Many indigenous people struggle in today’s world, suffering from what anthropologists have termed the ‘loss of soul’ – a condition that arises when the connection between people and their traditions and inner lives is broken. When they have forgotten the language and prayers their fathers used to speak to the gods, land and animals. When they don’t hear their ancestors and their ancestors are deaf to them. When they are nameless, uninitiated and like the living dead.
When they lack a story that is their own.
Instead they drift, trying on the masks and customs of other peoples. Sometimes – because all people abhor vacuums – they accept identities thrust on them by others. But since none of them fit, they wander through life with a nameless ache they can’t ease.
This used to be my story and the story of my people.
I am a lawyer and mother who grew up as coloured in apartheid South Africa. I rejected the label ‘coloured’ – jarred by the crudity with which it erased my history and made me a political category. But if I wasn’t coloured, who was I? My father said I came from the Khoi-San, though I wasn’t sure what that meant either. Growing up in the Cape Flats, I never saw anyone practising Khoi-San traditions – and traditions mean very little if no one follows them. It felt a bit like playing at being Khoi-San and making things up as we went along.
So I went on a quest in search of my soul.
Yes, it is possible to search even when you don’t know what you are looking for. My search involved dropping out of law school to do transformational work with the inmates of Pollsmoor prison. The coloured prisoners who constituted nearly 70 percent of the prison population were many things. They were gangsters and fathers, hard men and husbands, Christians and Muslims. But they also seemed to share with me the classic symptoms of soullessness – an inexpressible sorrow and an anxious search for some identity, any identity besides the one they inhabited.
Together we started to make sense of this hunger for an identity – a ravenous hunger that had driven us into gangs, drugs and violence. A hunger that could never be satiated. However, by the end of our time together, our hunger had been transformed into grief for a loss whose gravity we had only just begun to comprehend. And embracing our profound grief had begun to heal us – setting each of us on our individual quests for soulfulness.
I returned to law school, hoping my legal skills would help to serve these men better. Studying at the University of Arizona with Native American law professors, who were so confident in their identity since they had successfully regained their souls, I learnt how to express what had happened to my people – how the epidemic of gangs, drugs and alcohol ravaging my people was the result of a collective trauma.
We had been stripped of our history and the memory of this brutal loss was buried deep in our collective psyche. Yes, we could still function, but we were traumatised and we dealt with this trauma by hurting each other and ourselves. The cultural and social institutions that could help us cope and heal had been wrecked and we were estranged.
I realised then that our political and legal victories would never be enough to allow us to regain our souls. We could secure access to our human rights in parliaments and courts of law. But we needed to heal as a people. And for that we needed a way to reconnect with our roots. We needed to resurrect our old heroes – and create new ones.
Which is why, along with the daily legal battles for our rights to land and culture, my colleague Kabir Bavikatte and I initiated the Heroes Project.
Working with the National Khoi-San Council and under the auspices of Natural Justice, an international collective of environmental lawyers, we designed the project to assist traumatised Khoi-San people to rediscover their souls – by telling and re-telling our own hero stories, by giving them a reason to reconnect with our history and beliefs, and by giving them, once again, their own heroes, mentors and leaders to look up to.
The power of hero stories is their ability to inspire and generate a sense of possibility against all odds. Heroes are present in many forms from mythical figures to members of one’s community. And every culture, including that of the Khoi-San, has myths and rituals based on its heroes’ quests – courageous quests that provide insights into the collective purpose of a people.
Our project has already begun to capture the struggles of ancient heroes and modern day community leaders – to instil a sense of pride in Khoi-San communities and show that there are ways to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, such as the host of social and political difficulties faced by our marginalised and excluded and soulless communities. Conducting interviews with elders and community leaders, we have started to gather the first pieces of a long tale – the tale of our heroes across the ages. A tale that other cultures keep and nurture but that we have lost. A tale that will be full of the courage and conviction of our heroes – and of the values that they stayed true to when confronted with difficult decisions.
The project is using these stories to reinvigorate the spirit of our traditions and adapt them to help tackle today’s challenges. We are helping to breathe life back into our myths by embodying them in graphic narratives, initiation ceremonies, healing dances and rites of passage for our communities. We are building a bridge over the desolate chasm between our past and present. And already some of my people are taking the first tentative steps across this bridge.
But I know – indeed I feel it in my bones – that one day all of my people will walk across this bridge. And like me, they will find their souls waiting for them on the other side.