The Ons Onthou: Griekwalanders vertel | We remember: Griqualanders and their stories project is gathering precious heritage data in Griqualand-West. Supported by the Mellon Foundation and Oppenheimer Generations, and working with community members, our fieldworker, Martin Mössmer has been recording the Khoekhoe language called Xri as spoken by the last three known living speakers. No archival audio record of Xri is known to exist outside of this project, and the last speakers are very elderly. The cultural heritage and traditions of the Griekwa people is also being documented, as told by numerous community members, and integrated with their personal histories and stories. Together, these give insight into the decline of the language, and how it has been maintained by some speakers and ‘rememberers’ of Xri, despite being classified as moribund by linguists in the early twentieth century.
In the interviews, people tell stories about the Waterslang –a dangerous water being that inhabits rivers and springs– and encounters with him, about their initiation experiences as young women, being confined in a hok and then introduced to the Waterslang to give them luck and safety from him. Others reminisce about an older way of life that they lived as children, closer to a traditional Khoekhoe lifestyle, and how things changed in the turbulent times of Apartheid, and the bitter-sweet years post-Apartheid. Some remember how their elders used to speak to each other in Xri, but kept the children away, or what veldkos – food from the veldt – they ate and bitterkruie – medicinal herbs – were gathered and used for healing and rituals. These interviews capture some of the last memories and recollections of a heritage that is under extreme threat, as younger community members are said to show little interest in their cultural inheritance. There is a small movement of older community members who are beginning to breathe life back into their old ways and traditions, despite the harsh economic challenges that the communities face.
Martin Mössmer is also examining Xri language attrition –how and why the language has ceased to be used and spoken– and how some non-fluent community members try to keep a part of the language alive, by using a small lexicon of Xri words in everyday speech. He is also exploring the relationship between maintaining the Xri language and maintaining Griekwa cultural heritage, and creative ways in which community members make this possible. Martin hopes to explore the Xri–Afrikaans interface in a PhD project, and is interested in the contact variety used by some today, and how it relates to early ‘Afrikaans’. The Ons Onthou: Griekwalanders vertel project forms a valuable resource for understanding the social factors in language change in the communities over the past century, and it is hoped that it might help to revive interest and enthusiasm for this threatened heritage.