ALAN v25n1 - Emerging into Independence:The Self and the Culture in Lesley Beake's Song of Be

Volume 24, Number 3
Spring 1997

Emerging into Independence:The Self and the Culture in Lesley Beake's Song of Be

Stephenie Yearwood

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 the two.

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 fall.

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 Namibia.

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 of /Aotcha.

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 past.

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, and Aia…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 arrived.

"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.

Works Cited

Beake, Lesley. Song of Be . Henry Holt, 1993.

Biesele, Megan. Shaken Roots: The Bushmen of Namibia . Marshalltown, South Africa: EDA Publications, 1990.

Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry . Puffin Books, 1976.

Voigt, Cynthia. Dicey's Song . Fawcett Juniper. 1982.

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 English.

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.