Sunday, June 16, 2024

African-American tells world about suffering racial discrimination at Serowe kgotla

Not having been at the Serowe kgotla on March 17, 2017, we are unable to vouch for the authenticity of what Maya Cunningham claims on her blog. However, nobody can deny that what she describes is a more than familiar scenario.

A recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, Cunningham, who is African-American, visited Botswana in 2017 with another (white) Fellow whom she does not name. On March 17 of that same year, the Americans visited the Serowe kgotla and were accompanied by a tour guide from “the Ministry of Education, Ms. Edna, our transport specialist” and an employee of the Khama III Museum.” At this point, the Ministry of Education had been split into the Ministry of Basic Education and Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology. Given the nature of the assignment being undertaken by the Americans, it is likely that the guide was from the latter ministry.

Writes Cunningham about her experiences at the Serowe kgotla: “It was during this meeting that one of the negative aspects of Botswana escalated to the fullest. The colonized mind. For the entire trip, our guide addressed any and all information and conversation to my White colleague. It started as soon as we were on the road. I tried to inform him that the historical information that he had to give was of as much interest and relevance to my research project as it was to my colleague’s. This did not deter his focus upon her. I have heard of whites receiving privilege in Botswana (and other countries in Africa) over other Black people. Now, it was happening to me. Our guide had been treating me disrespectfully and making inappropriate comments to me for the whole trip. I chose to overlook his behavior so I could enjoy myself (and keep the peace.)

However, I could not overlook the racial discrimination that he demonstrated towards me during our meeting with the Kgosi.  He was the one doing the talking (in Setswana) and was in control of all information given to the Kgosi. He chose to focus the entire meeting on my White colleague. He told the Kgosi about her research project and behaved as if I was not even in the room. I mean, who did the Kgosi think I was…her maid? This same kind of thing happened to me in India. But I did not expect it to happen in my own homeland. I was hot. I do not remember being so angry in a long time. But I had to keep my decorum. Once the Kgosi stepped out, I asked the guide if he had told the Kgosi about my research. He said ‘No,’ and claimed it was because this chief was not the one who we were here to see. Of course this explanation made no sense. The man had been showing his racial bias for the entire trip.”

Next to the allegedly Uncle Tom-ish guide from the Ministry was a younger unnamed kgosi (pl. dikgosi) at the Serowe kgotla whom Cunningham claims cold-shouldered her in the worst way possible. The first kgosi she is referring to when describing her unpleasant experience with the guide seems to be the Bangwato regent, Kgosi Sediegeng Kgamane. After meeting him, the visitors met two more dikgosi that Cunningham identifies ordinally – second and third kgosi, and one of them was arrogant to her. Of this kgosi she writes: “… a younger Kgosi who barely greeted me, with no eye contact, but wholeheartedly greeted my Euro-American colleague and asked her to bring engineers next time to fix their roads (Hmm… what does a history teacher from the United States have to do with that?).”

Only Serowe people and those familiar with the characteristics of the dikgosi at the main kgotla would be able to unravel this riddle.

On the whole, Cunningham found Batswana to be hopelessly servile to people of European descent and she lays part of the blame for that on the grave of a man whose resting place overlooks the Serowe kgotla.

“I have noticed that people here in Botswana seem to worship people of European descent. These men idealize European women. And as they do so, they clearly despise themselves. In tandem, these folks worship the United States. Euro-Americans from the United States. People of European descent are perceived as more knowledgeable, more valuable and more beautiful. There is nothing more ugly than the colonized mind. Is this the effect of settler colonialism? Perhaps. However, I think it goes deeper than that for Batswana…back to the decisions of the first president. In defiance of his cultural traditions and the wishes of his uncle, who was a regent paramount chief, Seretse Khama married an English secretary named Ruth while he was in law school in England. Custom dictated that he marry a Motswana woman from another royal family. All kinds of people fall in love. However, it seems that the brother was color struck. And if the father of the nation prefers European over Black, then those actions set the standard for the citizenry to follow.”

Interestingly, much of what Cunningham says above is mostly true but would have been 100 percent true if she had qualified it with two simple words – “some” and “most.” Not every indigenous Motswana worships whites and as just one example, weekly poetry sessions at a Molapo Crossing gastropub had to be discontinued because of “poetry” that confined itself to the most vicious racial attacks on the white race. This poetry was performed at the precise moment that white tourists, some American, were keeping waiting staff super busy.

There are also Batswana who recognise the folly of hating individuals simply because they benefit from a racist system they didn’t design. These Batswana choose to deal with whites as individuals and not representatives of a race. Like Cunningham, the latter frown upon the antics of the westernized Batswana, especially when they fake an American accent. Indeed, settler colonialism, which has a head start of at least two centuries, messed up the thinking of Batswana real bad and as Cunningham rightly points out, “there is nothing more ugly than the colonized mind.”

Cunningham is wrong to say that Batswana men value white woman over black women. If that were the case, Batswana men who have interacted with white women would have chosen them over back women as spouses. While some Batswana have acculturated into a western identity, Botswana remains a conservative society with mostly conservative men who prefer to marry women whose values don’t differ from theirs.

Cunningham is right about some Batswana worshipping the US but somehow missed a related point – that these copycats worship her own people, African-Americans, more than Euro-Americans. These Batswana are the ones who fake African-American speech mannerisms. Unfortunately, this obsession with African-Americans is limited to the hip-hop culture and those perceived as “more knowledgeable, more valuable and more beautiful” are Euro-Americans. Limiting your knowledge of the African-American experience to hip-hop necessarily means that you wouldn’t know that African-Americans are knowledgeable, valuable and beautiful. There are Batswana – lots of them and none walking around with an STD-infection gait while faking an American accent, who ascribe knowledge and value to African-Americans.

Cunningham, who is completing a PhD at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Afro American Studies with a concentration in ethnomusicology, also does her readers a disservice by not explaining how Sir Seretse Khama was “colour-struck” and not love-struck as the historical record says. For the reason already cited, there has been no regiment of Batswana men scouring US or Europe for white brides some 70 years after Khama married Ruth Williams. The latter herself doesn’t come out smelling of roses in Cunningham’s blogpost. Ms. Edna refers to her as “our mother”. Cunningham scoffs at this by saying that Seretse Khama’s marriage to Ruth has confused Batswana identity.

“How could they even deal with mental colonialism, as Kwame Nkrumah did in Ghana, when the leader might have been subject to it? Now, Batswana are calling her their ‘mother,’ while placing a premium on European physicality. Confusion indeed.”

One can ask valid questions about how motherly Lady Khama was to Bangwato but there is a socio-linguistic aspect that Cunningham misses altogether. Motherly or not, a queen is always so-labelled in Setswana culture by her subjects. Beginning with Lady Khama herself, “our mother” (“Mmaarona” in Setswana) has been transposed to First Lady.

The excursion ended on a pleasant note because Kgamane assuaged the emotional harm by the guide and younger kgosi. While Cunningham lightly raps the elderly kgosi on the knuckles for saying “some outrageous things to my colleague about how Botswana has benefited from ‘whites’ and the British”, she thought he was the most welcoming.

Kgosi basically treated me like his grand-daughter who had come to visit. He treated me like an African–American returning to the homeland. His kindness and attitude helped to dull the pain of the earlier insult. As we walked back down the hill, he held my hand so I would not slip and fall.”

Ironically, in no qualifying her scathing statements about Batswana, Cunningham is also attacking a Motswana man (Kgamane) who showed her kindness.

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