Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Batswana women were practising lesbianism in the early 1900s

As the war between the government and the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO), Botswana’s only LGBTI organisation, shows no signs of abating, it is interesting to reflect on what a noted British legal anthropologist has written about sexual politics of early 1900s Bechuanaland Protectorate.

“Sodomy is said to be unknown, except among a few men who have returned from the mines,” wrote Isaac Schapera in A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom which was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1938. “In the only case quoted, the offenders were severely thrashed. It must be noted, however, that lesbian practices are apparently fairly common among the older girls and young women, without being regarded as in any way reprehensible.” A bit more information would have been helpful.

How were these relationships conducted? What was the level of secrecy or lack of it? Was there a point the relationships ceased? Some people in their 80s and a little younger have no recollection of encountering lesbianism in traditional Tswana society? It is common knowledge that pubescent boys at cattleposts would engage in some sodomy and that information would leak out. What is baffling about the alleged lesbianism is that word about it never leaked.

Until very recent times, one would never hear about lesbianism among Batswana women. Ultimately, Schapera’s mind-blowing revelation is not too helpful because he chose to go no farther than those 21 words. The book was the result of consistent requests by young dikgosi at the Native Advisory Council who complained about not knowing enough about Setswana laws and customs. At this time, the country had been under British rule for 49 years and was evidently acculturating into a western identity. In 1934, the Mafikeng-based Resident Commissioner, Sir Charles Rey, commissioned Schapera to collect and record all available material relating to native customary law. Schapera also undertook field work among the Bakgatla, Bangwato, Bakwena, Balete and Batlokwa. 

Not on that list of Tswana tribes that were then recognised by the colonial administration are Bangwaketse, Barolong and Batawana. On a strictly empirical basis, the three tribes are excluded from the lesbianism that Schapera alleges. A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom is used as a textbook in the Faculty of Law at the University of Botswana.

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