Emerging into Independence:The Self and the Culture in
Lesley Beake's Song of Be
Lesley Beake's Song of Be, published in South Africa and
Namibia in 1991 and in the U.S. in 1993, received almost instant
recognition in the U.S. as an ALA Most Notable Book and a VOYA
Outstanding YA book. Set in Namibia in 1991, and focusing on the
life of Be, a Ju/'hoan Bushman girl of 14 or 15, the novel is
marked by its beauty and simplicity of style, inventiveness of
structure, and an emotionally intense plotscape. Its lyrical --
almost poetic -- style, its opening line, "I have just killed
myself," as well as its use of important recent events in Namibian
history as a critical part of the plot (events most American
readers are not acquainted with) make the book forbidding to some
potential readers. Nevertheless my experiences teaching this book
to prospective teachers at my university have convinced me that
those who press on and read are richly rewarded. Many students over
the last two years have noted in their final logs that this book
was one of their favorites, though they initially feared something
which they believed would be alien. This may not be a book for
every teen reader, but it is definitely a book for readers
(teenaged or otherwise) hungry to make sense of their personal
world, the political world around them, and the interconnection of
There are several reasons for my students' positive reaction
that I want to focus on here because the factors which have led
them to enjoy and value the book may encourage others to do so.
First, the historical background necessary to understand the book,
although not common, is neither extensive or arcane. Second, in
spite of the alien, even exotic setting, the experiences in the
book are recognizably those of an adolescent emerging from
childhood's conspiracy of silence about her past and her family's
past into knowledge of her own personal history, her culture's
history, and her cultural identity. These experiences are quite
similar to those of adolescent protagonists in many American
novels, and my students in retrospect often compare Be to Cassie in
Roll of Thunder and Dicey in Dicey's Song. Finally,
and most important, the novel's beautifully constructed plot turns
in part on the parallel between Be's own individual experiences in
her 14-some years and the 40,000 year history of Ju/'hoan culture
as hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari. Her emergence into
independence, new hope, and willingness to live at the conclusion
mirrors the turn in the fortunes of her culture as it survives a
near death to emerge into a new political world in an independent
Namibia. In other words, the novel focuses with great emotional
intensity on Be as a reflection of her culture at large. This
issue, too, is one which my college students have found
particularly interesting and appealing.
Song of Be
The novel opens as Be lies under a baobab tree not far from her
home village waiting to die. She has cut herself with one of the
slow-acting poison arrow heads which have traditionally been used
by her tribe for killing game. As she waits the several days it may
take for the toxin to do its work, Be reviews her life in
retrospect, recalling her early childhood in her home village and
the feelings of love, wholeness, and warmth; she remembers her
sudden, mysterious journey with her mother, walking for days to
reach a far-away farm where her grandfather works. There, she
encounters non-bush life for the first time as she and her mother
take up jobs on the farm, working with her aging grandfather to
help Mr. Coetzee, the Boer farmer, and his wife Min. Be grows up on
the farm. Taught to read and write by Min, she learns how others
see Bushmen, reads books written by Westerners about Bushmen, and
tries her best to tell Min that it really isn't that way.
Growing closer to Min, who is often ill, she grows away from her
mother and begins to feel a palpable tension around her. As she
enters adolescence, she starts to recognize that the farm is barely
surviving, that Min is severely mentally ill and that her mother
has pulled away from her; and she feels threatened by the unspoken
truths around her. "Like lions in the night, the secrets ringed us
with hate and fear" (p. 44). All these
recollections come in spurts of memory as Be wonders if she is
dying, if she really wants to die. She recalls Khu, the handsome,
educated Bushman student who came to the farm to encourage her
family to register and vote in the elections taking place under UN
supervision as Namibia became independent and created its
constitution. She loves Khu, for he is not afraid, he sees ahead,
and he sees her. But she recalls, too, the secrets as they began to
spill out: the sad history of her grandfather's years of enforced
labor and slavery, his later attempt to return to Bushman life only
to find toxic cultural decay in the reservation town, his return to
the Boer farm where he could at least "be a man" and play a role in
the survival of the enterprise. She hears her mother's tale of how
Be's father was killed at the reservation town in a drunken fight
over another woman. She hears the full story of childless and
frustrated Min and her husband, and finally the news -- from Min --
that her mother is sexually involved with Mr. Coetzee. Be's burden
increases when Min, in a psychotic episode, wanders out of the
house when Be is supposed to be watching her, and dies in a
Growing weaker, Be slips in and out of consciousness as she
recalls her feelings of failure, her flight from the farm, and her
return trek to her home village where she expected to find support,
love, and cultural affirmation for herself as a Bushman. But when
she entered the village, she found it totally deserted. She is
utterly alone, and in desperation, picks up one of the arrows she
finds drying by a dying fire, and cuts her leg.
About the Ju/'hoan
We can understand Be and her experiences better if we know a bit
about the Ju/'hoan (Biesele, pp. 1-5). The
introduction provided by the various versions of The Gods Must
Be Crazy is simply too twisted and untrue to help much. This
hunter-gatherer group has lived in southern Africa, wandering the
Kalahari and speaking varieties of click languages for at least the
last 40,000 years. Thus the history of Be's people is one of the
longest histories of cultural maintenance and survival known.
During the 19th century, Bushman hunting lands were gradually
constrained by the land claims of white settlers and later by
emerging national boundaries. With the division of Namibia and
Botswana, the Bushmen who refer to themselves as the Ju/'hoan found
themselves constricted within Namibia, itself a colony of South
Africa. In the colonial system, Bushmen were regarded as animals
and were hunted and killed or used as forced labor. In the 1950's
American anthropologists began studying Bushmen, who were living in
the extremely remote area of Namibia known as Nyae Nyae and
struggling to maintain their traditional wandering hunter-gatherer
way of life on greatly reduced range. In the 1960s the government
of Namibia placed its Bushmen on "homelands," actually small
reservations, and by 1970 over 90 percent of their traditional
hunting lands had been seized by the government and converted into
game preserves. By 1980, 98 percent of the land had been seized and
the Ju/'hoan were living in the reservation town of Tsumkwe,
surviving on government food handouts and the local liquor store.
In the late 1970s, however, some Ju/'hoan groups began to reassert
their land rights and move back into the areas of bush which had
been their traditional home areas or n!oresi, forming permanent
settlements at locations where there was water and taking up
farming and cattle-keeping in addition to occasional hunting. The
government ignored these settlements largely because they were so
remote and the land was of such little value. It is at one of these
renegade settlements, /Aotcha, where Be is raised and where she
returns in her time of distress.
In 1988, UN Resolution 435 authorized Namibia to emerge from its
colonial status and to become a independent, democratic state, the
transition to be supervised by the United Nations. In 1990, Namibia
became independent with the first-ever free elections being held,
elections in which the Bushmen were carefully registered by UN
workers and in which they mass voted. Subsequently in 1991-2 the
elected Namibian government solicited Bushman input into the
formulation of the constitution, with representatives of the new
government actually coming to Nyae Nyae to hear the Ju/'hoan's
views on land rights. By 1992 a constitution was ratified which
affords protections for the land rights of indigenous people
including the Ju/'hoan. At present, some Ju/'hoan still live in and
near Tsumkwe, but the population has redistributed itself into at
least 25 new permanent settlements along the lines of /Aotcha, and
the culture has deliberately adapted its way of life to accommodate
settled farming and keeping of cattle as well as hunting and
gathering. Education and development efforts led by the Nyae Nyae
Farmers' Cooperative and the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation have
established Ju/'hoan as a written language, provided literacy
education at the permanent settlements, and helped the Ju/'hoan
maintain their voice with the government of independent
The Self and Cultural History
Be's personal story of adolescent experience is played out
against this history. Her grandfather, raised in the bush prior to
the reservation era of the 1960s, is kidnapped into forced slavery.
When he attempts to return to his people in the mid 60s he finds
them all living in Tsumkwe, drinking and fighting. He recounts,
That place was death and sickness to me. It was the coughing of
the old people and the crying of the babies who had no proper food.
It was the young men lying drunk in the street and the fighting
when the drink was in them. It was cutting and cutting at posts for
the government and no time for me to be myself. No time for me to
be a man among my people. (p. 47)
Therefore, her grandfather ultimately leaves his wife and baby
and chooses to return to the Boer farm, where he at least has real,
useful work to do and a role to play in the survival of the farm.
Her mother is born and reared in Tsumkwe, which she describes to Be
as "a hard place" (p. 50). Before she meets
Be's father, she wants to leave and go to the new bush settlement
I would look around me at the dirt and the litter and the people
sitting doing nothing. At night I would listen to the sounds --
people singing and then people fighting after the drink had come to
them. I would look at their faces -- at the hope that had gone from
them -- and I would wish and wish for the old times. (p. 52)
But Aia falls in love and stays where her husband is. Be is born in Tsumkwe, but her family feels the pressures of cultural disintegration and reservation life when her father is killed in a drunken fight over another woman. Her mother, as a young widow, goes to join the group at /Aotcha, and Be's young childhood is spent there until her mother feels threatened by falling in love again. Fearing a second, equally painful relationship, her mother flees with Be to the Boer farm where Be's grandfather has made his life.
Forming Cultural Identity
A significant part of Be's growing up is her changing and developing understanding of who she is, what it means to be a Bushman, and how Bushmen are seen by others. Tutored by Min, Be is told "You come from a proud race. . . a proud, dying race. There are hardly any of you left" (p. 23). Be is too polite to contradict her teacher. " I didn't think I should tell her that there were really quite a lot of us, and many new babies and other children, so I couldn't see how we could be disappearing like she seemed to think we were" (p. 23). Later she uses her developed literacy skills to write for Min a description of her life in /Aotcha. But even then she is aware that Min doesn't listen "to what my story was trying to say" (p. 30).
Be is confronted forcibly with the Western view of the Bushman
as other, alien, exotic, different. Looking at a large glossy
picture book with pictures of "her people," she rejects this view.
"I didn't see any of my people. Nobody that I knew" (p. 23). She learns by painful experience how Western
journalists view Bushmen when she is approached by a journalist
looking for a juicy story of oppression.
"Are you a real, live Bushman?"
"Yes, I told him. I am a Ju/'hoan of eastern Bushmanland and I am also real."
Well, after that it was as if I had given him a present. He got
out a black notebook and a green pen and started writing down
stuff. (p. 35)
By contrast, she is also confronted with the stories of her grandfather and mother. Her mother recounts lyrically the night Be was born. "There were more stars than grains of sand which I could hold in my two hands. I watched them, when the pain came, and they sang to me -- such music!" (p. 21). She hears her grandfather's horrifying story of how he came to the farm called Ontovrede. "I came on the back of a two-ton truck, with two other Bushmen boys, and our hands and feet were tied with rope so that we could not escape" (p. 45). This, she knows, is not in Min's books. Be learns from him of the exhaustion and desperation of life in Tsumkwe when he tries to return years later. "I could not stay in that place. So I came back to the only place I had. I came home to Ontevrede" (p. 48).
Finally, confronted with the fact that her mother is sexually
involved with Kleinbaas; and, distraught by Min's death, Be feels
that she is "nothing, nothing and worse than nothing" (p. 82). So she returns to "the book where it had
started. I was a Bushman. I wanted to read what a Bushman was" (p. 83). She reads the clinical,
pseudo-scientifically detached description, "Males of the species
are short of stature, usually about five feet tall, and females are
shorter and broader because they store more fat"
(p. 83), and her anger wells up:
I felt the anger begin to burn in me then. Males, females. This
was like the book about dinosaurs that Min had once brought for me.
The brontosaurus was a meateater, we imagine, because of his teeth.
I bared my teeth in Min's mirror. Small and white. Would they say,
these people who wrote books, that I was a hamsandwich eater? (p. 83)
Refusing the role of the other, the object, and asserting her
selfhood, she throws the book into the mirror and sets out on a
journey of self-definition, trekking back across days of bush to
her identity as a Bushman.
I needed to be a Bushman. I needed what all the people who had
gone before had taught me. It was knowing when the small,
three-cornered leaves appeared that there were bulbs underneath
that could quench my thirst. It was knowing what to do with the
bulb when I had dug it up. . . . It was a thousand things. (p. 84)
As she survives her journey and approaches her goal, her n!ore,
at /Aotcha, Be has a vision of herself as the inheritor of her own
I saw them standing behind me, my people, in a long, straight
line leading to nowhere. The old, old people with their leather
tied around their waists and their far-seeing eyes looking for the
land that was now gone. Aia's grandmother with her stories and her
laughter. Grandfather pulling his mother out of the drinking fire,
Aia, who was too afraid to love. And at the end of
them all I saw me. I saw Be of the Ju/'hoan, and I was the last of
them all.(p. 86)
The Adolescent Experience Across Cultures
Be is buffeted by adolescent challenges that are, in their way, just as common to American teens: defining who she is, particularly in relation to her family and her culture. In weathering this challenge of self-definition, Be draws on resources that are truly trans-cultural: family members and their stories. This motif is a familiar one in YA fiction, and one which readers can readily identify with. My students often point out similarities to Cassie's experiences in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Facing a parallel crisis of wÖ*f-definition as she first encounters racism, Cassie is supported by the stories she hears: Big Mama's tales of how grandpa acquired their land (p. 89), Mama's accounts of African-American history (p. 127), Mr. Morrison's stories of the massacre of 1876 in Shreveport (p. 147), as well as Papa's accounts of Alexandre Dumas (p. 153). For Cassie, like Be, family history is laid out as a piece of the larger cultural history of a people, and like Be, Cassie comes to see her own experiences as a part of the larger fabric.
The importance of family history to Be's own personal identity
causes other students to see strong similarities to Dicey's
Song. Dicey, like Be, encounters a grandparent of whom she
knows little and who is not eager to tell the family story. Gram
warns Dicey, "I wouldn't want you making the mistake of thinking
life isn't going to be hard" (p. 40). But
Gram, like Be's grandfather, gradually reveals some of the hard
truths: a daughter lost, a son dead at 19 in Vietnam, another son
disappeared to California. For Dicey and Be both, however, the
family stories are the frameworks within which and against which
they define themselves. Both in spite of and because of their
histories, Dicey will go to college; Be will affirm love. These
themes of personal identity emerging from family identity have
spoken strongly to my students, in spite of the cultural
differences in Song of Be.
Self and System
The conclusion of Song of Be ties together the threads of
relationship between Be's life and the history of her people in a
powerful way. Be has attempted suicide in part because her culture
did not come to her aid when she needed it. There was no one in
/Aotcha when she walked in from her journey across the bush, and
this was an event virtually unheard of in the life of any Bushman
village. Hence her feeling of personal failure and her frustration
in her search for a place and an identity as a Bushman both lead to
her attempt to kill herself. Like her people dying of colonial
oppression, she comes perilously near death. But both are revived.
When Khu tracks and finds Be, he resuscitates her. He brings water,
assurance of his love, the commonsense news that the arrow was not
poisoned, "What hunter would leave poisoned arrows where a child
might find them?" (p. 93) And he brings hope for a new day in their
history as he explains why there was no one in /Aotcha when she
"Oh Be! What times there are ahead for us! The best of times! All of us from the village went on the trucks and we waited at the old Baobab in Tsumkwe until the President came to talk to us.
"Oh, Be, isn't it wonderful that we Ju/'hoan are at last being heard and our words are going even to the high places of our land, and the President of all Namibia came with his wife and his advisers to see for himself?" (pp. 92-93)
The personal attention and evidence of caring turns the day for
her, and Be comes to believe that she can open her eyes and look
the future in the face. For Be, as for her people, the long tide of
oppression seems to have turned, and there is once again hope.
Song of Be is a story which fulfills the promise of the
best of multicultural literature, both a foray into the alienness
of cultures and an affirmation of shared human truths and emotions.
Readers cannot understand Be without learning something of her
remarkable society and its history, yet we can understand her
situation and indeed see parallels to it in our own experience.
Beake, Lesley. Song of Be. Henry
Biesele, Megan. Shaken Roots: The
Bushmen of Namibia. Marshalltown, South Africa: EDA
Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear
My Cry . Puffin Books, 1976.
Voigt, Cynthia. Dicey's Song. Fawcett
Note: For the above information I am deeply indebted to
Dr. Megan Biesele, former director of the Nyae Nyae Development
Foundation, for sharing her work and her experiences in the
Kalahari over the past 15 years.
Stephenie Yearwood is Assistant Professor of English at Lamar
University, where she teaches children's and adolescent literature.
She is a past president of the Texas Council of Teachers of
Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of
the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840).
Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given
and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Yearwood, Stephanie. (1997). Emerging into independence: The self and the culture in Lesley Beake's Song of Be. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 36-39.