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Helping the Khwe to keep their voice

[Namibia] The Khwe, a branch of the San ethnic group, now have a chance to keep their language alive.
The Khwe, a branch of the San ethnic group, now have a chance to keep their language alive. (Brigitte Weidlich/IRIN)

Efforts are being made to ensure that the language of the Khwe, a tiny branch of the San ethnic group tucked away in the northeastern corner of Namibia, survives.

The Namibian government has employed eight Khwe instructors to help the 4,000-strong community read and write in their own language, Khwedam, as part of an adult literacy programme. So far, 120 students have enrolled.

With the help of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), a regional San rights' NGO, a first language primer in Khwe was published a year ago - 15 years after independence - and the second was launched last week.

"We printed 650 copies of this book and 800 of the first primer," said Maria Namupala, the project coordinator for Khwedam in the education ministry. "We do not have enough funds to print more, although the demand is high."

About 30,000 San live in Namibia, of which the Juhoansi and the Kung are the largest groups. The Khwe are the smallest, scattered over 10 villages along the Okavango River on the northern border and in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

"The area where the Khwe are living has been sadly neglected since independence," said Michael Stark, a WIMSA coordinator. "It lacks infrastructure, communications and economic development." The first ever pre-primary school for Khwe children will be operational in three months, thanks to WIMSA's efforts. "We plan a pre-primary school in each of the 10 villages," he said.

The organisation is also helping to train Khwedam language teachers, and has plans to upgrade the pre-primary schools and introduce Khwedam as a medium of instruction. "The aim is to enable these San children to be taught in their own language," said Stark.

David Naudé, a member of the community and the Southern African Development Community's regional expert on Khwedam, is pleased with the developments. "In South Africa, Khwedam will be introduced in primary schools in 2009 in the areas where our people live. It is encouraging that the Namibian and South African governments are doing this - in Botswana only the English and Tswana languages are allowed in schools."

Lack of skills, which has resulted in high rates of unemployment and alcoholism, has reduced the community to desolate poverty.

The Khwe have had a symbiotic relationship for generations with the large Mbukushu Bantu ethnic group, also spread across Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. The two groups live in close proximity.

"We look after their [Mbukushu Bantu] cattle, work in their fields and they pay us miserably, but at least it is something," said Frans Mano, who lives near the Okavango River. "In the nearby school, our children are taught in the Hambukushu language [of the Mbukushu Bantu] and in English. They only speak Khwedam at home," he lamented.

Many members of the Khwe community were employed by the Portuguese colonial military forces in neighbouring Angola, but after it became independent in 1975 they fled to the Namibian side of the Okavango River and again found themselves wedged between two warring factions in Namibia's struggle for independence. The South African military stationed in the area gave them shelter and employed the men as trackers and soldiers in a special 'Bushman Battalion' against the Peoples' Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).

Fearing a backlash from the new regime when Namibia's independence dawned in 1990, some 1,000 Khwe soldiers and their families chose to take up an offer by the South African government and settled near Kimberley in South Africa's Northern Cape province.

The remaining Khwe continued to get caught in others' battles. In 1999, after an unsuccessful secessionist attempt in the Caprivi Region by members of the Mafwe ethnic group, the Khwe villages, suspected of providing support to the separatists, were targeted by Namibian security forces. Over 1,500 Khwe fled to Botswana, where they still live in the Dukwe refugee camp. Despite a repatriation programme by the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, few have chosen to return.

Kippi George, the first ever Khwe chief, also fled to Botswana but was allowed to return on humanitarian grounds in December 2000. "The San people used to live in small family groups and did not have a chief," explained Matheus Chedau, who was acting chief for a while. "But we realised that in an independent Namibia, traditional authorities were established and that an overall representative of the Khwe people was important."

A number of applications have been made to Namibia's Council of Traditional Chiefs, but the Khwe traditional authority is yet to be officially recognised. Ben Ngobara, who was elected the new chief last week, plans to make another bid, assisted by WIMSA. Ngobara's election was monitored by the government's Electoral Commission and had the blessing of the ministry of regional government and rural development.

"The Khwe community is part and parcel of Namibia," maintained Minister of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development John Pandeni. "They have the right to benefit from any political, social or economic development, and are free to practice their culture, customs and language."

After his election Chief Ngobara commented, "My people need clear leadership after so many have tried to mislead us and denied us our basic human rights."

The government is making attempts to address the problems afflicting the San community. Deputy Prime Minister Libertine Amathila recently visited San settlements to compile recommendations for uplifting the marginalised community.

"It [the plan for the San] has to be coordinated with several line ministries, but in the budget for this financial year our office received N$300,000 (US$46,000) to fund smaller projects, like bursaries for several San school children," said Bernardus Swartbooi, special assistant to Amathila.

Last December 13 members of the San community completed a course in beekeeping and honey production to help them launch small-scale businesses.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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