Sunday, January 29, 2023

‘Batswapong’ label controversially spotlighted in report

Of the most difficult decisions the government will have to make is decide whether or not to officialise tribal labels which tribespeople are themselves divided on. One such is “Batswapong.”

When the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Review of the Constitution of Botswana toured the electoral constituencies of Lerala-Maunatlala and Sefhare-Ramokgonami, “some highlighted that the name Tswapong/Batswapong is a derogatory name given to this tribe upon arrival in Botswana. It was stated that the tribe should be called Pedi or Bapedi, which is their proper name.” Not to nitpick but to say the name was “given to this tribe upon arrival in Botswana” is incorrect in one respect. They were given that name by the Bangwato – who arrived in the areas in question much, much later. The phrasing suggests that “upon arrival in Botswana” the tribal community found Bangwato but that is not the case.

However, this community itself doesn’t agree on whether “Batswapong” is derogatory. On the basis of such belief, the Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Review of the Constitution of Botswana says that “there were proposals to rename some constituencies, for example, to change Lerala-Maunatlala to Tswapong South, and to Tswapong North.”

The Report itself doesn’t explain what is derogatory about “Tswapong” and elsewhere, the closest thing to an explanation is what David Kiyaga-Mulindwa reports in Politics and Society in Letswapo: Tswapong Historical Texts, Volume 2.  The author quotes an irate elderly man saying “It was the Bangwato who called these hills Tswapong as a sign of looking down upon us or despising us.” This interview happened in 1980 and while there can be no denying that Botswana has a tribal caste system that puts the cultural community in question and Bangwato in different categories, the explanation doesn’t explain the derogatory nature of “Tswapong.”

Unfortunately and all too often, these two very separate issues (what a name and how tribes relate) are conflated in such manner that offence is read into a name on account of problematic relationship between tribes. With such conflation comes confusion because a name can exist independent of such relationship. What adds to the confusion with regard to “Tswapong” are the widely divergent meanings that have been proffered.

The most common is that at a time that the Bangwato and people who were then almost entirely Pedi, there was a powerful traditional doctor among the latter whom Bangwato would travel hundreds of kilometres to consult. In reverence of his extraordinary skills, this man was called “ngaka ya poo”, literally “the bull doctor.” No less a person that Kgosi Sello Moroka of Lerala retailed this historical account to explain the origins of “Batswapong.” In his telling, the name means “those that come from superior traditional magic powers.”

Figuratively, “poo” is used to mean a champion – in the vocabulary of today’s urban youth, “poo” would a G.O.A.T – greatest of all time. By linguistic quirk, the phrase “ba tswa poong” (those coming from where the bull doctor lived came to supplant the proper name for this tribe. Thus people who called themselves Bapedi were called Batswapong by a dominant tribe.

The second interpretation of “Tswapong” is that it comes from a “Sengwato” word, “letswapo”, which means foot of the hills. Bapedi lived at the foot of the hills, this explanation goes, and so were called Batswapong. Oddly, “letswapo” has not been used anywhere else in for people living at the foot of hills within what is now the Central District. Odder still, you will never hear Bangwato using this word – which doesn’t seem to exist in Sekwena, the dialect Sengwato comes from.

To be clear, there is something “derogatory” about imposing an exonym on a cultural community that refers to itself with its own endonym. However, that is not the context in which “Tswapong” is said to be derogatory.

Whatever its real meaning and despite how some perceive it, “Tswapong” has gained acceptance among most people in the Lerala-Maunatlala and Sefhare-Ramokgonami constituencies. That explains why some people these constituencies wanted the old names of Tswapong South and Tswapong North to be restored. As a brief episode showed last year, the meaning of “Tswapong” now refers to many more tribes than Bapedi. This episode featured Kgosi Moroka and Lentswe la Batswapong, a cultural-rights organisation from these constituencies whose name means “the voice of Batswapong.” Moroka wrote in a Facebook post that there is no such thing as Batswapong and there is no such language as Setswapong. The latter is also rendered as Chetswapong and Chegwapong. Not only did Lentswe la Batswapong contest Moroka’s assertion, it managed to recruit him to its own understanding of this issue.

After such engagement, the two parties put out a joint statement that said that when “the Batswapong of the Pedi origin who were the first to settle in Tswapong North around 1700 A.D., when they first settled in the area, they were not called Batswapong but Bapedi and their language was not Sepedi but Chetswapong. Chetswapong/Setswapong as a language came to be spoken later around 1800 A.D. as more tribes settled in the greater Tswapong area and Chetswapong became a lingua franca among the Batswapong and became widely spoken and adopted as a language among them with a fully developed orthography. Kgosi Sello Moroka III regrets and unreservedly apologises to Batswapong and other tribes for the confusion and consternation created by the article.”

Budzani Mogara and Stephen Lukusa, both linguists, have determined that “today, the Bagwapong form a heterogeneous multi-ethnic group with cultural groups like Matabele, Barotsi, Bakaa, Babirwa and others. Their language is highly mutually intelligible with Tjibirwa, with which it shares roughly 90.5 percent of its basic vocabulary.” Also on that list is Baphuthing, a Nguni-origin tribe that ended up settling in Seleka – whose name in is “se” in “Tumasera.” Baphuthing are now considered Batswapong. Mogara and Lukusa studied Chegwapong and conclude that the language is “seriously endangered” and needs to be rescued.

“The number of its competent speakers is dwindling and their language is in the process dying as it is being replaced by a diluted speech form which looks more like a dialect of Setswana than a separate language which it used to be. Many lay people will say, “So what?” But we, as linguists, believe that a language is the vehicle of its speakers’ culture. To let it die is to allow such a preventable huge loss to happen because once the language dies even the cultural heritage it used to vehicle will disappear,” they write in an academic paper titled “Chegwapong: The Risk Beyond Bilingualism.”

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