Here, on the verge of this dried river,

Here, on the verge of this dried 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,

Smoothing down her skirt.

Meet Elsie.

We're old friends by now,

She is becoming famous:

The last speaker of the language of the Southern San group,

Like Gri !Ora, Kxoedan and Nama.

In her mouth lives /'Auni, the gift she'll take when she goes.

Wants no radio (it doesn't speak ?'Auni),

No cellphone or CD (they don't speak her system).

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

"I want" in /'Auni - you can do it for us.

(She approaches the recorder she's used to, lets off a 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 taba" - 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 around in her memory.)

Her brain holds words for every, single thing she knows,

But, today, she shares all her knowledge with none,

Her clan is gone, her sisters and her man,

Like wind, like dust, like ashes in the fireplace,

Where she boils up her tea.

"Qtabba tsitsi..." - that's the dental.

She means water, she needs "tsitsi,"

The spring out of which her folk began.

So say it after me: "qtabb tsitsi, tsi, tsi tsi..."

Not too bad for a first attempt.

But, it takes a lifetime to master /'Auni.

And, that whole world it holds.

How do we lose a language like the one Elsie possesses?

That's much easier.

Just erase.

lThis poem, by retired English professor Stephen Gray, pictured, appeared first in the prose and poetry series Van Gogh's Ear (Volume 5) in Paris in 2006.

Gray is the Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in the 2007 South African Literary Awards, a nation-building partnerships project of wRite Associates, Sowetan, Aggrey Klaaste Nation Building Foundation, Nutrend Publishers and the Department of Arts and Culture.

Gray is one of 43 emerging and established authors whose work samples appear in Band of Troubadours, a SA Literary Awards legacy project.