• Language: Khwedam
  • Region: Northeastern Namibia
  • Contributor: ǂGakaci Thaddeus Chedau, Ata Anita Maundu, Ue Gertrud Andreas, Willie Kamwanga Kasera
Tree, wood, medicinal plant
Árbol, madera, planta medicinal

Yii means trees, wood and medicinal plants. Yii as trees are crucial for finding the way in the bush and are our main food sources, yii as wood is essential for making most of our tools and instruments, and yii is also the name of our medicinal plants.

Until recently, children from an early age accompanied their parents on hunting and collecting parties in the bush. During these trips, they were taught to observe and remember the trees in order to be able to find their way back home. Trees, such as Manketti, Peeling Bark Ochna, Monkey Orange, Sand Apple and many others produce our most important bushfood.

Yii is also the wood from which we make our tools, such as the handle of the axes and hoes, the clapping wood instruments, the mortars and pestles; we also build our houses with yii.

Medicinal plants are also yii and because of that we call our healers yii khoe ‘yii people’ or yii kx’ao ‘powerful yii people’.

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  • I Newspaper reports from South Africa on Katrina Esau’s tireless efforts to preserve her indigenous click-rich language – N/uu
  • BBC Travel takes you on a journey to the Northern and Western Cape of South Africa, including to the !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre. Learn more about our work on N/uu spoken in the Northern Cape here.


  • Language: Kreol Morisien
  • Region: Mauritius
  • Contributor: Helina Hookoomsing and Shameem Oozeerally
in the woods; wild overgrowth; wilderness
en el bosque; crecimiento excesivo salvaje; desierto

We are offering a word from Kreol Morisien, or Mauritian Creole, which is the most widely-spoken language on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius – where English and French are also spoken. While Kreol Morisien is the most widely spoken language, it is also the language which has the least official value, despite significant upward social movement in the past years. Kreol Morisien remains a largely oral language, with people having emotional or attitudinal connections, and still suffers from being the language of low prestige.

To understand the links between Kreol Morisien and the relationship to nature, let’s take a little journey through Mauritian history. Mauritius had no indigenous population when discovered by the Portuguese in the early 16th Century. Unlike many other colonised nations with indigenous peoples who have strong historical and ancestral bonds to the land and environment, we wonder whether the non-existence of an indigenous human population in Mauritius could account for the lack of strong heritage and ancestral ties to the island and its ecosystem.

France, Britain and others brought waves of settlement, slavery and bonded labour to Mauritius. All settlers, whether intentionally or forced, came to the country solely for the exploitation of the land and use of the ecosystem as ‘resources’ to be marketed and sold. This historical legacy, of capitalist ideology, continues to impact on the environment in Mauritius and, despite conservationist interventions and campaigns, the island continues to face significant ecological damage as a direct result of human activities. Despite its small size, the Mauritian environment is being rapidly degraded – including water pollution, degradation of coral reefs, extinction of endemic flora, and near-extinction of the Rodrigues fruit bat or golden bat. Only 9 out of 25 known species of indigenous birds remain in existence on the island, and less than 2% of the native forest remains.

Danbwa is a word that is literally translated into ‘in (dan) wood (bwa)’ and would be a synonym for ‘bwa’ (wood). Subtle variations of the word bring nuanced meanings, such as, separating it into two ‘dan bwa’ to describe ‘in the woods’ or the motion of going into the woods. Danbwa is a word used to represent the woods or wilderness. For some it brings to mind the forest and trees. For others, the latter could also mean the wild nature or the notion of savagery – as applied to humans too. ‘Danbwa’ can also mean ‘unexploited’ and ‘undeveloped’ land, where the forest and natural ecosystems are perceived as ‘empty land’ which is meant for human intervention, construction, and exploitation. It links to the phrase ‘zet sa dan bwa’ (throw that in the woods) as a metaphor to mean get rid of something or someone who is unnecessary or considered a waste of time. Unfortunately, it also has very literal implications too.Here we share a vision of how a relationship with the woods might one day be different from what we see today – where the forests of Mauritius are often a place of dumping and pollution. We bring ‘danbwa’ to life in all its wild growth and wildish nature through a poem performed as an incantation – a chant for the woods and for the earth, an invocation for humans to connect with their bodies as made of earth to connect with spirit of the woods too. It is a summoning of the ancient life force that aches for healing, that moves inside each and every living being, and remembrance to protect and nourish the soil from which we came, on which we live, and to which we will return.

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  • Language: Lakota
  • Region: Great Plains, Central United States
  • Contributor: Tiokasin Ghosthorse
Consciousness; knowing
Conciencia; conocimiento
Music courtesy of Tiokasin Ghosthorse

This contribution is edited from a series of conversations with Tiokasin Ghosthorse, project producers, Neville Gabie and Philippa Bayley, and fellow contributor Malcolm Maclean.

Neville: As you have described it, Lakota is a language of verbs because everything in our world is alive, in motion, active. That idea completely changed my thinking because suddenly I could no longer see a tree as passive, but as actively being – ‘treeing’.

Tiokasin: If you see something in motion and suddenly it stops then you have to noun-ify it and it does not have any life – it does not have any motion… It becomes ‘a thing’. To think in the ‘earth paradigm’ (rather than in the ‘human paradigm’) – when you are seeing something in motion it is a more alive way to see and feel something because you are part of it. Your eyes are actually a part of that energy of motion, so you describe it that way. And then you describe the energy that you are feeling. So these two ways of understanding – motion and energy – are probably as close a way of getting to say how the language is structured.

The English language is not effective enough because we use concepts which are very basic building blocks. Concepts get in the way. Concepts put barriers in the mind and in the spirit too.

Neville: I remember you were saying that the human body and the trunk of a tree have the same word in Lakota – čaŋ. Can you say more? 

Tiokasin: čaŋ is a tree – so we are talking about a torso, we are talking about the finger, the arm, and our hair is the leaves, you can go on, and our toes are the roots. It’s not just that your body is a tree – it’s the wíyukčaŋ – knowing, consciousness. You hear the čaŋ in it? So, in Lakota thinking, when you fragment the word: wí-yu-kčaŋis the sun and to us, sun is a verb – it is being and it is always alive. And the yu is like the consciousness that is given to the tree and the tree is acknowledging the sun. This is not just us as the body of the tree, but this is the tree of who we are. We can spiral out into a bigger thought: Wow, the consciousness of the sun is the consciousness of the tree and vice versa. And we are the acknowledgement of it because look how we are made. We don’t have the language for that in English. I am speaking so many English words to describe one little thing!

Wíyukčaŋ – that’s knowing, consciousness – the wíyukčaŋ is also involving the moon and the stars and the trees of the earth and how they communicate, and we are in that as humans.

Philippa: You have talked about people becoming ‘technical human doings’ rather than ‘organic human beings’. Can you say more?

Tiokasin: In the older world, in the petroglyphs and hieroglyphs, you can see humans and nature; in some of the prophecies the Hopi have their feet below the ground as if they are planted. And the technical people are going nowhere, they are not planted. So that means their minds have become ethereal and disconnected.  We are at a point now where there is still a chance for the majority to start thinking differently, more earth-oriented. There are a few who retain that sobriety with the earth. Otherwise we become intoxicated with our own humanness and get into the patterns of thinking we have superior intelligence, and that’s defined by concepts in the language. 

It’s not progress to lose consciousness with the earth.  Where is the language to keep that aliveness of the earth? You see how much confidence children have with the earth. They have a lot of confidence with the earth and then that’s torn down and replaced with false confidence. When my friends come from the more urbanized settings they are in nature and it’s all new and they are afraid of it, because they have no confidence in nature. So they will get their manuals out, so they can identify, but the butterfly is not thinking about identity. 

When you are not confident with the earth, you lose your roots. But what I see is that as native people – we can wander but we know who we are. In the USA we are landless, we are landless as native people, but we are not homeless.  Ok, temporarily we don’t have the land, but who said that we had it anyway? So those binding languages that are forcing you to say ‘you need to think this way – let’s make a treaty’ and yet history says ‘but where is your contract with the earth?’ That is our responsibility – being with the earth making sure that she is maintaining all life including the little human being.

Malcolm: That was a wonderful thing you said there about being landless, but not homeless.  It applies in my part of the world as well. We have a famous poet here, Norman MacCaig, and I have to paraphrase it… ‘Who does this land belong to? The man who claims to possess it, or me who is possessed by it? ‘

Tiokasin: What if we thought in terms like that? You belong to the earth? And if you think like that then your language is confident. If you maintain a relationship with the earth, rather than control of the earth, that all life will be here. We started by saying ‘if we need the earth, does the earth need us?’ In a Western context we would say ‘of course we can save the earth; of course we can do this’ but that is an industrialized way of thinking and at the same time we are thinking she is going to flick us off like a flea. It’s not even a question. If the earth needs us because we are the earth it’s a sense of responsibility: ‘Yes, of course we need the earth, but of course the earth needs us.’ We are here in a relationship, so our language is all of relationship.

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