Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Basarwa’s school experiences similar to those of Batswana during ‘colonial period’

A study by a University of Botswana scholar makes the conclusion that “the experiences of the indigenous San in formal schools today accord with those of the indigenous Batswana during the colonial period.” At the very beginning of her paper, Professor Lily Mafela fleshes up that assertion by juxtaposing statements which, though made in different time periods, basically say the same thing.

Some 115 years ago when British institutions were carrying out an extensive programme of “civilising” Batswana, a white man only identified as Richardson said of Batswana: “I sympathise very much with the missionaries in Bechuanaland, battling against such enormous inertia among the people, and the great irregularities in the attendance of the scholars make a teacher almost despair.” Nine years later, Reverend William Willoughby, the first principal of the London Missionary Society Tiger Kloof Native Institution, became concerned when effort to education African children became a little too daunting.

He was led to remark: “We have of course to help the Bechuana in spite of their foolishness, but it is unfortunate the boys are not coming in faster than they are.” As part of her research for the paper, Mafela interviewed a Motswana teacher at a government school a year ago. The teacher expressed great frustration about the difficulty of teaching Basarwa children: “Most of them are very wild, when you teach you have to use both Setswana [language spoken by Batswana] and English and yet they will say that they don’t understand Sekweni [the San reference to Sekwena, a dialect of the Setswana language], you will be surprised to hear a Form 2 or Form 3 student reasoning like a Standard 3 student!” The argument Mafela presents is that the current power relations between the hegemonic Batswana and the San [more commonly known as Basarwa in Botswana] are similar to those of classical colonialism, and can be viewed as “internal colonisation”. A great deal of academic ink has been spilled over the formal education of the San but Mafela contends that the current discourse often overlooks the fact that not very long ago, Batswana themselves were exposed to a foreign and alienating form of education.

During that period, Batswana were the “indigenous” in relation to the western colonisers in the same way that today the San are the “indigenous” in relation to the hegemonic Batswana who have internally colonised them. “Much like the San today, Batswana found colonial education to be rigid in its timing, alien in its rituals and processes, and at great odds with their mode of living, customs and traditions. Consequently, Batswana were initially ambivalent and resistant towards western education, eliciting frustration and denigrating comments from missionaries and the colonial government officials,” writes Mafela, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages and Social Sciences Education. The title of the paper is “Education and Perceptions of ‘Other’: Colonial Education of Batswana and Formal Education of Indigenous San in Botswana.” She defines “othering” as a belief that one’s own (dominant) group is superior and uses this idea to facilitate an understanding of the manner in which western cultural knowledge invalidated African realities, cultures and histories. Mafela argues that instead of trying to understand Batswana and their worldview, the colonial government “othered” them and consequently rendered their cultural ideology worthless. Likewise, the marginalised San have been constituted as the ethnic “other”, with the lifestyles and values of the dominant Batswana being held up as the standard against which those of the San are judged, hidden, denigrated and devalued. “As an indigenous community, the San rank at the bottom of the socio-cultural ladder, a situation that comports with their socio-political deprivation and educational marginalisation. To this end, the San have no say over the alienating curriculum policies and practices, in the same way that Batswana initially had no say over the colonial education processes.

In the formal education system, the San way of life is regarded as inferior, and not worth studying. This coheres with the dominant discriminatory stereotypes about the San. As in the colonial education of Batswana, the discordant school processes invalidate and denigrate the San epistemologies, whilst effectively elevating and privileging the Batswana hegemonic ways of knowing,” writes Mafela, adding that this state of affairs conforms to the Foucaultian thinking that “knowledge production and dissemination are a manifestation of the power relationships in a given society”. Here she is referring to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher whose theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge. Mafela goes farther to assert that in colonial contexts, the school upheld the hegemonic colonial relationships that reflected the prevailing socio-political and economic dispensation. Just as colonisers denigrated traditional institutions of bogwera (boys’ initiation) and bojale (girls’ initiation) through which boys and girls were inducted into the essential knowledge and the traditional cultural practices of their community, in the current dispensation, Batswana leverage their power to disparage the customs and practices of the San which they consider to be worthless.

“Accordingly, the formal education of the San is integrationist and assimilationist by nature, in the same way that colonialism assimilated Batswana lifestyles and traditions through the process of ‘acculturation’,” Mafela says. Such situation means that, just like Batswana during the colonial era, the San access education on terms that are not their own, and their ability to negotiate or to contribute anything to the process is desperately compromised. That being the case, “their formal education tends to be one of the primary channels through which assimilation and acculturation occur.”

For San children, the school is itself an alien environment that makes it extremely difficult for them to learn anything useful. Coming from a community that is by nature egalitarian, collectivist and easy-going, the children find the formal schooling environment to be a complete opposite of theirs because it is “authoritarian and competitive.” With its unfamiliar authoritarian disciplinary styles and procedures, hostel accommodation also interferes with the children’s cultural upbringing. Their own security and well- being are compromised because they are often subjected to physical and sexual abuse by older children, villagers and some school workers. “In the school and in the classroom, the San learners are subjected to experiences that devalue their lifestyles, traditional knowledge and cultural practices. The school alienates the learners because its processes are divorced from the learners’ familiar life experiences, which are unthreatening, due to the fact that San traditional education is informal and is incorporated into the daily lives of the people,” Mafela says. One of the charges that have been levelled at San children is that they attend school intermittently, the lapses being occasioned by hunting expeditions they go with their parents.

Conversely, Mafela writes that through the 1920s, there were frequent reports of seasonal fluctuations in school attendance by Batswana themselves during the colonial era. They would absent themselves from school to undertake farming activities like ploughing and reaping. The point: just like Batswana a century earlier, the San have to rely on their “traditional, environmentally sensitive mode of living” which will interfere with schooling. The main recommendation that Mafela makes is that the education of the San must be restructured to privilege their traditions and cultural ways of knowing and specifically focus on developing their capabilities. She believes that that way, they would to achieve permanent control over their lives, resources and destiny. She lauds effort “by the San themselves to ensure that they gain permanent control of their lives, their resources and destiny, as exemplified by the Kuru Family of Organisations, the Naro Language Project, Bokamoso Preschool, and the Ba Isago Trust, which are intended to ease the burden of linguistic and cultural alienation in schools”.


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