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Culture, Reality

We are all Africans

by Petra Mason, illustrations by Anton Kannemeyer / 18.06.2010

If you could email your ancestors, what would you want to know?
Family legend or delusions of grandeur may suggest you are royalty:
A Nubian Princess, the fruit of Genghis Khan’s loins, or a descendant of Shaka Zulu’s warrior clan. You may be some, or all of those things, but most likely, you’re a mongrel.

Up until last week I thought I was pretty vanilla. An average 5th generation white settler, much like, in terms of my genetic cocktail, any other rooinek. But then I did a DNA test. Not because I wanted to find out the obvious stuff, like where my Grandparents were born, but to trace the journey of my maternal distant relatives – where they lived and how they migrated around the world many thousands of years ago.

At the world cup kick-off celebration you may recall Tutu’s global greeting: “welcome home, we are all African”. It’s true: we are all descended from the “Mitrochondrial Eve” who originated in Africa.

In the world of Science, Human Genetics studies are in fashion. Just last month researchers announced the seriously sci-fi creation of synthetic DNA, the “genetic software” required for artificial life. The synthetic cell looks identical to the “wild type” raising some serious ethical questions about Scientists ‘playing god’.

To get the results of my mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, all it took was a painless cheek swab sample and about R1000 bucks. The test results are limited to two genetic lines, X (from your Mom) and Y (from your Dad). Mother’s pass mtDNA to all their children – male and female, but only females pass them down to the next generation. Women can trace their paternal lineage (Y) by having a male blood relative take the test. Lucky for me, my dad did the test too, so I have a sense of my ancestry beyond my Mom’s X information. Geneticists identify each of the major clans by a single letter. Each of these letters represent a family descended from a distant female ancestor.


Title: B is for Black, Medium: six colour lithograph, Paper size: 44 x 57cm,
Image size: 37 X 49.5cm, Edition size: 35, Price: R 3 000

The results of my Genetic Ancestry Testing Report:

My Dad’s line is H1c1 – H is clan of Helena, one of the “Seven Daughters of Eve” consistent with European ancestry. About 47% of native Europeans belong to clan “Helena” having originated from a hunting family in Southwest France, French cowgirl country, and the same line as Marie Antoinette. 1 exact match in the Cook Islands.

My Mom’s line : mtDNA haplogroup: LOa1b. Clan L for Lara, from the single main lineage from Africa. Loa1b is from East and Central Africa, and is almost absent in North African, West African and Southern African populations. 1 identical match: an African American individual.

Initially, processing the results was very confusing. I got them via email, so had no chance of talking them over with a medical scientist in a white lab coat, which prompted me to put on my own white coat and submerge myself in Human Genomic Research.

The African Daughters in my mtDNA lineage were once Pygmies who wondered South East from Central Africa to East Africa, mixing with the local Bantu population along the way. Pygmy forest people symbiotically lived near Bantu settlements and hunted for protein, while the Bantu provided starch, using tools they had invented during the Iron Age. A little love under the stars in exchange for extra monkey meat or another sweet potato might have been all that was needed to get the clan of Lara intermingled all the way to Mozambique. There we were likely captured as slaves between 1750 and 1795 by the Dutch East India Company and shipped, along with 974 others, from East Africa, Zanzibar and Mozambique, to the Cape of Storms. If all the blood of the world is mixed in Cape Town, that’s where my Mom’s line, with Afrikaans names like Herculena Petronella Botes, added more and more “milk to their coffee” over the generations.


Title: W is for White, Medium: five colour lithograph, Paper size: 44 X 57cm, Image size: 37 x 49.5cm, Edition Size: 35, Price: R 3 000

By the time my short, dark Grandmother, aka “the wild card” married my Grandfather, a tall German man with an evil blue eyed glare, our tanned, green eyed relatives with frizzy blonde hair from the Cape had moved to an impoverished area in the Transvaal. By then the Gothic Novel turned Gothic Horror. Unlike classic Gothic Novels, there were no castles involved, just an unromantic cast of tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs and skeletons in closets; which include a Native Appeals Court judge, members of the Ossewa Brandwag, the Pretoria Department of Native Affairs, a small holding in Boksburg, a typist, a nurse, and some jail time. Some of them were vile people, all of them are now dead.

The thought of having an African maternal ancestor would have horrified the entire cast of recent relatives. Little did “the wild card” know that she was from the clan of Lara, the same branch as rock ‘n roll royalty Tina Turner, and not her beloved Duchess of Windsor. And what if the gardener, who strangled her to death at age 92, had known that she was infact a distant relative. Perhaps understanding that there are lots of hidden and unacknowledged race mixtures out there would have appealed to his sense of ubuntu.

U is for Ubuntu:
Ubuntu is an Nguni word, which has no direct translation into English, but is used to describe a particular African worldview in which people can only find fulfillment through interacting with other people. Thus is represents a spirit of kinship across both race and creed which united mankind to a common purpose.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language…It is to say. ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…”

Where to get a DNA test:

Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit
Division of Human Genetics
They get clients from all over South Africa. Clients that aren’t in the area can phone (011 489 9293) and ask for a kit, which they will post to you.

Department of Human Genetics
National Health Laboratory Service
P O Box 1038
Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit
Division of Human Genetics
NHLS
Johannesburg
South Africa
2000

Tel: +27 11 489 9237 / 9293
Fax: +27 11 489 9226

All images © Anton Kannemeyer
Available for purchase from Art Print SA

Opening Image Credit:
Title: Birth, the first and the direst of all disasters, Medium: seven colour lithograph, Paper size: 44 x 30cm, Image size: 32 x 41cm, Edition size: 35, Price: R 3 000

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