Una Rooi of the Kalahari San died in hospital at the age of 81.

She was one of only five people on earth who could speak a dying language of the people of the Kalahari.

Una Katriena Kassie Rooi was also central to the San people winning a land claim in what is now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

On March 3 this San elder, who was born under a camelthorn tree at Tweerivieren in 1931, died in hospital at Upington at the age of 81.

She will be buried on Saturday near Askham in the Northern Cape.

Rooi made headlines in 1998 when researchers were told there was a group of people living in the Kalahari who spoke the N/uu language.

Petrus Vaalbooi, a community leader and activist trying to claim back land they had lost, led researchers Nigel Crawhall, Anthony Traill and Hugh Brody to Rooi.

Rooi and four others were the only people left who still spoke the N/uu language.

Crawhall, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC), said on Thursday that Rooi had been instrumental in the ‡Khomani land claim of 1999, after “a life of obscurity and poverty during apartheid.

“During the ‡Khomani land claim process, it was discovered that there were still elderly people speaking Nuu, the last !Ui language on earth.

“The !Ui language family was aboriginal to South Africa and is represented by the Xam language on the national motto.

“Rooi played a central role in the ‡Khomani land claim, actively helping to document the critically important evidence of her birth at Tweerivieren (‡aka‡naus) in what is now Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park,” Crawhall said.

Once the researchers met up with Rooi and the others, they were able to hear accounts of their early lives in the Kalahari before the park was proclaimed. “This was sufficient evidence to show original occupation of the national park, leading to National Parks Board ceasing its attempts to claim that there were no indigenous occupants at the time of proclamation,” Crawhall said.

Researchers also learned how Rooi and other San people became part of a human display at the British Empire Exhibition in 1936 and 1937. While they were away, all their possessions were burned and the San people were dumped at the police station in Witdraai.

Rooi’s father tried to negotiate some form of restitution but was beaten by police.

“It would be another 62 years before the San would win a land claim under a democratic government to recover a small section of their land in and near the national park,” Crawhall said.

Much of Rooi’s life was characterised by poverty, dispossession and migratory labour. She had her first child with Morise, a Motlharo Tswana man. In 1948 she married Piet Rooi, who died a few years ago.

Rooi returned to the Kalahari after the land restitution and set up a children’s preschool near Askham to help teach the language. She also taught young women the rituals of the hokmeisie, a celebration of the arrival of womanhood.

“Rooi, who was a gifted storyteller, could remember obscure words in Nuu, including for me the most important of them all, qe, the Nuu word for the life-force in all living beings and found in some parts of the landscape.”

Her name “Una”, is a Nuu word referring to the fox-ear powder puff kept in the purse of San women, and used to spread buchu powder on newborn babies. - Cape Times