Leila Dougan

[intro]Sylvia Vollenhoven’s new play, and recently launched book, The Keeper of the Kumm, tells the story of a battle-hardened, 21st Century journalist who has to journey with her 19th Century Ancestor to delve into the hardest story of them all… Who am I really?[/intro]

For years Elizabeth ‘Betjie’ Petersen (Quanita Adams) used journalism to expose the evil that was apartheid. Now, she reluctantly responds The Call from a 19th Century Visionary, //Kabbo (Elton Landrew), to explore the almost forgotten world of her Ancestors. Likely, the Ancestors of us all.

Journalist, playwright and filmmaker, Sylvia Vollenhoven, has embarked on a bold and historic cross platform project with Keeper of the Kumm, which opened at the National Arts Festival earlier this month. Vollenhoven’s captivating narrative of a personal journey is captured on stage as well as a book with the same title, and serves as a reminder of the historical stories that need to be recorded before they vanish.

Kumm is the word for story or anything told in the now extinct/Xam Bushman language that adorns the South African Coat of Arms. But the people who spoke this language are marginalised and too often reduced to tourist cliches.

In 1870, //Kabbo /Uhi-ddorro Jantjie Tooren, a revolutionary Bushman hunter of the /Xam people, feared that the fragile culture of his people — their very existence — was threatened. Their stories were being lost. And without their stories, he knew, his people would die inside. //Kabbo went on a quest. To find people who could write down Bushman stories while there were still people to tell them.


The result was an archive recorded over a thousand days and nights. Today, more than a century later, the archive is entered into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. But few of //Kabbo’s descendants know it exists or have ever heard of him.

Now, across the centuries, //Kabbo has reached out to a writer — one of his descendants — to take up his quest. Betjie (based on journalist filmmaker Sylvia Vollenhoven’s true story) became seriously ill and had to learn to come to terms with the demands of an Ancestral Calling and learn of the appalling wrongs done over the centuries to our First Nations.

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To the bodies and souls of our Ancestors. It’s called ! gam≠ui or genocide. Its horrors are almost forgotten. But the pain of !gam≠ui lives on in 21st Century communities torn apart by violence, drug addiction and abuse. It’s a trauma that ‘awaits to be named’.

The Kumm project is a response to this need to speak the unspeakable and name the unnameable. It is a unique artistic endeavour with a play and book (both written by Vollenhoven) that tell the same story and is launching simultaneously.


In recent times there has been a revival of the traditional cultures of the Khoe and the San, South Africa’s First Nations. The Kumm dancers echo the essence of this revival with work that combines the modern and the ancient… that takes us deep into the overarching mystical quest of Betjie and her journey with //Kabbo.

The play opened at the South African National Arts Festival earlier this month, with the Cape Town premiere following this week at Artscape. The book, with the same title, was released in Cape Town last week.

The play is directed by Basil Appollis with original music by Hilton Schilder. The Choreographer is Alfred Hinkel, with the Garage dancers from Namaqualand.

Like The Keeper of the Kumm Facebook page
Purchase the eBook here.

Photos: CuePix/Ivan Blazic