There are many official languages in Angola, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, but the San language isn’t one of them. This shows how marginalised the original inhabitants of this region have become and why !Khwa ttu – a cultural learning centre for the San in South Africa’s Western Cape – plays such a vital role.
I was escorted on a cultural walk through former farmland of this West Coast reserve, where indigenous bushland still struggles to gain a foothold in this depleted land. It’s a perfect metaphor for San people, who have been disenfranchised over centuries and struggle to retain their culture against all odds.
I was fascinated to learn that between the two guide interns and two trainees who formed our walking party, four entirely different San languages were spoken. Marco speaks !Xuntali, Romanus speaks Hai||om, Shemorney speaks N|uu and Matios speaks Khwedam. But their mother tongues are so dissimilar that they have to communicate in Afrikaans to understand each other!
For me, language epitomises the core of a living culture and !Khwa ttu is keeping San culture alive by taking on 10-15 trainees, who live on site for a period of about seven months. The centre offers them the chance to deepen their knowledge of their cultural history, while learning how to use it in the contemporary context of hospitality and tourism.
To achieve this, they learn entrepreneurship, computer and conservation skills, guiding and hospitality skills, and everything that working in a restaurant entails. These developed skills are then put into practice in !Khwa ttu’s charming restaurant. It was suggested that I order the eland burger, sourced from their very own herd, whose tracks I saw in the sand earlier and who, during the recent drought, ate the carefully tended garden outside the training centre. I took her advice and it was delicious.
!Khwa ttu’s values include sustainability, transparency and respect, which mirror those of Fair Trade Tourism. So a marriage of principles occurred when !Khwa ttu received the hard-won FTT accreditation in 2010. Ri Vermooten, Training and Development Manager at !Khwa ttu says: “It’s good to be recognised alongside other Fair Trade Tourism establishments like the Vineyard Hotel and Spier.” She adds: “It gives us a sense of achievement and pride.”
You might not realise all of this when you see the !Khwa ttu signs on the West Coast Road and decide to drop in. They don’t shout loudly about their endeavours, but they rather let you find out for yourself through their interpretive museum (nothing fusty or boring here), guided excursions, restaurant and shop, where bestsellers are children’s bows and arrows that are made on site, which inspire traditional play.
!Khwa ttu has accommodation too, but you might not know about it. And you won’t know that the housekeeping supervisor, Nunke Kadhimo, is a young San poet, mentored by Antjie Krog, and has performed her poetry at Artscape. It’s not about you knowing. It’s about Nunke fulfilling her potential, along with all the other trainees who are lucky enough to have found !Khwa ttu.
Funding has become a critical issue, which is worrying. But they trust that ‘angels’ will come to their aid so that they can continue to provide what is considered by many people to be one of the most authentic cultural experiences in Southern Africa. Come and see for yourself.