Sunday, July 23, 2006

Griqua encounter

Manila Times column
May 28, 2006

Three histories and a novel lie open in front of me, all having to do with the Griqua people of South Africa. I had never heard of them prior to taking the course titled Post-Apartheid Writing in the English program at Roskilde University, but now am doing a short paper on them, for which I will be given an oral examination in June.

They are a people of mixed ancestry, descended from intermarriages between Khoe and Dutch colonizers (who gave the Khoe people the derogatory name Hottentot, which has stuck to this day). In the mix, as well, are Black African, e.g., Zulu or Xhosa, Indian, even Malay, the descendants of slaves that the Dutch brought in.

The Khoe, incidentally, have quite different physical characteristics from Black Africans of, for example, Zulu or Khosa origins – they tend to be brown-skinned, with slanted eyes and an Asian look. They are often lumped in with the San people (derogatorily termed Bushmen, a name which has likewise stuck) when speaking of the aboriginal inhabitants of Southern Africa, for they were there before the Blacks migrated from the Northern and Western parts of the continent.

During the 20th century, the tendency was for the Griqua to incorporate themselves into the Colored population of the Cape, such that it has long been debated whether they deserve separate-nation status. (Under apartheid, South Africa was legally divided into Black, comprising several nations; White; and whatever was in between, i.e. for which Colored was the convenient term.)

I was drawn to the Griqua, when so many of my Danish classmates were writing their short papers on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the abuses under apartheid, for two reasons. First, a long-term interest in the story of Saartjie Bartmaan, a Khoe woman who in the early 19th century was exhibited naked in a cage in Paris as a specimen of what the smug Europeans considered an inferior species. When she died, prematurely from tuberculosis, wax casts were made of her body, and she was dissected, her sexual organs displayed in a jar at the Museum of Man until the 1950s. She was by no means the only person to be so violated, other Khoe were as well; and so were many other individuals from outside Europe, and indeed her experience recalls that of the families of Igorots (an indigenous Philippine group) who were put on display at the Chicago World’s Fair. When several of them died, their bones were laid to rest in the stockrooms of a number of anthropology museums, neatly labeled in the interest of cataloguing humanity from so-called apex to nadir.

Of a more personal resonance, perhaps, is the traditional religiosity of the Griqua; their choice of Afrikaans as a language, their embrace of Christian values and European clothing, their use of Dutch names. Despite the racist disgust with which early missionaries treated them (on my desk are the revolting diaries of one Rev. T.L. Hodgson, circa 1821) they were eager to accept the white man’s religion, which intertwined with, and eventually eclipsed, their own. Why did this happen? I come from Silliman University, founded 1901, the bastion of Protestantism in the Philippines; and throughout my childhood I was hard-put to define myself as Filipino – all of us, it seemed, had our souls trained to the United States. “You’re a living example of what we’ve been reading about!” a classmate in the Post-Colonial course enthused.

I look forward to a June visit to Cape Town for its book fair – fitting culmination to an entire term reading Rian Malan, Zakes Mda, Phaswane Mpe, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Zoe Wicomb, Antjie Krog, Alexander McCall Smith. Mda, Smith and Krog will be signing books. So my visa application is pending at the South African embassy in Hellerup north of Copenhagen, and processing should take no longer than a week. That’s the difference between having a temporary residence permit in Denmark and applying for a visa in the Philippines. Fact of life.

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