WATCH | The South African icon saving the N|uu language from extinction
In the Rosedale township of the Northern Cape, one of the last fluent speakers of an ancient language remains.
At 88 years old, Katrina Esau is leading the fight to save N|uu from disappearing. As one of the dialects of the San people, N|uu is a critical link to South Africa's earliest inhabitants.
Its death threatens the loss of cultural identity. “But I speak my language,” Esau says. “And I want to teach people.”
Centuries ago, the San people roamed southern Africa as hunter-gatherers. “My people died out, those who spoke the language. So much so there were only four of us left,” Esau says.
Most of her community speaks Afrikaans, which was introduced by Dutch settlers in the 1600s.
During the apartheid regime, Esau worked for an Afrikaner farmer near the Kalahari who banned her from speaking N|uu.
This was a common experience shared by workers. By the time South Africa became a democratic country in 1994, no written record of the N|uu language existed.
So Esau set out to revive her mother tongue.
Today, Esau teaches kids in her community how to speak N|uu. Significantly, she has published the first children’s book in N|uu titled !Qhoi n|a Tjhoi, meaning Tortoise and Ostrich.
She first heard the San folktale as a child, which tells the story of a race between a tortoise and ostrich.
The book immortalises her indigenous language, making it a treasure of South African history.
Esau also travels across the country, sharing her knowledge at cultural establishments such as Koena Art Institute.
Determined to preserve her heritage, she is safeguarding the cultural significance of N|uu for generations to come.
“My hope is for people to recognise the language, and to understand and speak the language,” Esau says. “People must take the language and hold on to it.”