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Hoekom Afrikaans? Hoekom nie?

James Hendin

was born near Chicago in 1953. He has lived in both Sweden and Israel, and has travelled extensively. He studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he majored in German, with a Russian minor. To date he has only two published works: the first is an article he wrote for Lithuanian Papers, the annual journal of the Lithuanian Studies Society at the University of Tasmania, Australia, and another for Der Bay, the international Anglo-Yiddish newsletter based in San Mateo, California. This is his first contribution to LitNet.

Somewhere in the course of my life - actually it was about three years ago - I took up the study of Afrikaans. It may seem an arbitrary thing to do, seeing that I live in the United States and have no immediate plans to visit South Africa, which is where Afrikaans is primarily spoken.

To understand why I took up such an endeavour is to understand who I am. I am a devout student of languages. At the university I studied German as a major, with Russian as my minor. There are others I've studied independently. Afrikaans is just another language under my belt.

One of the reasons I looked at it is that it has, after all, a much stronger connection to contemporary German than English. Were the special characteristics of Afrikaans ever a drawing factor? Perhaps. The double negative may seem redundant, but it certainly gets the point across. Then there's the noticeable treatment of the letter g, which, to the untrained ear, sounds like random attempts to dislodge phlegm in mid-sentence.

As beguiling as all this might seem there is actually a more mundane factor that led me to learn the language. It actually rose from a particular interest I've had in South Africa for a long, long time. And I'm certain I know exactly where it all began.

Many years ago, when I was about 11 or 12, I was watching a daytime talk show on TV. For as long as I can remember, a television set was always present in our home. I probably knew how to change channels before I could talk. It has always been a part of my life. So here I was, watching this TV programme. That day's special guest was Juliet Prowse, who, although born in India, grew up in South Africa. She was a dancer/actor who achieved some notoriety in films and TV. She was even once romantically linked to both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Not at the same time, of course. Anyway, on this particular show Juliet was joking about how she used to tell people that she was South Africa's most popular television entertainer. She then looked at the camera (I can remember this as if it were yesterday), smiled, and said, "There is no television in South Africa". The next thing I remember is the sound of an anvil crashing through the roof of our house and landing in the middle of the living room floor. "No TV?!" I said in a daze. To a child whose four main functions in life were breathing, eating, sleeping and watching TV (not necessarily in that order) the notion of a country without television was inconceivable. "But they seem so civilised!" was my next thought. I tried to envision what evenings in the typical South African home must be like: fathers reclining in their favourite chair with a good book, mothers sewing together a dress pattern or choosing the next day's menu selections, and children assigned to their rooms where they actually did their (gasp!) homework. It was an image that didn't stay with me for long. It was too painful.

I owe much to National Geographic magazine. It has taught me many things about the world at large. When I was a kid I mostly looked at the pictures, and it wasn't until much later that I began to actually read the text part. When I was in high school I was thumbing through an old edition of NG. In that particular issue there was an article about South Africa. Of all the pictures that were included with the story there is one I can still remember. It was of two pretty girls lying on a beach blanket. Its caption read "Fluent in both English and Afrikaans". "Afrikaans?" I asked myself. "What in the world is Afrikaans? Do they learn tribal languages in South Africa?" Never had I heard the word before. Never did I anticipate what a special meaning it would take on for me later in life. And so my journey continues.

The early 70s for me was a time to explore, and I began to travel back and forth to and from Europe. Airfare was relatively cheap in those days. At one point I even attended a school in Sweden.

After one particular year of travelling I ended up on a kibbutz in Israel. A kibbutz is a co-operative farm where families and individuals live and work. They share both property and income. My kibbutz lay smack dab in the middle of the Yizreel Valley. I could walk out my door and see both Mount Tabor and the city of Nazareth poking up from the hillside. It was a wonderful experience; it gave me an opportunity to meet other people from lands I had only seen pictures of in books.

At some point there arrived a group from South Africa - four or maybe five at most. I had some opportunities to speak to them, and got to know a couple of them to some degree. Oddly, I never brought up the subject of South Africa. I guess I was more enthralled with getting to know them on a personal level.

One night, when I decided to stay in my room to read, my roommate Ron returned and announced, "The South Africans were in the TV room tonight."

"Oh," I said. "What did they think of it?"

"They didn't seem particularly impressed with it," he replied.

At first I was surprised by his answer, but then I began to muse to myself: "You know, maybe they shouldn't be." In the distance, a choir of angels sang the Hallelujah chorus from Hšndel's Messiah. Then again, perhaps it was just my imagination.

Even though I had several friends as a child, I would have to say that my best friend was a kid named Philip, who lived a block away from me. I knew Phil from school. I point this out because kids in my neighbourhood usually didn't venture far. They became mostly acquainted with the kids on their own block, or so it seemed to me. It was through Phil that I got to know the kids on his block, and there were several summers I spent almost all of my time there. Across the street from where Phil lived there stood the house of a girl named Becky. She was four years older than me, but the thing I remember most about her is that she always treated me as a peer - not like some sniffling little piece of vermin, as Philip's older sister Nancy seemed to view me (ah, the issues from childhood). Becky had no siblings, which may have been one of the reasons why she was so accepting. I remember one day in particular we happened to walk together to school after coming home for lunch. I don't remember what we talked about; all I can remember is how much I enjoyed my time with her, and I had the impression, even then, that she enjoyed her time with me.

After Becky went away to college I never saw her again. Many years later Phil and I got together one evening and caught up with each other's lives. At some point he mentioned "Oh! and Becky married a doctor from South Africa and now lives in Johannesburg." That statement came as no surprise to me, because it was just the sort of thing Becky would do. She was a very bright girl with a good head on her shoulders. She seemed to me to be the kind of daughter any parent would want to have. So she married a man that she loved and moved to the land of his birth. I knew she would have no problems adapting to her new environment. She would even have made an effort to learn Afrikaans, I bet. She would also have to learn to live without TV.

It has been said "no man is an island", but to some degree I don't think that's true. We are all unique individuals who make up an incredible patchwork called life. One of our purposes, I feel, is to build a series of bridges from one person to the next. Sometimes we burn those bridges. Sometimes we have to. The important thing to realise is that we must never stop building them. Language, for me, has been such an incredible building tool. It has become so natural for me to chisel away at something until I can see what it is I should see. At times there have been some unexpected surprises that have left me confused. The first time I saw a protea, the national flower of South Africa, I wondered where the side dish of melted butter was that I assumed would accompany it (I thought it was a type of artichoke). Still, language is a powerful key that opens many doors, especially the one that leads to the heart of its people.

Reaching out is not as difficult as it first may seem. The most important thing is to begin with the realisation and acceptance that we are all carbon-based. It is from there we can ascend in our relationships with one another.

Just to mention it: my television has been unplugged now for the better part of a year. That in itself is a milestone. I have finally come of age.

LitNet: 02 March 2005

boontoe / to the top

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