I offer my sweat as a gift to the earth.
Jethro tells me that my sweat is enough—the important thing is to always give back. If we take something, we must also give. We take water into our bodies and we give it back.
He says this while pulling out the fuzzy black end of one dreadlock and burying it beneath a bush. I awkwardly follow suit, trying to yank a few unrelenting hairs, but they hold fast and instead, I wipe my sweat on the leaves of the bush.
We are climbing up Lion’s Head, the sandstone pyramid next to Table Mountain—the one that is said to look just like the head of a lion—and yet I still don’t see the resemblance.
All morning long, my new friend points to this rock and that rock—this one is a lion, this one is a sleeping woman, that one over there is a newborn baby and that one is a giant crocodile. But this is not the African bushman folklore I am seeking—it is all invented myth, a Rorschach test in the rocks.
I wanted to climb to the top of the mountain, but Jethro says there is no point. “There is nothing of my culture on top of that mountain,” he says. Instead, he is leading me to the shrine. The rocks are hot and the trail is steep but I follow him up and down, listening to this odd little Hottentot poet as he rambles a discordant lecture to me incorporating history, religion, race, botany, numerology and of course, politics.
His name is Jethro Louw and he is a bona fide Hottentot. He tells me this with pride.
“I am Hottentot,” he proclaims, then cocks his head to the side in reflection.
Jethro uses the original Dutch word for the Khoi-San people, the first nation of the Cape of Good Hope—also known as the khoe-khoe or the bushmen. “Hottentot” refers to particular group of Khoi who roamed the lands around the Cape, but over the past 400 years, the name has been used as a kind of blanket moniker denoting the wild naked savages of Africa. Where I come from, it’s rather rude, and while once upon a time, our very own National Geographic carried stories of the Hottentots, the name is now considered extremely politically incorrect and downright racist. In fact, just that morning, a Xhosa man told me to never say Hottentot—it is far too derogatory.
But Jethro disagrees.
“Hottentot is what I am, so call me that.”
He goes on to explain that he is Khoi-San, yes, but that it is too big a term for his people. He is not one of the bushmen of Botswana and he does not live in a mud hut in the Namibian desert—he was born in Cape Town and his first language is Afrikaans.
“The Dutch gave us the name Hottentot because that’s the sound they heard when we talked, so it’s just a made-up word and that’s alright!” Then he rumples his brow and exclaims, “Hey, I don’t care what you call me, just call me man!” He laughs at his joke, then hops to the next rock.
Our journey to the sacred shrine continues. Now Jethro pulls twigs and leaves from the fynbos, bits of herbs, naming them out loud in four or five different languages, or else forgetting the name completely, but explaining their purpose.
“This one is good for high blood pressure. This one here is what the rhinoceros like to eat. And this one here—wild celery—it’s good for helping with water retention. I am going to pick some for my mother now.”
Jethro keeps walking and talking, grabbing at bits of bushes, before stopping at a low shrub with miniscule green confetti leaves that cling to toothpick branches—aniseed boegoe he calls it.
“Ah, this one here is great! You make into a tea and it really helps you out, you know? It calms you down—way down, man!” Jethro hands me a clump to carry in my bag.
“Yeah, we gotta make this tea—you’ll love it, man—boegoe.” From higher up on the trail, Jethro turns back at me and smiles a wide, toothless grin.
“Maybe someday, we’ll have the Great Hottentot Tea Party!” He keeps laughing with real joy. Between all of his stories, folklore, poems and bits of botany, this small native man keeps up a steady trail of laughter, punctuated by interludes of simple genius.
“Do you know the first script of Afrikaans was written in Arabic?”
I have quickly learned this one thing about Jethro—sometimes I think he is talking utter gibberish—the next thing, out tumbles some thick slice of knowledge or a wonderfully golden quip.
As a language, Afrikaans was born in the kitchens of Cape Town, where the Dutch mingled with their slaves, many of them Muslims from Southeast Asia. Today, the language is as colorful as the country that speaks it, incorporating words from all the different people who’ve set foot on this spit of land at the end of Africa.
“Cape Town is the oldest European city in the southern hemisphere,” Jethro adds, then launches into an explanation of how African, Asian and European all mixed at this one lucky point of geography. Somehow his own people got the raw end of the deal, but he is strangely not bitter.
“My culture has been neglected for too long, and that’s why it is so important for me to share with you now.” That’s all that he has to say about a very painful history of exclusion and decimation. The sad fact is that from the start, Jethro’s people have been marginalized in their homeland. The first official census in the Cape Colony did not take place until 1865, where the British government counted 180,000 Europeans living among 200,000 Hottentots and “others” (not including the 100,000 Xhosa). That means that two hundred years after Cape Town was founded, the Khoi-San still represented the majority in this city.
But that ratio changed rapidly. Among the oppressive laws of the British was a pass law in 1809 that specifically ordered the Hottentots to maintain a “fixed place of abode” from which they could not leave without a pass signed by the landowner. Thus marked the end to travel and free movement for one of the oldest nomadic peoples on earth.
“You know they have museums in Europe with the heads of my ancestors on display, but with glass eyes?” Jethro is right—that actually did happen once upon a time. Hottentots were once carted away to Europe where they were displayed as curiosities in museums—even zoos—or made to perform in circus sideshow acts.
We reach a ledge on the mountain and stop at a clump of balloon-shaped boulders—this is the shrine.
“From here you can look down and see all the madness,” Jethro nods to the tight city below, filling every inch of coastline with gardens, tennis courts, swimming pools, and parking lots. The traffic hums and gigantic yellow building cranes move with steel beams for new buildings. Overhead, helicopters buzz like lost dragonflies.
Jethro leads me into the shrine—a natural shelter formed by three fallen boulders, each one the size of a truck.
“All that down there is madness, man!” he shakes his head. He is right—for the first time, I see the beautiful city of Cape Town through his eyes—an urban fungus spreading uphill on every coastline, closing in on the mountain. It is madness.
But Jethro is a little mad, too, in the British sense of the word. As I sit on the ground in the shade of a boulder, I watch him fumbling with a wad of sage that we picked earlier, “for healing, man.” Jethro lights the sage and mumbles some words with both eyes closed. I watch as the smoke explodes and a single red flame jumps three feet high. Jethro jumps up and stomps on the fire, almost dancing the burning bush back into a smoking wad of natural incense.
Now he is holding an orange pipe in his hands and playing it like a flute. This is what the Xhosa shepherds play out in the fields, he explains. The noise is an ear-pinching whistle and while my white man ears find it entirely annoying, I try to follow the mood.
Now he is telling my fortune, reading my personality based on my birthday.
“Six is a number that travels a lot, so you need to travel a lot.” This weird prophet is stating the obvious, but I say nothing—I only listen.
Jethro says that based on my numbers, I am a good salesman. “You could sell ice to an Eskimo!” he shouts. But then he sees my worried face and edits his phrase, “What I mean is that you could sell ice to the Inuit—who already have so much ice . . .”
My worried face is merely my shock at the surrealism of my situation. I am in Africa, sitting underneath a rock, listening to a bona fide Hottentot who is at this moment, worried about offending the Eskimo. The tears in my eyes are from the stinging sage smoke that surrounds me, but they could also be from the suppression of laughter, or perhaps I really want to cry a little.
And that’s when Jethro reveals that he’s an ex-con.
“Most people think that grown men don’t cry, but see, I’ve been to prison and man, did I cry there. I cried like a baby when I was in jail.”
And now I feel like Alice in Wonderland, at the Madhatter’s crazy tea party, where the reader is unsure if she is having fun or facing grave danger. But Jethro is not a criminal—he has no interest in taking anything or hurting anyone.
“I see someone’s left ten cents here!” He picks up the shiny South African coin. “Ah, but this is too little—such a poor reflection on the Copper Belt,” he chuckles. He holds the money up, “This is not a currency we deal in—my people. Money is nothing to the San.” And with that he throws the coin back into the dirt.
The Khoi-San became criminals when their way of life became a crime. Just like the Xhosa became warriors when their lands were challenged. Xhosa is a San word that means “Fighting Man”.
South Africa is a land of labels, mostly labels placed upon one group by another. The Dutch called the Khoi-San Hottentots. The Khoi-San called the Bantu farmers the Xhosa. The Xhosa called the white people mlungu; the Dutch merchants called the settlers the Boers, and the English made all the names stick.
But a long time ago, the very first people of Cape Town simply called themselves the Khoi-San (literally “real person”) or the khoe-khoe (“people people”). I think that so much of the nearly 400-year experiment of South Africa has been figuring out just who is, in fact, a Khoi-San—a real person. It is not a uniquely South African question—the entire world with all of its man-made names and borders is constantly struggling with—or ignoring—the question of who is a person. Perhaps that is why we are all watching South Africa so closely—they are tackling a world problem. Only in the last few decades has South Africa formalized an understanding that everybody is in fact, a “khoe-khoe”.
People are people. The Xhosa word is uBuntu—humanity—and it translates literally as: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
This is what I love about South Africa. There is a word for everything because there is a world of languages to choose from. What’s more, in this country, true self-affirmation only comes from accepting the diversity around you.
“Man, my neighborhood is really diverse,” Jethro says to me on the way down the mountain. “We even have white people living there!” he shouts. It is the first time in my life that someone has taken pride in their diversity because whites are present. And it is the first time in my life that an indigenous nomad has asked me to be his friend on Facebook.
I’ll see you on Facebook, man!” he calls out and I nod yes before shouting back, “Gunn-Gunn Si!”
It means “thank you” in San. Jethro taught me this, right after quoting Nelson Mandela: “When you speak to a man in his own language, you speak to his heart.”
Back in the madness of the city, I enter my civilized, air-conditioned hotel room and turn on my computer. First I find Jethro on Facebook and friend him—unlike me, he is a true digital nomad. His people are born wanderers but even then, we can remain equal friends online.
I click “Friend”, then take out the clips of aniseed brush from my bag. I crumble the tiny green leaves of boegoe into a cup, then pour boiling water over them. The liquid turns a pale green—I take one sip, then another.
It is the tea from the Lion’s Head—I am drinking this plant straight from the mountain, and just like Jethro promised, it makes me feel quite calm.
So calm—in Cape Town.