Kuela Kiema, the first Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve resident to obtain a university degree and so far the reserve’s only author, still has vivid memories of his time as a Standard One pupil at what was then the Xade Primary School.
Getting cross, his female teacher would refer to him – or anyone of his classmates, as “Mosarwana yo” (“You little Mosarwa” ÔÇô the ‘na’ suffix functions as a diminutive marker. Not until later when he had developed more proficiency in Setswana did Kiema realise that minus the diminutive marker, that was actually the name that Batswana called his tribe. Despite research output of scholars at the University of Botswana (especially that of the San Research Centre) as well as the advocacy of San pressure groups, the “Basarwa” name has stuck. In his book, “Tears for My Land”, Kiema writes that the name is derogatory because it is evolved from “ba sa rua”, Setswana for those who don’t rear cattle. There is nothing wrong with not keeping animals but Kiema argues that such description is used to demean his people who are actually not a cultural monolith.
The people officially called Basarwa self-identify as the “Khwe” and a UB study has identified at least 16 Khwe tribes. Keikabile Mogodu of Khwedom Council, a confederation of San rights groups, puts the figure at 26.
“We are not Basarwa; we are Khwe. We have different tribes just like Batswana and we want to be referred to by the name of our tribes,” says Mogodu who equates Mosarwa with “nigger” and “kaffir”, pejorative terms from the United States and South Africa respectively that are used to refer to black people.
Two other names are used in similar fashion to lump together people who come from various cultural groups: Batswapong and Bakgalagadi. Strictly speaking, there are no such tribes and it should be a matter of grave concern that President Ian Khama’s understanding of this issue is counterfactual. When addressing a kgotla meeting in the Kgalagadi district earlier this year, the president mentioned Bakgalagadi as a tribe when making a point about the need to exploit cultural diversity. Many more people ÔÇô including scriptwriters at the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, labour under similar misconception. During an educational broadcast on Radio Botswana 1, a child’s voice was heard to announce: “Batswapong speak Setswapong and Basarwa speak Sesarwa.” There are no such languages. Interestingly though, the net effect of the arts and culture programme that Khama’s administration has championed stands him in very good stead.
For decades now, the name “Bakgalagadi” has been used to subsume the cultural identities of all tribes who live in the Kgalagadi area: Damara, Batlhware, Bahurutshe, Batlhaping, Basetedi, Batshweneng, Batlharo, Bakgatla, Barolong, Baherero, Bangologa, Bathaga, Baehadu, Bashaga, Balete, Bariti, Basiewana, Basotho, Bagapanyane, Bathage, Bakgala, Bakgwatheng, Bapebana and Mmolawa. That is 24 and counting because It is possible there are many more tribes not listed in “Barile: The Peopling of Botswana Volume II”, a book by Tjako Mpulubusi, the former Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery. Two months ago, Mpulubusi was installed as kgosi of his eponymous clan at a ceremony held in Serowe. His oral-history-collecting expedition took him as far as the Okavango Delta where he met and interviewed people from tribes whose names you will never hear mentioned anywhere.
Officiating at a cultural event, some two years ago, then Kgalagadi South, John Toto, said with evident exasperation that people in his area should not be called “Bakgalagadi” because there is no such cultural group. To drive his point home, the former MP asked representatives of various tribes in attendance to stand up and speak their languages none of which was identified as sekgalagadi. However, as an indication of the acuteness of the problem, in the next breath, the former MP himself identified Basarwa as a tribe.
For the first volume, “The Lore and Oral History of the Tswapong Hills and the Bobirwa People”, Mpulubusi concentrated his energies on the Tswapong and Bobirwa areas. One very important point this book makes is that “Batswapong” is a late 20th century name used to identify and lump together different cultural groupings, some of which had been living in what is now called Tswapong for much longer than the Bangwato who found them there. These tribes are Bapedi, Barolong, Batalaote, Batswetla, Bakgatla, Bakwena and Batshweneng. In the village of Majwaneng, Mpulubusi encountered Apadile Tshukudu who told him: “We were given the name ‘Batswapong’ by the Bangwato even though we are Bapedi.”
Last month at the Miss Botswana beauty pageant in Gaborone, the contestant who ended up being winning incurred the wrath of the audience when she cited the economic stimulus package (ESP) as a realistic job-creation measure. Depending on how clued up beauty queens are on some other government innovations, mere mention of Target 20 000, YES (Youth Empowerment Scheme), Poverty Eradication, Graduate Internship Programme and Constituency League in future contests could also excite the same sentiment. Truth be told, it doesn’t look like these programmes will ever reach their efficiency targets but there is something else where Khama has distinguished himself.
One of the milestones of Festus Mogae’s presidency was the repeal of Sections 77, 78 and 79 of the constitution which officially sanctioned a caste system that gave legal recognition to only eight tribes. To the extent that the cultural visibility of the marginalised tribes was not enhanced in any significant way, the repeal wasn’t fully responsive to their humanity and until the introduction of the President’s Day competitions in 2008, there was been no real effort to give historically marginalised tribes such visibility. Nothing on the public record suggests that these competitions were crafted as a nation-building programme but they have come to give some cultural visibility to historically culturally-marginalised tribes. It is precisely because of these competitions that more people in Botswana and in SADC areas that get Btv that now know of a Subiya dance called seperu. In no way is the cultural fare of these competitions sufficient but they represent a significant step in showcasing the cultural sophistication of all Botswana tribes. The deficiency may explain why the competitions are never touted as a nation-building effort because that would lead to agitation for a more expansive, all-encompassing cultural programme.
Botswana never negotiated its national identity and the result has been that the identity of some tribes has been subsumed under that of others while other tribes have been mislabeled. This side of the golden jubilee, there will definitely be need to tinker with this issue because cultural identity is an important dimension not just of being but also of citizenship.
Despite the genocidal projects it spearheaded, the nuclear bomb and anthropogenic climate change, the man who might just become US president in the current election cycle, threatened to “spread western civilization” during his first foreign policy speech. When Donald Trump’s crusade reaches Botswana, cultures still straining for the fresh air of visibility will be doomed forever. That shouldn’t be.
While western civilisation may have succeeded in putting harmful thoughts into most non-western minds, the reality is that all cultures that existed at the time that colonialists and missionaries were peddling the myth of white supremacy had survived a centuries-long process of natural selection. That any culture survived at that point is evidence of its sophistication – reality that the Centre for Scientific Research, Indigenous Knowledge and Innovation at the University of Botswana has acknowledged and is currently in the throes of putting formal support structures around. However, if there is one thing that Botswana can learn from the west about culture it is how to make money from it. Botswana will make a lot more money by exploiting its cultural diversity to the fullest. The starting point will have to be acknowledging the tribal origins of such culture.