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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Return of 'Hottentot Venus' unites Bushmen

Saartje Baartman's remains arrive in South Africa
A Khoisan choir sang as Baartman's remains arrived
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By the BBC's Mohammed Allie
Cape Town

The return to Cape Town of the remains of Saartje Baartman, the Khoisan lady dubbed the "Hottentot Venus" in Europe, could provide the spark for the revival of Khoisan - or "Bushman" culture.

The Khoisan people are widely believed to be the original inhabitants of the southern tip of Africa.

We need to be proud of our identity

Chief Joseph Little
Baartman's remains, which were placed in a coffin draped in the South African flag, were returned 186 years after her death in Paris where she died a pauper.

French scientists made a mould of her body and preserved her skeleton, genitalia and brain which remained on display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1974.

"The return of her remains marks the end of almost 200 years of degradation, isolation and violation of the dignity of Saartje Baartman. It's good to see that the episode has finally been brought to an end in a dignified manner," said Chief Joseph Little, Chairperson of the National Khoisan Council.

Renewed identity

Chief Little believes the event is a signal for all those of Khoisan descent to reclaim their identity.

"She's brought to the fore that we need to be proud of our identity instead of hiding behind the classification of 'coloured' which was given to us by the racist apartheid regime," he added.

Cast of Saartje Baartman
A shrine to honour Baartman is planned

Matty Cairncross, a member of the Khoisan community agrees with Chief Little.

"She's a symbol of our history that's been taken away from us. We have a rich history and culture which needs to be revived and shown to the world. We need to hear more stories about forgotten people like the Khoisan in books and theatre to correct the imbalances created by the previous system of apartheid," she said.

"The return of Saartje Baartman to South Africa is a victory for all South Africans and indigenous peoples of the world. It's an historic moment for everyone, especially for women in South Africa. She can be a unifying symbol for us," she added.

Khoisan pride

Professor Jattie Bredenkamp, director of the Institute for Historical Research at the University of the Western Cape, believes the return of Baartman's remains could expedite the process of reclaiming the Khoisan identity.

"This is a lift-off for history. Our history needs to be rewritten. This repatriation can play a role in the rediscovery of the 'coloured' people's roots as people of Africa," said Mr Bredenkamp, himself a Khoisan descendant.

Even Saartje's direct descendants, the Baartman family were not there

Loit Sols

"Colonialism and apartheid damaged the psyche of the 'coloured' people. They need to be proud of the return of Saartje," he added.

The joy around the celebrations to mark the return of Baartman's remains was however, tempered by accusations from some in the Khoisan community that the national and provincial governments are hijacking the event for political gain.

"I would have preferred to have had the event organised in consultation with the Khoisan community. Even Saartje's direct descendants, the Baartman family were not there. They weren't invited. There are other people who were invited who didn't come because they're unhappy with the arrangements," said Loit Sols, a Khoisan tribesman.


Mr Sols expressed the hope that wider consultation with the Khoisan community would take place prior to her anticipated burial in August.

Plans are afoot for the remains to be buried in a Saartje Baartman shrine of remembrance where people can come to pay homage and respects to her memory.

Piet Meyer, member of the Western Cape cabinet (l) and Khoisan Chief Joseph Little (r)
The Khoisan chief hopes her return will unite his people

Baartman was born in 1789 into the Khoisan tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in the southernmost tip of Africa and were also known as "Hottentots".

This term is now seen as being highly offensive.

In 1810 she was taken to London by a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, who hoped to make money displaying her unusual anatomy to a paying audience.

She was then sold to a French entrepreneur who took her to Paris where she seems to have fallen into alcoholism and prostitution and was dead by 1816.

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