Q&A with storyteller and cultural activist Deirdre Jantjies

16 September 2019 - 12:38 By Carla Lever
'I would like to see the youth be educated about their heritage and culture from foundation phase,' says Deirdre Jantjies.
'I would like to see the youth be educated about their heritage and culture from foundation phase,' says Deirdre Jantjies.
Image: Supplied

Nal’ibali Column 10: Term 3 2019

You’ve always been passionate about unearthing the untold stories of SA, particularly women's stories. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

I’ve always had a hunger to know my ancestral stories, mainly stories about women. In history, too many male figures have been praised. In fact, that praise still continues, so I wanted to find out how indigenous women made a change in the land that belongs to them.

How might telling (and retelling) our past stories be important in creating a better future?

It's so important to know why the present has failed us. And the only way to know that is to go into the past that planted this seed. This way you cut the root out and find the focus for the future.

As an arts professional, you've worked with heritage centres and museums. Why is it important for storytellers to be involved in curating exhibits, and not just historians? 

In our DNA we have living ancestral stories, so it comes naturally. It's important because, as storytellers, we connect in a spiritual way with people. 

You have a background in stage performance and film production. What do you love about these creative disciplines?

The stage was a place for me to express the deepest parts of myself. It connected me to people in the most intimate way; it was world of magic. I then made a choice to move into film production, which allowed me to create a space for the kind of broad dialogue that it’s necessary to have. 

What changes would you like to see in the way SA cultures and heritage are preserved and passed on to young people?

I would like to see the youth be educated about their heritage and culture from foundation phase. The Khoekhoegowab language must be taught, as well as the true history of the Khoekhoe and San people. Our youth is not confident about themselves and it’s because the curriculum doesn’t explore heritage.

What are your favourite organisations or artists creating exciting and innovative local storytelling?

I love how the District Six Homecoming Centre allows young people to curate exhibitions. They’ve really found a balance between preserving old and young stories. It’s a space that’s inclusive to all generations. An artist that I really respect and look up to is Jason Jacobs. He has an amazing way of creating magic realism in everything he writes and directs.

You recently gave two talks at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town with activists on indigenous languages. Can you share some of the takeaways from them?

I had so much fun! The first workshop I curated with Denver Breda to teach the Khoekhoegowab clicks and basic greetings. We aimed for the workshop to be fun and it truly was. I then facilitated a discussion on the language with Denver and author Menan du Plessis. I realised through both of these talks that honest conversation is needed to create space for healing.

Khoekhoegowab is a language few people in SA speak, though so many of our place names reflect its legacy. Are there any phrases or words that hold particular beauty for you that you could share with us?

I recently found out that my hometown, Dysselsdorp (Western Cape), has a nature reserve called Kammanasie. This word means ''mountain of water”. This word was a real highlight to me, but also, if you look in Afrikaans language, there are so many words of Khoekhoegowab that you find, like dagga, abba (carry), gogga (bug), nanas (lady) and so many more. 

Where can we learn more?

People can learn Khoekhoegowab at the University of Cape Town, which offers a 12-week course. It’s a wonderful experience to learn the basics of the language. Ever since I attended this course it opened up more ways for me to learn about how important your mother tongue is: it gives your heritage so much purpose. 

What advice would you give to young people wanting opportunities to create art or tell stories that are meaningful to them?

Start with knowing who you are and the great people that you come from. Do not apologise for the greatness that you have inside. Make the stories of your ancestors known!

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.