Christa Kilian-Hatz. Folktales of the Kxoe in the West Caprivi. Cologne: R. KÖ¶ppe, 1999. 338 Pages. EUR 39.88 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89645-081-4.
Reviewed by Gertrud Boden (University of Cologne)
Published on H-SAfrica (December, 2002)
This book presents a collection of twenty-one folktales of the Khwe people in the Caprivi strip of north-eastern Namibia. The Khwe texts are accompanied by interlinear morphologic word-by-word translations placed immediately beneath each line. Idiomatic English translations follow separately after each tale and are readable as coherent texts. Sentences are numbered so that each passage of a Khwe text can easily be cross-checked with the English translation. The book thus serves equally the needs of Khwe people interested in learning to read and write their own language, the needs of linguists interested in the structure of the language, as well as the needs of scholars in oral literature interested in subjects of folktales or folklore. It provides easy access to the tales and is useful for all three groups of readers it wants to serve.
The book is a text collection and a sourcebook. It does not intend to and, thus, does not provide us with a more general perspective on oral literature or a detailed cultural and historical contextualization. A very short introduction presents the reader with brief information on the Khwe people (one page, plus a map of Caprivi), and a section on their oral literature including paragraphs headed "Kinds of Discourse", "Main Motifs", "Character of Animals" and "Performance" (six pages), "A Short Comparative Aote" (two pages) and "Presentation of the Tales" (one page). Additionally, the introduction contains notes on the orthography (one page) and on "Technical Issues" (one page). The latter paragraph gives particulars on the place, time, and circumstances of the recordings as well as on the contributors to the book.
Each tale is followed by a short interpretative comment on the message of the tale or the lesson to be learned from it. Footnotes provide information on the date and place of the recording event, on scientific names of animals and plants and, occasionally, on the literal meaning of a Khwe expression. They further contain remarks on interesting particularities of language usage including, for example, insulting by using opposite sex pronouns, speaking of oneself in the third person, etc. A short list of references closes the monograph.
All the tales were narrated by Dao Ngyengye, a Khwe woman of about forty years of age. They were transcribed and translated in co-operation with the secretary of the Khwe Traditional Authority in West Caprivi, David Naude. Seventy-nine charcoal drawings by Benat B. Diwana, are embedded into the English translations. On average there are two to five illustrations for each of the tales. They are of irregular quality with some physiognomies of animals being striking and others rather coarse. Surprisingly quite a number of illustrations show a silhouette of hills in the background although topographically, West Caprivi is particularly flat. Only in rare cases do the illustrations show human beings, but if so they are dressed in loincloths and accompanied by other outlived specimens of material culture like, for example, dome-shaped grass huts (p. 111). Although the draftsman of these illustrations certainly is not a gifted artist, it should be noted that he is a member of the Khwe community and gives us an impression of how the Khwe themselves may imagine the topics of the tales.
The enormity of the task of transcription and interlinearization cannot be over-emphasized. This is especially the case for students of Khwe vocabulary, grammar, and orthography. Reducing the number of errors in the transcription and interlinearization is, of course, a hard and niggling job given the size of the book. Not being a linguist myself, I just scrolled the pages, but it made me feel uneasy upon discovery of several errors even through this superficial inspection.
Except for a much smaller collection of seven Khwe folktales by Heine (1997), this book is the only published documentation of Khwe folktales. Other than folktales, a huge quantity of Khwe texts has been published before by K=hler (1989, 1991, 1997). These are, however, only translated into German and, thus, inaccessible for the greater part of the scientific community as well as for the Khwe people themselves. Apart from presenting a different type of text, that is, folktales, the book of Kilian-Hatz has the advantage of providing the reader with an interlinear as well as an English translation and with a more user-friendly size and price.
The book's introduction on the Khwe people is a very rough sketch, just mentioning their affiliation to the Central-Khoisan language group, their dialectal or regional differentiation, their numbers in the different countries in Southern Africa as well as some former linguistic and socio-linguistic work on them.
Other historical information shimmers through and is made use of in some of the comments, though without being made explicit. The reader is assumed to have regional expertise and to know, for example, that the Khwe are classed with the populations called "Bushmen" or "San" in Southern Africa, or that for part of their history they lived in a type of patron-client relationship, partly manifesting itself in enslavement and brutal domination by Mbukushu people, and represented as such in the current struggles for political representation. This background knowledge is required to comprehend comments such as that in the tale about "Warthog and Bumble-bee" which states "even if one's size is smaller, one can still be 'bigger' in more essential ways. This may also be valid for the smaller size of the Kxoe [Khwe] in comparison to their taller Bantu neighbours" (p. 41).
What I have said about historical information is also true for cultural background information. The way kin terms are used in the book would raise interesting questions concerning kin roles in general or how kin terms are used in order to provoke the very behavior corresponding to that particular kin term. A number of comments are only superficial observations leaving relevant cultural background unmentioned. It is true, for example, that the home-fire is the responsibility of the woman (p. 31); however, it is also true that it is a man, as the founder of a new settlement, who has to make the first fire at a ritual place before it can be taken to every single fire in front of the different houses. In the tale, the fire was first with the lion, the only male person in the story. Different animals undertook futile attempts to steal the fire from him and finally the ostrich managed to secure it for the people by setting a number of trees on fire. All these other animals are females, so that the tale provides a striking parallel to the founding of a new settlement. Supplying such details would allow other possible associations and interpretations.
In the commentary on the story about "Hippo and Fire," Kilian-Hatz correctly mentions that this story is also well-known among other populations in Namibia. For a comparative perspective, this is no more than an arbitrary hint. It raises questions about the relationship between Khwe folklore and that of their closest neighbours as well as that of related languages. The comparative note is restricted to some of the works of Sigrid Schmidt on Khoisan folklore and some works on the Baka-Pygmies among whom the author did previous research. Likewise, the short list of references lacks extensive publications of other authors on Khoisan folklore. Nor does it cover the scope of literature on the folklore of speech communities of other Khoisan languages or that of the Khwe people themselves.
According to Kilian-Hatz (p. 5), the Khwe distinguish two kinds of narratives: "true stories" and "stories that are not true." "True stories" are stories describing hunting, gathering, or healing events as means of instruction for the young and inexperienced. It is not made clear whether narratives of specific events such as foraging or other trips are meant to be stories that constitute an additional type, or if such narratives would generally also be regarded as instructive by the Khwe. My own impression from occasional story-telling events is that the unforeseen contingencies and suspense of hunting trips or journeys are always suitable for a narrative because of these very qualities. The vagueness of the classification may be due to the fact that the book only presents tales of the type "stories that are not true" to which the Khwe also refer as stories of "how people lived in earlier times," that is, in mythical times. The appropriate Khwe term is y==ceregu, but they are also named with the Mbukushu term d=t=ng= (p. 5).
Kilian-Hatz then differentiates fables, legends, and creation myths although the Khwe do not make that difference themselves, and although "it was not always possible to clearly assign a tale to one or the other genre. Quite often, a creation myth is at the same time a fable or a legend" (p. 6). Understandably the tales are then not ordered according to the categories established by the author. The typology seems to be neither clearly differentiated nor particularly useful. Fables are characterized as animal stories containing instructions on how to behave and thus explanations for the existence of social laws, that is "social creation myths." They are said to always have a happy ending for a small but clever protagonist (p. 5).
No differing characteristics of legends are mentioned. They seem to be stories about K=r=k=r=n=, the Khwe's most clever hero (could we call him trickster?), as well as tales about monsters and mythical animals. Within the whole collection only the last two tales are about K=r=k=r=n= and a man-eating monster, respectively. The people who became the Khwe ancestors finally kill the latter. This tale is, however, not categorized as a creation myth. Although "these legends also happen in times immemorial and are, therefore, myths" (p. 6), they are nevertheless differentiated from the third category of creation myths.
All but one example of the last category of creation myths are animal stories, explaining the creation of their special characteristics like colour of fur, shape of feet, etc. One tale explains how the Khwe got fire.
The fact that animals are created from humans and not vice-versa seems to be given special relevance, but for a non-specialist in folklore the degree of exceptionality is, of course, difficult to evaluate. From that fact, Kilian-Hatz deduces an "anthropomorphic construction of the world" and an expression of the "strong interdependence between the fauna and the hunter-gatherer Kxoe [Khwe]" (p. 6).
As the main motif underlying all Khwe tales, Kilian-Hatz identifies a so-called "David-and-Goliath-principle." This means that protagonists are small, young, physically feeble, clever, successful, good, friendly, disciplined, and well intentioned, whereas their antagonists show the very opposite qualities and capacities. Subordinate motifs such as competition, exchange of roles, carelessness, elimination of an enemy, and "beat someone at his own game" are listed (p. 7). As examples for the competition motif, a tale about a race between tortoise and hare, and a tale about a competition for the most beautiful coat between leopard and chameleon, are mentioned (p. 7).
The exchange-of-roles-motif is said to be confined to creation myths. The tale about vulture and korhaan is such an example. The korhaan first had the best feather-coat and did not want to lend it to his "uncle," the vulture. While korhaan was bathing, vulture stole his feathers and never gave them back to the egoist korhaan (p. 7).
The third sub-motif is carelessness. Carelessness in spite of warnings and danger always ends tragically for the protagonist. One example is the tale about polecat and rock monitor. Rock monitor warns polecat that war is coming and hides. But polecat is happy about the abundance of bushfruits and keeps on eating noisily and singing, and is finally killed by the warriors (p. 8).
The fourth motif is the elimination of an enemy. This is said to be a special variant of the David-and-Goliath-principle, which likewise could be said of the tales with the competition-motif. The tale concerns two brothers; the younger one is a successful hunter, while the older brother is a miserable one who envies and kills the former. This is interpreted as an equivalent to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which the "innocent victim becomes the martyr" so that "the principle that the younger (i.e. smaller) one wins in the end is not violated" (p. 8).
The last motif is called "beat someone at his own game" and could also be subsumed under the David-and-Goliath-principle. In one of the tales, jackal outwits his "uncle," the lion, by tasting a special fruit and pretending to die from it, thus reserving all the fruits for himself (p. 8).
While reading the tales one could easily think of a number of other recurrent motifs, such as humiliation, revenge, in-group support morality, the equating of "foreign" with "dangerous," the importance attached to respectful behavior or the imposition of sanctions for arrogance, etc. The author mentions all of these motifs in her comments, but, for whatever reasons, does not mention them in her overview. The main problem with the comments, however, is that one does not know whose ideas they represent, the author's or those of the Khwe. It seems that the comments are messages and moral instructions the author herself draws from the tales. They need not be false and probably are not, but "an exegetical foray into so culturally alien a story can readily lead to error or to unwitting projection of a Western meaning scheme upon a decidedly non-Western story."
The motif of the smaller and clever one outwitting the bigger and stronger one--Kilian-Hatz's "David-and-Goliath-principle"--is a recurrent theme in all Khoisan folktales, yet is generally referred to as trickster motif. As it turns up so often in the tales presented here, it can be said also to be fundamental for Khwe folklore. Postulating the concept of "a martyr as a winner" without further elaboration on Khwe moral concepts seems, however, to be a bit audacious. Following up to what extent and in which way biblical ideas have been accommodated by the Khwe and eventually have enriched or otherwise changed their folktales would, of course, be an interesting question to investigate in more detail. We simply learn that the Khwe call biblical stories q=va y==ceregu, that is "y==ceregu of the Whites".
In the tales some animals are more prominent and central than others. The more prominent ones act in several stories, whereas other animals just appear in a single story--that is, their "creation myth." Only the central characters have a typical personality. Most prominent are two opponent pairs--for example, jackal versus lion and hare versus hyena. Hare is said to be the classical trickster, sometimes immoral and careless but finally a winner because of his cleverness.
The dichotomy of clever versus big/strong is then transferred to ethnic identities, the Khwe being equipped with "self-esteem based on cleverness that allows them to assert themselves successfully in conflicts with powerful neighbours" (p. 9). Although cleverness certainly is one aspect of Khwe or San identity, this is only part of the picture. At the same time there is also evidence for the very contrary, that is, a self-image characterised by ignorance (Taylor 2000: 63) or even stupidity (Suzman 2000: 109ff.), with these qualities being made responsible for the miserable socio-economic situation.
The tales were recorded at two different places within the Mutc'iku resettlement scheme, the blocks of which are confusingly referred to as "villages" and as having a "central fire place" (p. 14). During my own fieldwork among the Khwe in the years 1998 through 2000, I came to know these blocks as plots strung one-by-one along a block road without a central place. Although the families living on different plots may, of course, join at one fireplace for a social event like story-telling, the notion of "the central fire place of the village" evokes an image which does not account for the present outlook of the Mutc'iku resettlement scheme.
The tales were recorded on two evenings in the winter of 1997. It took the story-teller between five and twenty minutes to tell one story. Y==ceregu are narrated only at night; narration during day-time would reveal the secrets of the ancestors and would be sanctioned by losing their protection and getting lost in the bush. Any adult, man or woman, may tell a tale. A skilled or good narrator integrates the listeners into the performance by directing questions at them and taking up their remarks and questions, respectively. Songs and gestures enrich the performance and are explained in the comments. The author tries to convey an impression of the performance by transcribing not only the tale itself but also the remarks of listeners, and by denoting the lengths of breaks in speech. However, even with these aids at hand, a strong sense of imagination still is demanded from the reader in order to imagine such a story-telling event.
The language used by the story-teller contains expressions of the three different Khwe dialects as well as loanwords from Afrikaans, English, and Mbukushu. Beyond that, the story-teller allegedly uses some Khwe idioms of a "secret language" (p. 10) so that the readers may ask themselves in what respect this language is secret as it becomes very clear that story-telling is a public event for men, women, and children. Several times the story-teller refers to specific topics by saying "what we call in Kxoedam [Khwe language]". This may or may not be addressed to the researchers among the listeners, but we have to guess.
All the tales were told by the same woman, so that the reader does not get an impression of the variability in performance and the individual variation of subjects. This is a pity, as many authors display individual innovations and variations of tales, idiosyncratic rhetorical devices, and different levels of narrative competence.
It is, in a way, rather unjust to review a collection of more than 300 pages of original texts and translations by concentrating on fewer than 20 pages of contextualization. A detailed contextualization is neither intended by the author nor within the scope of the book. Therefore it should, in conclusion, be emphasized that the presentation is easily accessible and useful, and that scholars interested in Khwe language and folklore can be assured that they will find a notable sourcebook for their interests. As the main achievement of the book is the effort of transcription and translation, an anthropologist can only acknowledge the excellence of their presentation and utility. The tales themselves inspire a wide array of questions on Khwe concepts of cosmology, environment, and social life.
. The orthography for the ethnonym used in this review article is in accordance with the one voted for during the Penduka Declaration on the Standardisation of Ju and Khoe Languages by San representatives in April 2001. The previous spelling used by linguists is "Kxo=" in O. Koehler, Die Welt der Kxo-Buschleute im sdlichen Afrika: Eine Selbstdarstellung in ihrer eigenen Sprache, vol. I: Die Kxo-Buschleute und ihre ethnische Umgebung (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1989); or, "Kxoe" in M. Schladt, Language, Identity, and Conceptualization among the Khoisan (Cologne: Rudiger Koppe, 1998).
. In Namibia, so-called traditional communities may under certain conditions apply for government recognition of their own Traditional Authority. The denial of government recognition of the Khwe leadership in August 2001 implies that the Khwe people in West Caprivi as well as the land they live on remain under the sovereignty of the already state-recognized Traditional Authority of their Mbukushu neighbors.
. Low dunes alternate with flat dry river beds, the differences in altitude not being more than thirty meters: J. Mendelsohn and C. Roberts, An Environmental Profile and Atlas of Caprivi (Windhoek: Directorate of Environmental Affairs, 1997).
. Examples are on page 18, sentence no. 12 "kom" is not "come.IMP [Imperative]" but "listen.IMP"; p. 20, sentence no. 25 "//x'=n" for very is wrong, it must be "/'x=n" instead. Sometimes the English translation seems to contain a Khwe term, which, however, is then not to be found in the Khwe text like e.g. "clay-tuy=re" on page 329, sentence no. 17, obviously meaning the drums or dishes of a pair of bellows.
. Kilian-Hatz prefers the spelling "Khoesan" (p. 3).
. O. Kohler, "Die rituelle Jagd bei den Kxoe-Buschmnnern von Mutsiku," in K. Tauchmann, Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Helmut Petri (Koln: Bhlau Verlag, 1973), pp. 215-257; and Die Welt der Kxoe-Buschleute im sudlichen Afrika. Eine Selbstdarstellung in ihrer eigenen Sprache, vol. III, Materielle Ausrustung: Werden und Wandel. Wohnplatz und Buschlager (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1997).
. M. Biesel, "Folklore and Ritual of !Kung Hunter-Gatherers" (Ph.D. Thesis, Cambridge: Harvard University, 1975); "Aspects of !Kung Folklore," in Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours, ed. R. B. Lee and I. DeVore (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), pp. 303-324; "Religion and Folklore," in The Bushmen: San Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa, ed. P. V. Tobias (Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1978), pp. 162-172; Women Like Meat: The Folklore and Foraging Ideology of the Kalahari Ju/'hoan (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); W. H. I. Bleek, Reynard the Fox in South Africa, or Hottentot Fables and Tales (London: Trubner and Co., 1864); A Brief Account of Bushman Folklore and other Texts (London: Trubner & Co., 1875); Das wahre Gesicht des Buschmannes in seinen Mythen und Marchen. Nach Original-Buschmannerzahlungen (Basel: Zbinden and Hugin, 1938); W. H. I. Bleek and L. C. I. Lloyd, The Mantis and his Friends (Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1923); Specimens of Bushman Folklore (Cape Town: C. Struik, 1911, 1968); M. G. Guenther, Bushman Folktales: Oral Traditions of the Nharo of Boswana and the /Xam of the Cape (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1989); "Old Stories/Life Stories: Memory and Dissolution in Contemporary Bushman Folktales," in The Aesthetics of Story Telling ed. C. Birch and M. Heckler (Little Rock: August House Publishers, 1996), pp. 177-198; R. L. Hewitt, An Examination of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection of /Xam Bushman Narratives, with Special Reference to the Trickster/Kaggen (London: SOAS, 1976); S. Schmidt, "Tales and Beliefs about Eyes-on-his-feet. The Interrelatedness of Khoisan Folklore," in The Past and Future of !Kung Ethnography: Critical Reflections and Symbolic Perspectives. Essays in Honour of Lorna Marshall, ed. M. Biesele, R. Gordon, and R. B. Lee (Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1986), pp. 169-194.
. Heine (1997: 32-40) presents two Khwe stories of hunting trips.
. Other creation myths, which are not exemplified in the book, are said to explain the creation of all living beings, including humans, clans, and tribes. Cf. Boden (forthcoming) on Khwe texts explaining the creation of family names, in which no mythical beings are involved and Taylor (2000: 203) on a myth accounting for the creation of differences in subsistence and material culture between the Khwe and their different Bantu neighbours which can also be read as a time-lapse story of the order of arrival of the different populations in the area.
. M. E. Guenther, Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 143.
. Ibid.; and S. Schmidt, Catalogue of the Khoisan Folktales of Southern Africa. Part I: Sources and Indices, Part II: The Tales (Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1989).
. Michael Taylor, "Life, Land and Power. Contesting Development in Northern Botswana" (Ph.D. Thesis. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 2000); and James Suzman, Things from the Bush: A Contemporary History of the Omaheke Bushmen (Basel: P. Schlettwein Publications, 2000).
. Hewitt, An Examination of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection of /Xam Bushman Narratives; Biesel, Women Like Meat; and Guenther, Tricksters and Trancers.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Gertrud Boden. Review of Kilian-Hatz, Christa, Folktales of the Kxoe in the West Caprivi.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.