This article was written for the website Our Own Words. There are so many great articles on that site, you should check it out.
Around the time I turned 13 my family was back in South Africa to visit family, before a year in Lyon, France. While visiting my grandmother, her former servant Sarkie was to stay for her vacation. This was in the 1980s, and so I probably have some of the details wrong. Apparently to earn her annuity, Sarkie would come to visit my grandmother.
I did not witness a friend visiting a friend, but a servant coming to serve—when the apartment already complex had an active staff of servants who did the work every day, so this was entirely unnecessary. Because we were there, and taking up the two other guest rooms, Sarkie was to stay in the garage. My grandmother afforded a two car garage, and as she only had one car, she’d paid to have floor to ceiling chain link fencing put up, with a padlocked gate. It was storage, highly dusty, and access was problematic. When the garage door closed, the lights turned off automatically, and without any means to turn them on from the inside.
Sarkie was not to use the family’s bathrooms, but to go to a completely different building to the staff servant’s bathrooms.
This made me very uncomfortable.
I had not been raised to think this was normal. I could not understand how my family accepted this without (as far as I knew) any complaint. (If there were objections, I didn’t know about them, though my twin fretted too, and was told not to say anything).
I remember standing in the kitchen begging Sarkie to share my twin and my bedroom. From what I understand from one of my sisters, I was relentless. I have an image of Sarkie’s head getting lower, and lower. My sister said she was highly uncomfortable.
Sarkie finally said, No, and then explained, “It isn’t done.”
It was, perhaps, a defining moment of my life. Sarkie had accepted—however willingly or not, I will never know—the culture she was raised in. This is just the way things were. She was dominated by the White South African woman, who gave her an annuity because of these so called ‘vacations’ from the rough life in some township with her family. That said, my twin told me that she also refused to sit down to watch TV with my grandparents, so they gave her one because they didn’t like her standing. Some of the ways the racial divides in South Africa showed itself was often, to my eyes, weird.
But the moment in the kitchen opened my eyes to the wider experience of cultural narratives—even those I was not aware of. It is entirely possible I insulted her deeply.
It wasn’t till many years later that I grew to understand more of how important the narratives in our lives might be, and the underlying secrets the characterization of a creature as interesting as a Jackal—love him or hate him (and his fellow Hyena, Coyote, and Fox—all reviled in some way or another throughout cultural history. Just pause a moment and think about the stories you know about Jackal. Is he a trickster in a good way? Are tricksters good? Helpful?
Often in European contexts these creatures are akin to the devil, the bad guys, the cowards. In other cultures, often not—unless there was an inherent bias about greed of any creature that did not communally share. I came across an article while research for my book Sen of the Woods, where Jackal tricked me into becoming a main character. The Boer and the Jackal: Satire and Resistance in Khoi orature by Herman Wittenberg.
“The cultural script implicit in the jackal trickster narratives allowed the weaker subject to outwit the dominant master. I would argue that this was a template that seemed eminently adaptable in the face of historical change. With the entry of powerful colonial forces into the norther Cape frontier, the Khoi could deploy their jackal trickster narratives as aa strategy of discursive resistance.”
Often in the narratives the article sources, the Lion, or leopard represents the colonial greed. “The lion, as we have seen earlier, was associated in both |Xam and Khoi culture with rapacious and dangerous predatoriness.” (Wittenberg)
What you must know is that the B in Mab is part of a portmanteau of my first and maiden name. Boers. Apparently while there are many boer—which means farmer—in South Africa, there’s only one Boers family: mine. And we call the Boer war, the ANGLO Boer war, especially as we had relatives die in a British concentration camp. I’ll add to this long aside. No, the Germans did not invent concentration camps. And America had their own as well, but we called them Internment camps… which is an interesting term. Interment means entombment, or burial, as we feared a people—even those some of us had worked beside—and buried them figuratively and otherwise.
I don’t think I have to do much more to defend the idea that the dominating culture has a tendency to malign the one they’re dominating. I think I’ve shown the costs, however seemingly minor, of that in one story of a naïve girl begging a woman to share her room in a culture where this was absolutely not allowed.
Who defines the Jackal, then? Is it a coward, or the satirical, tricky creature who dupes the superior ‘Lion.’?
“In Khoi orature, satire is associated with the transgressive trickster figure of the jackal; he is attractive, roguish and able to outwit the powerful, in particular predators such as lions. In |Xam story telling on the other hand, the jackal does not function as a likable trickster but as negative traits such as cunning, cowardice and selfishness, qualities that have not allowed him to become a figure of identification.” (Wittenberg)
The Cape Khoi culture apparently predate the settlement 1652, but by the time people were interested in indigenous cultures, the |Xam language, for instance, was extinct by the 1910s. And when Bleek and Lloyd were collecting the narratives in the 1800s, they had to present them in respectable ways. By this time the story is domesticated, and rather Victorian in design. Bleek wrote in a preface of his version, “to make these Hottentot fables readable for the general public, a few slight omissions and alterations of what would otherwise have been too naked for the English eye were necessary.” This was done with Grimm tales, so it is no surprise that it was done here.
The Jackal in some of the narratives mentioned by Wittenberg avoid the greedy maw of the supposedly dead lions—who were attempting to tricking Jackal to get close to their mouth—touches their backside, and sees the anus contract, thus the Jackal knew it was alive. The Jackal dupes a boer into buying a horse that shits gold (because he hid a coin in it), and the list goes on. These were, of course, ideas that Victorians would shy away from.
And let’s not forget the whole term boorish, and so on. “Barrow supplied commentators and future historians with a well-stocked repertoire of anti-Dutch images and stereotypes. For example, he reviled the indolence and inertia of the Boers and deplored their cruel oppression of the indigenous Khoisan peoples” (Dubow, p. 21).
By the time Bleek and Lloyd were exploring the |Xan language and folklore, they were nearly extinct. The Khoi, and Khoisan cultures were still attempting to establish their identity against the dominant white culture, mostly the Dutch settlers, but that certainly wasn’t exclusive to the Dutch farmers.. Interesting to note that in my reading that the British considered the Dutch farmers (boer) as being lazy. Who is dominating whom, and who do they want to inter? How is that for a trickle down effect?
By the time I finished reading the article, as well as many other references, I realized that the negative identity of the jackal, fox, coyote, hyena and other tricksters was—or felt like—accepted narrative. That the Khoi turned Jackal and Lion into satirical figures was, to my mind brilliant. “The Khoi oral tradition, particularly in the case of the Nama, reflects a resisting engagement with colonial power, where the narrative template of the jackal trickster fable was adjusted to deal with the new realities on the northern frontier. This was achieved through a simple substitution of the boer or white settler for the lion.” (Wittenberg)
Reading a kindle version The Girl Who Made Stars a modern version of the collected narratives mentioned in the article, (because the kindle version of the original is REALLY tough to get into, mainly because I think the copied it very badly), I found stories that took me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. The story The Leopard and the Jackal particularly caught my attention:
The jackal watches the leopard when the leopard has killed a springbok. The jackal whines, begging for springbok flesh. He howls, he begs, for he is a jackal. Therefore he howls. When he begs, he may eat.
Then the leopard is angry, the leopard kills him, the leopard bites him dead, he lifts him up, he goes to put him into the bushes; thus he hides him. (Bleek, Lloyd, McNamee)
I might have been the girl overtly begging for what seemed normal to me, but my story also has a woman well aware that she can only beg so much for a yearly income to retire on. The leopard might just get angry, and then send her away.
In the story The Hyena’s Revenge there are a few passages that also illuminate the Lion versus the Jackal.
“The Hyena killed the Lion with hot soup. He intended to burn the Lion to death, and he did so, just because the Lion had been miserly with some quagga’s flesh. He lured the Lion with ostrich flesh, knowing that the Lion would not be able to resist that temptation…. The lion is jealous with his food because he is a lion. This is just the way things are.” (Bleek, Lloyd, McNamee)
“In |Xam culture, the lion was thus not only a dangerous marauder who posed a real and ever-present danger, but was also an exemplary figure for predatory anti-sociality, violating the accepted social norms of ‘behaving nicely’” (Wittenberg).
But then there is THIS interesting tidbit within the stories:
The Jackal’s Heart Is Not to Be Eaten
The Bushmen feel that a little child is likely to be timid. Therefore, the little child does not eat jackals’ hearts, because the jackal is very afraid. The jackal runs away whenever we approach it.
The leopard is the one whose heart the little child eats. The leopard is not afraid. A little child becomes a coward from eating the jackal’s heart. If it eats the jackal’s heart, its own heart fills with fear.
Therefore, we do not give the jackal’s heart to a little child. We feel that the jackal is the kind of creature that runs away, even when it has not seen us, when it has only heard our feet rustle. It runs away, not even looking to see what the noise is. (Bleek, Lloyd, McNamee)
By 1878, the narrator of the story talks about how “my grandfather used to act in this manner, when he was boiling a jackal, he said ‘Thou dost seem to think we eat jackals’ hearts for, we become cowards (if we do so).’ Therefore we did not eat the jackals’ hearts. For my grandfather used not toe at the jackal; he only boiled the jackal for his sons.” (Bleek & Lloyd) The lion and leopard are no longer considered greedy. In fact the Jackal has gone back to being not the clever creature who finally gives the Lion various undignified comeuppances, but is now a coward. It makes me wonder when the narrative took place—and by whom.
Again: Who is telling the tale? Jackals being cowards? I think of Sarkie, and her refusal to share a room with me, because it was not done. I think of the teasing way the Jackals got revenge on the Lion—where he had to be cunning because he was not strong. This is why story, narrative, and the WAY we tell stories becomes important.
In no way am I trying to convince you of anything. That the Jackal is always the good guy, and always was. (He wasn’t. The |Xam apparently saw any greedy creature as bad, because their hunter gatherer culture sharing was vital to survival. Does it matter? Yes and now. If you’ve read this long, perhaps I only tricked you into looking at old folklore and folktales, or any stories and narratives in a new way.
Bleek, W.H.I, and Lloyd, L.C.: Specimens of Bushman Folklore. London, George Allen & Company Lt. , 1911.
Bleek, Wilhelm, Lloyd, Lucy, C. McNamee, Gregory: The Girl who Made Stars and Other Bushman Stories Einsiendeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag, 2001.
Dubow, Saul: A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa 1820-2000. New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Wittenberg, Herman: “The Boer and the Jackal: Satire and resistance in the Khoi orature.” University of the Western Cape South Africa: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/62636377.pdf
Coyote photograph by www.gillianoverholser.com
Detail from my own collection, an early draft of the Sen of the Woods cover. I particularly LOVE Jackal in this one, and those glowing eyes. https://www.facebook.com/MabWrites/photos/a.800685813373676/1758215517620696