Krotoa is present – Fellows’ seminar by Sylvia Vollenhoven

7 June 2023
A 17th century story that refuses to die

“Epistemic wrongs leave scars deeper than physical injury,” said Sylvia Vollenhoven of the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg. “In the wake of the physical massacres of Southern Africa’s First Nations came the painful silence of intellectual erasure. Our Ancestors lived through the !Gam≠ui or Genocide. Its horrors are now almost forgotten. But the pain of !Gam≠ui lives on in 21st century communities torn apart by crime, corruption, violence, drug addiction and abuse. It’s a trauma that needs epistemic redress. The book and the related artistry are acts of reclamation. I hope the work will assist in creating a new archive to fill the gap left by the annihilation, by the intellectual !Gam≠ui.”

STIAS Fellow Sylvia Vollenhoven

Award-winning journalist, filmmaker, writer, teacher and social activist, Vollenhoven is at STIAS to finalise her creative non-fiction novel Krotoa is present. “If you can’t think here, you can’t think. It’s the perfect environment to do what I came here to do.”

“My overall goal is to take under-represented stories and HERstories and work them in different ways, informed by African culture, to reach a new mainstream in African literature,” she explained.

“In South Africa the story of Krotoa !Goa /Gõas ‘Eva van Meerhof of the ǁAmmaqua and Goringhaiqua, the young woman who grew up in the household of 17th century colonial commander Jan van Riebeeck and who was battered by a clash of cultures, has exploded onto the landscape of our awareness. The impact of this explosion is multi-faceted. The story of Krotoa is now being told and retold against the backdrop of a modern Khoekhoe cultural revival,” she said.

In Krotoa Is Present Vollenhoven will use research-driven storytelling to delve into the myriad layers of the story to explore the 21st  century meaning of Krotoa.  But she also explained it’s about playing with the meaning of present – “the present as a gift, the gift of a 17th century story to explore the present – through performance, film, theatre and ritual”.

A deep, complex journey

And it has been a muti-faceted, multi-process creative journey that started with her musical theatre play Krotoa Eva van die Kaap. Along they way it has incorporated an ongoing, public-engagement programme and the establishment of the !Nau for Now: Crossing Oceans Inside dance performance and exhibition. The latter has been part of the renaming of the Wilcox building at Stellenbosch University.

“None of this was the original plan,” said Vollenhoven. “But the global interest in First Nation’s issues has meant it has grown into something more. Putting the story out in different ways is an attempt to acknowledge the different layers and complexity.”

Krotoa Eva van van die Kaap premiered in Amsterdam in 2018 as a collaboration between the Volksoperahuis and Artscape and went on to sold-out runs and standing ovations at theatres in The Netherlands and South Africa. The performance is always accompanied by an outreach programme of audience engagement and workshops that have now reached thousands of young people. The workshops focus on issues of identity, intellectual erasure and the massacre of people as well as their traditional cultures.

The building-renaming process with the university, which incorporated a traditional blessing ceremony, provided further opportunities for public engagement, discussions and workshops, while the !Nau for Now brings together Australian Aboriginal and Namaqua dancers and artists to recognise Indigenous Peoples and honour Krotoa !Goa /Gõas.

“The rite of writing has expanded to involve public forums, collaborations with other artists, cross-platform storytelling, the performance of ancient rituals and working with intuitive gifts. Perhaps it is just a lavish form of writers’ procrastination. Perhaps it unearths hidden meaning,” said Vollenhoven.

“Something this big and deep can cause potential conflict. There is deep historic hurt and anger. It’s a moment of action that must expect some opposition. I welcome it. We must let it come out. But it’s not the end – it’s only one occasion. We need to name, make public, provide platforms and spaces,” she continued. “Some stories take us into important, complex issues and offer guidance on how to see differently. Built into all my stories is an element of social activism. But how I see it is not the only way. Disagreement is great. It’s part of being South African.”

Krotoa Is Present combines research with traditional knowledge and intuitive processes.

“My job as a journalist, researcher, storyteller and my activist background all come together in this project. But writing the book has proven a challenge. I usually write the book first. This process has produced different results. But storytelling is story giving and story taking. Everyone who engages in the process is changed by the story and in their presence the story changes.”

She explained some of her process, and the individuals and encounters she has had along the way – “Preparation within and without. Participating – being a part, being apart and taking a part. Being inside the story and not distanced in a theoretical way.”

The book structure is inspired by an ancient rite of the !Nau – a ceremony that marks an important transition and assists with forging a future pathway. It incorporates three parts – separation, transition and reintegration or re-membering.

“Separation refers to every aspect of ourselves as well as the deep, deep separation of apartheid which invaded everything. It’s about separation from our self, our land, language, names, tradition, culture and customs. But for the purposes of the !Nau a ritual it is ultimately about moving away from a problematic past,” explained Vollenhoven. “Transition is about the tools we employ especially ritualistically of moving from an undesirable to a desirable state. But it’s a place of uncertainty with both the embers of what you used to know and the flames of renewal. It’s self-journey and finding a new identity. While re-membering is about what to take with you after the process of cleansing and renewal. It’s a way of practicing recollection and reclaiming valuable traditions ripped out of our existence.”

The past illuminates the future

Vollenhoven explained that the project is about weaving the past and present so that history illuminates the future, and understanding that even if you can’t change the past you can use it to move forward.

“The process taught me how to listen properly for the first time – deep listening beyond the words,” she said. “Journalists are trained to listen to what people are saying but this is listening to everyone not only the physical presence in the room. It’s a different frame of body and mind. Energy that is way out of my control.”

“You reach layer on layer inside yourself to access the story. It’s about a deep, creative engagement with where the story is coming from and about putting your ego to one side – you are not telling the story.”

“But you have to tread carefully, be responsible and diligent – it’s a huge and sacred thing.”

In discussion, she acknowledged that land and economic reparation although also part of the process are “the most terrifying to talk about. We are shadows in a land that used to be ours. But you can’t own land – it’s inconceivable. We know that we belong to the land not the other way round. First Nations People are marginalised because they have an innate understanding of this and of how the universe works. Such communities have been custodians of precious things.”

“Economic reparation is not first, first is healing people’s broken spirits,” she added. “Fixing only the economic injustices and not the neglected and destroyed spirits won’t achieve anything.”

She acknowledged that this work is only one step. “The important consideration is ‘Then what?’ This journey must be the beginning of something else.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer

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