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Untold Stories: Links to Forgotten and Untold Past
19th March 2013

Untold Stories: Links to Forgotten and Untold Past seminar

 8th March 2013

 A small group of invited guests attended four presentations relating to the SANPAD funded project entitled Untold Stories: Links to Forgotten and Untold Past”. The project aims to assess African environmental perceptions in relation to past and present connections to landscape and the implications this may have for biocultural diversity conservation. The seminar formed part of our first Reflective Cconversation Series which aims to provides opportunities for academic and the general public to reflect on issues that have relevance to the broader community. The series provide a platform for inter-cultural and inter-generational learning and discussion. 

 Hosted by Inkcubeko Nendalo’s Dr Michelle Cocks, the speakers included Victor Biggs from Cathcart, Jamie Alexander, Yvette van Wijk and Prof Jeff Peires.

 Victor Biggs, a retired farmer who initiated the Nguni cattle society in the Eastern Cape, has spent much of his life documenting rock art throughout South Africa with a particular focus on the Kei River Valley. His interpretation of San rock art differs widely from the current trend put forward by academics. He believes that many of the recurring themes in “Bushman paintings” can be understood by looking at traditional Xhosa cultural practices. For example, while many rock art experts interpret the fish-like images found in a number of sites as being mythical creatures Victor convincingly argues that they are images of the abantu bomlambo, i.e. “people of the river”, being the ancestors who live in river pools. This interpretation shows a strong link between abaThwa (San) and amaXhosa, already evident in the isiXhosa language and traditional healing practices.

 Jamie Alexander is a PhD student in the Inkcubeko Nendalo programme. Jamie’s masters study focused on cultural environmental narratives, perceptions and attachments to landscape. By comparing the differences and similarities between children and adults at two different rural villages she was able to ascertain age and gender biases in environmental use and attachment, and the impact of state restrictions on environmental use and knowledge. Jamie’s PhD considers sacred cultural landscapes and focuses on traditional healers and ordinary people and the sacred spaces that they consider essential to the maintenance of their cultural identity and belonging. Her presentation: “Dreaming the sacred land: abaThwa heritage and sacredness in current Xhosa healing practices” discussed the links between Xhosa healing and abaThwa (San) heritage. Her research shows that although popular conceptions of this heritage are often confused, disguised or forgotten, these linkages are readily apparent in Xhosa language, beliefs and practices, particularly in relation to healing practices and sacred landscapes.

 Yvette van Wijk, well known for her several acclaimed books on medicinal herbs, is a PhD student in the Botany Department. Yvette has always been fascinated by rock art and with her botanical background began to notice that rock art sites appear to have an associated flora. She began documenting these plants many years ago and has accumulated a large data set that may show that many of the species are useful plants that could have been introduced to the sites by the abaThwa (San/Bushmen).

 Prof Jeff Peires, author of House of Phalo and The Dead Will Arise, needs no further introduction. As always Jeff, as he puts it, is “following a thread” that this time suggests that the d'Gaua, or Little Chinese people mentioned by Ensign August Beutler in 1752 may have been a little known independent San group living adjacent to the abaThembu. 

Thanks to all the speakers for their fascinating presentations and the audience for lively discussion and debate.



                                                                Michelle Cocks, Victor Biggs and Yvette van Wijk at a rock art sight near Grahamstown