| Arts & Culture
Language Can You Please Say Something in Khelobedu?
For me, Khelobedu is a language, a culture, home. For most South Africans, it doesn’t exist.
Khelobedu is a dialect spoken by Balobedu people in the northern part of South Africa, Limpopo. Perhaps it is simply that. A dialect. But for me, and over two million people, it’s so much more. It’s a language. It’s a culture. It’s home. For most South Africans, it doesn’t exist.
In South Africa’s history, Khelobedu only makes an appearance whenever Rain Queens of Bolobedu are mentioned. The Rain Queens, who were traditional leaders of Balobedu, were claimed to have magical powers to compel clouds to shed rain, and were considered royalty. So powerful that even the famous male figures such as Shaka Zulu, who was a leader of the Zulu people and known for his combat skills, considered the Rain Queens a threat. They were later secluded and dubbed “witches” by the Apartheid government. The new queen of Bolobedu, aged fourteen, was recently designated in 2018, after many years without a leader. True to her ancestry, rain did pour on the day of her naming ceremony.
I didn’t know my mother-tongue wasn’t considered an “official” language in my country until I started going to school. Flipping through the school curriculum and not finding myself. It was revealed to me that my language is the back-up singer, the misfit, only spoken when there’s a secret joke. Oh, how comical we are; you hear it in the music, you see it in the films, and you recognize the humor on people’s faces when they ask you: Can you say something in Khelobedu? Like you are a clown, who speaks clownery, and should never be taken seriously.
As a child, I went to the schools in my township, Lenyenye. We were taught Sepedi—formerly known as Northern Sotho—which was considered the “proper” language and not the dialect spoken at home. We exited our parents’ houses and went into the classroom to read and write in a language so foreign and yet very familiar. And so you get to understand that to say “I love you,” you say “ke a o rata,” not “ghe yawo rata.” And to say “fetch me some water,” the ‘proper’ way to say it is “nkgele meetse,” and not “nkhele meezi.” It’s not a big mind-fuck, but it’s close enough. It only felt normal because it’s what’s accepted.
When I was eight years old, one of my friends in primary school went to visit her relatives in Polokwane city for the school holidays, and she came back with a new tongue. When she spoke to me, I was puzzled and yet moved. She sounded “better.” More articulate. Posh. Classy. Because she was speaking how our teachers commanded us to speak Sepedi.
I could hear her and yet I couldn’t. She sounded unlike herself. I couldn’t find the words to reply to whatever she’d mumbled to me, so I said, “Why are you talking funny?” Deep down in my gut, I knew it was jealousy. And I felt she shouldn’t have been talking like that after only visiting her relatives for three weeks.
A few years later, when I was fourteen, I was sent to boarding school, to an all-girls high school in Polokwane. I knew where I stood and what was expected of me. I knew my language was not going to cut it. I knew I was to speak in Sepedi because ninety-nine percent of the school spoke Sepedi.
Can you say something in Khelobedu? Like you are a clown, who speaks clownery, and should never be taken seriously.
Before I left home, my older sisters made fun of the likelihood that, when I get there, I would experience a culture shock for the first time in my life, a culture shock-slash-embarrassment. I knew how to write in Sepedi, but I couldn’t speak Sepedi properly. So when I arrived at the school, I maneuvered my way in conversations. I flipped my tongue and curled it in my mouth. I wasn’t good, but I was trying.
Sadly, it showed that the words tasted different. Like biting a good-looking apple and yet tasting sour. Like cracking a lollipop and sensing a tooth dismantle, then having to swallow the blood in your mouth.
They’d ask me, “What language do you speak?” It wasn’t even that I sounded like a Molobedu, but that I sounded like I didn’t know Sepedi at all. The joke was there.
“I speak Khelobedu,” I responded.
And then came their silly request, along with cracks on their faces ready to erupt into endless laughter: “Can you please say something in Khelobedu?” So because I wanted to fit in as a newbie, I put on my clown outfit and performed, because I wanted them to like me.
A few weeks later, I was used to speaking the language of the bees—part of the beehive and spoke like it. I was confident when I talked to my friends and classmates. It wasn’t difficult to adjust a few syllables and my accent to sound like them; Sepedi and Khelobedu are distant cousins, one superior to the other in the hierarchy, but one way or another, there is a common ground, so to go from one to the next wasn’t hard.
One afternoon, my Sepedi teacher asked us to present our personal essays we had written as an assignment. I stepped onto the podium, held my notebook high in my hands, and started reading. I wish I could remember what the essay was about; I do recall how excited I was to read it in front of my classmates, how silence fell over the room, how they all gave me applause. I sat down, smiling brightly and bursting my cheeks.
My teacher, lovely as she was, said to the class in Sepedi, “You see, Keletso’s home language isn’t Sepedi, and yet she wrote a great essay. You must learn something from her.”
My initial reaction was confusion, then fury. What did she actually mean by that? My whole life, I had been taught this language as my “home language,” and yet there is disbelief when I perform well in it? Was it strange that I spoke a dialect, yet could do well in a language I was pushed towards ever since I was trained how to hold a pen?
A few months later, I went home to Lenyenye. I used a taxi from Tzaneen town to my township, and so the minibus was filled with Khelobedu and all its aura—from the loud conversations in the minibus ringing with mutual understanding, to the passerby who sold pirated CDs of local musicians.
(Later, precisely from 2016 onwards, one of the local artists called King Monada would put Khelobedu on a pedestal and his music will be played all over the country, creating a sense of belonging for all Balobedu, even though our language will still not be given the official language badge. The funny thing is, if not bizarre, there will be people in other parts of South Africa who will dance to his music, but will be oblivious as to what language he uses in his songs).
The passerby also sold didhowo-marapo; he lifted the peas to my face and sang repeatedly in my ears through the window: “Didhowo ka mo, didhowo ka mo, didhowo ka mo!”
I was in shock. Khelobedu suddenly sounded strange in my ears. It no longer sounded like the language I grew up speaking. Some of the voices in the minibus were from women, yet they all sounded deep and hoarse due to the accent and pronunciation of the “ghe” and the “dho” in our words.
A woman seated next to me at the back asked me something, trying to start small talk. I can vividly remember the look on her face when I responded. She was startled. There was an awkward pause. And then I noticed the look, the same look I gave my friend from primary school, the look that said, “Who do you think you are?”
I arrived at Lenyenye township. The thing is, I wasn’t aware my tongue and ears had flipped until my next-door neighbor pointed it out. I was speaking a language we all knew and yet didn’t. I was speaking the same language we were taught in schools as our “home language,” but the fact was I didn’t sound like my neighbors. When it dawned on me what was happening, I was ashamed. I felt as if I was offending them. There I was, speaking the language that is considered better and then acting like nothing had changed.
Years later, I went to a university located in the Polokwane area, Limpopo. So I was surrounded by every language you could find there: Sepedi, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, and Khelobedu. My new friends spoke Sepedi and often, if not all the time, I’d use Sepedi in conversations. I stuffed Khelobedu at the back of my tongue, again, because none of my friends spoke Khelobedu.
I’d encounter Balobedu students who spoke Khelobedu on campus. However, there’s a certain unnecessary force you feel in your body when you converse with a Khelobedu-speaking person in another environment. It’s as if you are proving a point. That you are enough. That our language is real. It’s not the same as going home and speaking with your neighbors and family in Khelobedu. There is joy, and then sadness underneath, buried there with bacteria in your mouth.
It’s not what we deserve as a people in South Africa, who have a bursting culture and multitudes. The Rain Queens of Bolobedu did not perform magic for this. Our language has currency, has dignity and pride.
So the next time you ask, “Can you please say something in Khelobedu?” I will look you good in the eye and say, “No. You don’t deserve it.”