that it is wood ashes. Therefore, it gently glows. While it feels that the girl was the one who said that the Milky Way should give a little light for the people, that they might return home by night, in the middle of the night. For, the earth would not have been a little light, had not the Milky Way been there. It and the Stars.
!kabbo, San People
Hail, Young Moon!
Speak to me!
Tell me of something.
When the sun rises,
You must speak to me,
That I may eat something.
You must speak to me About a little thing,
That I may eat.
!nanni, !Kun People
People were those who
Broke for me the string.
The place became like this to me,
On account of it,
Because the string was that which broke for me.
The place does not feel to me,
As the place used to feel to me,
On account of it.
The place feels as if it stood open before me,
Because the string has broken for me.
The place does not feel pleasant to me,
On account of it.
Dia!kwain, San People
You know that I sit waiting for the moon to turn back for me, that I may return to my place. That I may listen to all the people's stories, when I visit them; that I may listen to their stories, that which they tell; they listen to the Flat Bushmen's stories from the other side of the place. They are those which they thus tell. They are listening to them, while the other, the sun, becomes a little warm. That I may sit in the sun, that I may, sitting, listen to the stories which come from over there, which are stories which come from a distance. A story is like the wind, it comes from a far-off quarter, and we feel it. Then, I shall get hold of a story from them, because the stories float out from a distance, while the sun feels a little warm; while I feel that I must altogether visit; that I may be talking with them, my fellow men. . .
My fellow men are those who are listening to stories from afar, which float along; they are listening to stories from other places. For, I am here; I do not obtain stories; because I do not visit so that I might hear stories which float along. While I feel that the people of another place are here; they do not possess my stories. They do not talk my language; for, they visit their like. With the stories of their own part of the country too . . .
The Flat Bush men go to each other's huts; that they may smoking sit in front of them. Therefore, they obtain stories at them; because they are used to visit; for they are smoking people. As for me, I am waiting that the moon may turn back for me; that I may set my feet forward in the path. For, I truly think that I must only await the moon; that I may tell my boss, that I feel this is the time when I should sit among my fellow men, who walking meet their like. They are listening to each other. I think of visits; that I ought to visit; that I ought to talk with my fellow men . . .
(After walking) I must first sit a little, cooling my arms; that the fatigue may go out of them, because I sit. I merely listen, watching for a story, which I want to hear; while I sit waiting for it; that it may float into my ear. These are those to which I am listening with all my ears. While I feel that, I sit silent. I must wait listening behind me, while I listen along the road; while I feel that my name floats along the road; they (my three names) float along to my place. I will go to sit at it; that I may listening turn backwards (with my ears) to my feet's heels, on which I went; while I feel that a story is the wind.
It (the story) is wont to float along to another place. Then, our names do pass through those people; while they do not perceive our bodies go along. For, our names are those which, floating, reach a different place. The mountains lie between (the two different roads). A man's name passes behind the mountains' back; those names with which he returning goes along. While he feels that the road is that which lies thus; and the man is upon it. The road is around his place, because the road curves.
The people who dwell at another place, their ear does listening go to meet the returning man's names, those with which he returns. He will examine the place. For, the trees of the place seem to be handsome; because they have grown tall; while the man of the place (!kabbo) has not seen them, that he might walk among them. For, he came to live at a different place; his place it is not. For, it was so with him that people were those who brought him to the people's place, that he should first come to work for a little while at it. He is the one who thinks now of his own place, that he must be the one to return.
He only awaits the return of the moon; that the moon may go round, that he may return, that he may examine the water pits; those at which he drank. He will work, putting the old hut in order, while he feels that he has gathered his children together, that they may work, putting the water in order for him. For, he did go away, leaving the place, while strangers were those who walked at the place. Their place it is not; for !kabbo's father's father's place it was.
!kabbo , San People
They tie, putting the bag—the wet skin of a springbok’s thigh—over the pot's mouth. Then they tie on the sinew. And they pull the drum's surface tight ; for they wish that the drum may sound, when they beat the drum.
The men will tie springbok ears upon their feet; they will dance, while the springbok ears sound, as springbok ears are wont to do, like what we call dancing rattles. They are springbok ears; we call them dancing rattles. They sound well, when we have tied them on to our feet. They sound well, when we have tied them on to our feet. They sound well, they rattle as we dance, when we have tied them on to our feet. The drum which the women beat sounds well. Therefore, the men dance well on account of it, while they feel that the drum, which the women beat, sounds well. The dancing rattles which the men tie upon their feet sound well, because a woman who works carefully is the one who has worked them. Therefore, they sound nicely, because they are good. Therefore, they sound nicely, because they are good.
!han_kass’o, San People
A woman takes off the skin of the springbok's ear; and then she sews the inner skin of the springbok's ear, when she has laid aside the hairy part of the springbok's ear; for it is the inner skin of its ear which she sews. And she sews it, and she scoops up with her hand, putting soft earth into it.
And they dig and put in earth, because they wish that the springbok ears may dry; that they may put in !kerri berries when they have taken out the earth. And then they tie on a small piece of sinew at the tip of the springbok ear, which was open. They tie this, shutting in the !kerri berries, so that the !kerri berries may not come out of the springbok ear. And they pierce through the springbok ears; and they put in little threads, which the men are to tie, fastening the springbok ears on their feet.
!han_kass’o, San People
The people beat the !goin!goin, so that the bees may become abundant for the people, so that the bees may go into the other people's places, that the people may eat honey. Therefore, the people beat the !goin!goin,, when they desire that the people's bees may go into the other people's places, so that the people may cut honey, that they may put honey away into bags.
And the people carry honey. And the people, carrying, bring the honey home. And the people take honey to the women at home. For, the women are dying of hunger, at home. Therefore, the men take honey to the women at home; that the women may go to eat, for they feel that the women have been hungry at home; while they wish that the women may make a drum for them, so that they may dance, when the women are satisfied with food. For they do not make merry when they are hungry.
!han_kass’o, San People Lloyd
And they dance, when the women have made a drum for them. Therefore, the women make a drum for them; they dance. The men are those who dance, while the women sit down, because they clap their hands for the men when the men are those who dance. While one woman is the one who beats the drum, many women are those who clap their hands for the men, because they feel that many men are dancing.
Then, the sun rises, while they are dancing there, while they feel that they are satisfied with food. Then, the sun rises, while they are dancing there, while they feel that the women are satisfied with food. Therefore, the sun shines upon the backs of their heads, while the women get the dust of the drum. Then the men are covered with dust, while the dust of the drum lies upon the women's faces, because the women are accustomed to sit down there; therefore, the dust of the drum lies upon the women's faces. Because the men do not dance just a little, for they dance very much. Therefore, the dust from their feet covers the women's faces; because they have danced strongly. Therefore, they get the dust from their feet, which rises up from their feet. It rises up among them, as they stand dancing. They dance, standing around, while the women are those who sit down. The men are those who dance, standing around.
Therefore they sleep, letting the sun set; because they are tired when they have been dancing there; while the women leave off drumming. Therefore they sleep, letting the sun set; because they are tired when they have been dancing there. Therefore, they sleep, letting the sun set; because they are tired when they have been dancing there. The place becomes dark, as they sleep there, because they are tired, when they have danced there.
Therefore, morning is when they send the children to the water, that the children may dip up water for them, that they may drink; for they are thirsty. Therefore, the children go early to dip up for them, at the break of day, so that they may come to drink. For they are thirsty.
They become aware that they are tired. Therefore, it does not seem as if they will be those to send the children to the water; for they feel at first that they are still tired. Therefore, it does not seem as if they will be those to send the children to the water. Because they are still sleeping there for a while; because they are still tired. Therefore, they do not seem as if they will be those to send the children to the water. Therefore, only when they are awake, they send the children to the water; when they feel that they have had their sleep out. Therefore, they are awake. And then they send the children to the water. They speak to the children, they thus say to the children, that the children must quickly bring them water, that they may quickly come to drink. For they are thirsty.
!han_kass’o, San People
For, mother and the others used to tell us about it, that a girl, when the rain has carried her off, becomes like a flower which grows in the water.
We who do not know are apt to do thus when we perceive them, as they stand in the water, when we see that they are so beautiful. We think, "I will go take the flowers which are standing in the water. For they are not a little beautiful." Mother and the others said to us about it, that the flower, when it saw that we went towards it, would disappear in the water. We should think, '"The flowers which were standing here, where are they? Why is it that I do not perceive them at the place where they stood, here ?" It would disappear in the water, when it saw that we went towards it. We would not see it, for it would go into the water.
Therefore mother and the others said to us about it, that we ought not to go to the flowers which we see standing in the water, even if we see their beauty. For, they are girls who the rain has taken away, they resemble flowers; for they are the water's wives, and we look at. them, leaving them alone. For we should also be like them in what they do.
Therefore, mother and the others do in this manner with regard to their Bushman girls, they are not willing to allow them to walk about, when the rain comes. For they are afraid that the rain also intends, with lightning, to kill them. For the rain is a thing which acts in this manner when it rains here, it smells our scent, it brings lightning out of the place where it rains. The lightning comes, killing us at this place. Therefore, mother and the others told us about it, that when the rain falls upon us and we walk passing through the rain, if we see that the rain makes lightning in the sky we must quickly look towards the place where the rain makes lightning, the rain which intended to kill us by stealth.
It will do in this manner, even if its shining-stone thunderbolts have come near us. If we turn towards the lightning, we look, making its thunderbolts turn back from us; for our eye also shines like its thunderbolts. Therefore, it also appears to fear our eye, when it feels that we quickly look towards it. Therefore, it passes over us on account of it; while it feels that it respects our eye which shines upon it. Therefore, it goes over us; it goes to sit on the ground over there, where it does not kill us.
Dia!kwain, San People
The wind does thus when we die, our (own) wind blows; for we, who are human beings, we possess wind; we make clouds, when we die. Therefore, the wind does thus when we die, the wind makes dust, because it intends to blow, taking away our footprints, with which we had walked about while we still had nothing the matter with us. And our footprints, which the wind intends to blow away, would otherwise still lie plainly visible. For, the thing would seem as if we still lived. Therefore, the winds intends to blow, taking away our footprints.
Dia!kwain, San People
A female child, if her mother is dead and the female child is an only child, it goes to another person's hut. Another day, if she steals, the other person into whose hut she went to live takes her, and gives her to the other person, the other from whom she stole. The other people kill her altogether. They put her into a hut, and burn, killing her with fire; and she dies altogether; and the other people return home.
If a man steals, we kill him, we shoot, killing him with many arrows, and do not put him into the fire; but kill him altogether with arrows. It is only a woman we burn, burn, putting her into the fire. And if a child steals, we merely scold the child, and do not kill the child.
If a !kun woman steals, and her father and her mother are still there, we take hold of her, we give her to her mother and her father; and they all go away from their place. Her stolen thing, we take it, we run, we give it to the other person, run to give to the other person the other person's thing. And we say to the other person: "My wife stole your thing which is here; your nice thing here, my wife stole. And I have given back my wife to her father and her mother. For, my wife stole the nice thing here."
And the other person hears, and objects (saying): "No, kill your wife." And, we hear, and object, saying: "No, I do not listen to you, and will not kill my wife; for, my wife has gone away, has gone to her father and her mother; and is far away; and has gone to her country; and I will not kill my wife." . . .
!nanni, !Kun People
Adapted from Specimens of Bushmen Folklore, collected by W. H. L. Bleek and edited by L. C. Lloyd. George Allen and Company Ltd, London, 1911.The book is available on-line at the Sacred Texts website.
The current plight of the bushmen is described at the Survival International website and at the Bretton Woods Project website.
Other Authors in Oral Tradition