Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Interview with the Last Speaker

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Interview with the Last Speaker

Article excerpt

Here on the verge of this dry river lives:

Elsie Valbooi, in her hovel of sticks and sacks,

where the farmer lets her trespass for now.

Come out, Elsie, and greet my listeners,

speak into the microphone. She emerges

like a shy animal from its hideaway.

I offer the ritual greeting. She is still winding

her headscarf on, tucking down her skirt.

Meet Elsie. We're old friends by now, she is

becoming famous: the last speaker of a language

of the Southern San group, like Gri and iOra,

Kxoedam and Nama. In her mouth lives

/'Auni, the gift she'll take when she goes.

Wants no radio (doesn't speak /'Auni),

no cell-phone or CD (don't speak her system).

Teach these visitors, Elsie, tell 'em how to say

? want' in /'Auni, you can do it for us.

(She approaches the recorder she's used to,

lets offa disyllable, like no one else can do,

here it comes): "qtabba..." (She grins, no teeth

to get her tongue around.) Still able to manipulate,

though, that's the palatal click, back there.

"Qtabba tsamma," she says; she wants a melon.

"Qtabba taba" - a borrowing from our tobacco.

What else, Elsie? She concentrates: "Qtabba mili."

That's right, she wants corn on the cob, or maize.

What more, my dear, say it loud and clear?

(She hesitates, her eyes rove away with age,

rootle in her memory.) Her brain holds words

for every single thing she knows, but today she shares

all this knowledge with none. …

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