Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Last Hottentot

The Pondos are of Nguni stock and are close cousins to the amaZulu. Both groups migrated together out of Central Africa some six centuries earlier. The Zulus, finally finding enough land and that was not claimed by other Bantu tribes, settled the northern part of Natal and continue to live there today. The Pondos continued southwards with their migration and established themselves several hundred miles further down the Indian Ocean coast. Their southern border runs along the banks of the Kei River. Their western flanks butt up against the slopes and peaks and high plateaus of the Drakensberg where the BaSutu have their sanctuary.

When the Pondos first arrived in the Transkei, the land was not entirely unclaimed. It was sparsely populated by two separate indigenous groups of more primitive Boskopiods. The larger of the two groups were the Khoisan. It is now known that the San are mankind’s original ancestors. Mitochondrial DNA traces all humans alive on the planet today, back to those tiny Bushmen of the Kalahari. The other group, of slightly larger stature and far less in number, called themselves the KhoeKhoe, which translates literally into PeoplePeople. When early Boer settlers first heard the rapid-fire clicks of the KhoeKhoe tongue the Boers thought they were stutterers (Dutch: stotteren) and thus called this group, Hottentots. The name stuck.

The San were hunter/gatherers. The Hottentots were pasturalists, herding cattle. The Boskopoids, both San and Hottentot, are subgroups of mankind found only in Southern Africa. They are anatomically different to other humans. They are steatopygic, able to store enormous amounts of fat in their hugely extended buttocks and, like the desert camels who store the fat in their humps, can live without food and water for extended periods far beyond that of other races. In addition, strangely, Boskopoid women have a small flap of skin partially covering their clitoris, (though I have never heard it mentioned by anybody else) perhaps serving as a protective feminine version of the male foreskin.

The Pondos, though a more advanced culture, where also pastoralists and traded with the peaceful Hottentots, often times taking Hottentot daughters as servants and concubines in exchange for cattle. Eventually, via a gradual process of attrition, Hottentot girls were more willing to climb up the social ladder and become Pondo concubines, rather than mate with their own kind. And so over the generations, the numbers of pure-blooded Hottentots declined to near zero. It is through these concubine mothers, that the Boskpoid click-words that we hear in the Xhosa language today were inherited and became part of their culture. So, in this way, my mother learned to speak some of the surviving words of the extinct Hottentot tongue.

Far away from Pondoland, up in the Highveldt of the Transvaal, where I was born and raised I listened to my mother have a conversation with an wizzened old man with a yellow mongoloid face and gray peppercorn curls, who claimed that he was a Hottentot. They spoke together in a mix of Xhosa and Afrikaans, so I could only grasp half of what was discussed. Later my mother filled me in on the whole story.

At that time our family lived on a plot of farming land belonging to an old Afrikaans widow. She had established a five acre orchard filled with mature deciduous fruit trees. Every year for decades this old Hottentot would pitch up at harvest time, pick the peaches and apricots and plums, load the harvest onto a hand-cart and push it around the neighborhood peddling the fresh fruit for her. He told my mother that fruit-picking employed him all year long. When the grapes were ripe down in the Cape a thousand miles in the south, he made his way there. When the citrus was ripe in the Lowveldt off he would go there. And when the peaches and plums were ripe upon the Highveldt, here he came.

He said that in all those annual migrations across the length and breadth of South Africa for all those decades, engaging in thousands of conversations with the Bantu groups he met in his travels, he had never met another person who claimed to have or knew of anybody who’s blood remained pure Hottentot. Since Bantu women would not marry him, when he was younger he had searched for a Hottentot mate and never found one. He said that he had an older brother and sister who had recently died. In his opinion, after they passed on, he was the last surviving Hottentot left on this good Earth.

In that way, since my mother and the man she spoke with are long dead, I might well be the last European to actually see and hear a real live Hottentot tell his sad tale, before that sub-group of humankind, after millions of years of evolution, became entirely extinct.

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