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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Artikels | Features > English

Xhosa, chickens and the bush for this language professor


Engela Neethling - 2008-05-27

When African languages professor Russell H Kaschula is not researching subjects or lecturing at the School of Languages at Rhodes University, he spends his time writing youth literature and penning down Xhosa folklore and stories from the province of his heart, the Eastern Cape.

Head of the university’s Language School, Kaschula lectures primarily in African Language Studies, isiXhosa in particular. His field of expertise is intercultural communication and oral literature, which becomes evident when one reads the involved research document he has compiled on how the use of cell phones has affected the politeness of communication in the Xhosa culture. A rather strange subject, one would think. But the use of cell phones has had such a profound impact on politeness not only in the Xhosa culture, but in cultures in general, that research in this regard has become necessary.

“IsiXhosa speakers usually volunteer more information than English speakers in verbal communication. But in regard to cellular phone communication, speaking has become limited and curtailed,” says Kaschula.

His research was based on how the rules of communication have especially changed in pay-as-you-go cellular phone "speak" into what can only be termed the "economics of speaking". “Face to face spoken isiXhosa requires a certain type of conversational ability owing to rich cultural traditional and social norms. This is considered of great communicative significance, hence rules of diplomacy which result in the giving of more information than is required. This does not generally encourage adherence to being brief and orderly,” he said, adding that speakers may therefore appear rude and impolite.

Sending "Please call me" text messages is also considered rude. “It flouts the rules of politeness. The expectation is blatantly transferred to the recipients, who have to choose whether or not to initiate a conversation, at their own expense. Across cultures this can be considered an invasion of privacy,” he said.

Kaschula considers cell phones, although a necessity in today’s world, an "anti-cultural tool" in the sense that as far as pay-as-you-go airtime cellular communication is concerned, the rules that normally pertain to isiXhosa conversations are not necessarily heeded.

He has a deep connection to the Eastern Cape, which started when he was born in Stutterheim to the parents of Wendish-Sorb and Scottish origin. He grew up between Cala and Engcobo in the North-Eastern Cape and matriculated at Queen’s College in Queenstown.

A deep thinker and gentle soul, Kaschula was also involved in the struggle. “I left the university where I studied in 1989 when things were beginning to change. I went to live in the Transkei homeland, which was considered an independent country, in order to avoid conscription. There I joined the ANC youth movement and was an active member in Mthatha when the exiles began returning under then General Bantu Holomisa’s leadership. I ended up doing a lot of research on poetry and song used in the liberation movements. But I was never actively involved in the sense of blowing up any bridges and so forth,” he said.

Kaschula’s CV is an impressive document. He holds a BA LLB, HDE, BA (Hons) and PhD from Rhodes University and is a registered advocate with the High Court. He is a member of the selection panel for the National Department of Arts and Culture and a member of the African Languages Association of SA.

There’s more: he’s also a member of the SA Society for Folklore Studies, the Linguistics Society of SA, the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa, the International Oral History Association, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.

He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Human Sciences as well as the Folklore Studies Journal Supplement. He is currently project manager for the South Africa-Norway Tertiary Education programme (SANTED) at Rhodes University. He is also an external examiner.

His involvement in the Xhosa written word is evident from the number of awards and papers behind his name. He was author and co-author of the South African Journal of Folklore Studies, The Tsitsa River and Beyond and The Bones of the Ancestors are Shaking (Xhosa oral poetry in context), to name a few.

He was awarded, among other things, the Oppenheimer Scholarship to further postdoctoral studies in the United Kingdom and the USA, second place in the FNB Vita/English Academy Poetry Prize for a translation into English, the Nulton International Scholarship at Goucher College at Baltimore, a second Nulton International Scholarship, and the Nasou Via Afrika Prize for Studies in African Literature.

Kaschula has also lectured at a number of colleges and universities, including ones in Germany, London and the USA. He has been a keynote speaker at conferences in Switzlerland, France, Belgium and a number of South African cities. Certainly a man of many talents, he has even co-directed a play, Sarah Baartman, which was staged at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

Kaschula writes creatively and from his pen have come a number of youth novels in isiXhosa and English. He was recently selected as one of 15 African writers for the Caine African Writer’s Prize. His youth novel Emthonjeni, "Take me to the River" was nominated for an IBBY Award this year.

Life is not all about academics for this professor. When he’s not in Grahamstown, he spends time in Port St Johns, where he and his partner own a lovely guesthouse overlooking the ocean, river and mountains. “I love birds and trees, so I enjoy the mountains and forests. I also like spending time on the beaches and in the backpackers on the Wild Coast,” he said.

Kaschula loves music, reggae being his favourite.

Something else people don’t know about him? “I have been known to play the trumpet and the guitar. And I’m passionate about chickens!” he says.