Balete resurrect culture with a bang
by Edgar Tsimane
A culture last practiced a little over thirty years ago has come alive.
September 1 will remain etched on the minds of many as the day the Balete tribe, with a precision only known from time immemorial, resurrected their culture, which, like many others elsewhere in the country, has over decades increasingly come under assault from the predominantly European culture, aided and abated by Christianity.
In the weeks preceding the historic resurrection of the tribe’s male initiation ceremony, otherwise known as Bogwera, nobody knew for sure that the three- decade old dormant tradition would still find its place in modern Botswana and be embraced by all and sundry until it happened, almost flawlessly, with the graduation last Saturday in Ramotswa of about 200 male initiates.
Before the graduation, the tribal authority announced a temporary curfew on a Wednesday preceding the event limiting movement of people at night after night fall – an order that was obliged with without incident.
Paramount Chief Mosadi Seboko had explained her actions to her subjects and other multi-tribal inhabitants of Ramotswa as based on averting “clashes” with graduates (Bogwera) who would later at night come to “inspect” the village in their normal course of training associated with the traditional school.
There were no incidences of clashes reported the following day. The graduates were to re-appear briefly on Friday morning for a sporting event watched by hundreds of onlookers from atop a hill before retreating to the hill to prepare themselves finally for the big day.
During the Saturday event, scores of men of all ages and varying backgrounds descended on the traditional amphitheatre (kgotla) in the morning from the bush wielding whipping sticks in a clearly coordinated procession lowly singing traditional songs associated with the rite. They blew horns (Mapatata) in the same fashion watched by multitudes numbering just over two thousand.
The men were decorated in colourful beads around their necks. Their entire bodies were smeared gingerly with thick burgundy clay mixed with warmed up animal lard concocted with traditional medicinal herbs. The men were mostly scantily dressed in animal skin underwear. They wore sandals made from animal skin. All of them spotted black painted shaven heads from oil induced silica and wore ear rings. They included the deputy paramount chief, Tsimane Mokgosi, and other royals in their order of hierarchy.
When the paramount chief paraded members of the royal family who partook in the ceremony, Mokgosi, who led the royal house, acknowledged this by blowing the horn and so did others who followed after him.
It was a spectacle in which an elder and younger brother, a father and son, a chief and his subjects made a month-long pilgrimage to the foothill vicinity of Tsokwane hill south of Ramotswa to be schooled in the secrecy shrouded rite.
Among initiates were five councilors from the South East District Council – two from the Botswana Congress Party, another two from the ruling Botswana Democratic party and one from the Botswana Movement for Democracy.
August 2012 marked two historical milestones in the history of the Balete tribe. The tribe had decided in January this year to revive Bogwera and later, on 31 August to be precise, it would celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first female paramount chief in its history, Queen Mosadi Seboko’s reign.
The naming of the new regiment ‘Matsosa ngwao’ (Cultural revivers) by Kgosi Seboko coincided with the annual cultural day celebrations, which have the blessings of the government. The annual cultural events are aimed at safeguarding and promoting the different cultures of Botswana tribes from extinction.
At the ceremony, Paramount Chief Mosadi Seboko spoke not only about the importance of infusing culture into the country’s Vision 2016 but also about the need to take it to the Church.
The event attracted multinationals and members of the diplomatic corps from Mozambique, the Nigerian High Commission, the United States Embassy, the British High Commission, and the Chinese Women’s Association among others.
The tradition of Bogwera and that of female initiation (Bojale) remain from time immemorial shrouded in secrecy. It is a taboo for graduates of the two traditional institutions to openly talk about what goes on at the traditional schools save for the open secret of male circumcision and the singing of prescribed folk songs (Dikoma). The traditional conservatives like it that way.