Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Botswana’s original citizen journalism

When one hears the term “citizen journalism” and of local media content going international, they would most likely be inclined to think 21st century and new media technology like social networking.

However, it is possible to go back in time ÔÇô say, 67 years – and find evidence that as early as then, Batswana practiced citizen journalism on a global scale.

Thus, we know that 20th century Botswana had a dagga market in what we now call the South-East district. Then Mogobane headman, Mokolore Moilwa, was a wheeler and dealer on a truly wholesale scale and on January 24, 1945, he and a group of fellow residents, among them his brother and brother-in-law, were convicted of cultivating dagga. As the lead defendant, Moilwa was fined £40 or 12 months in prison while his relatives equally had a choice between paying a £25 fine and spending nine months in prison.

Archival records also reveal the social history of the time. In 1945 there were no mortuaries and so when Gaofenngwe Bolokwe of Ramotswa died at the outbreak of dawn on February 2, she was buried late in the afternoon on the same day.

When Adolf Hitler proved a formidable foe than the Allies had anticipated, there arose need to gang up on the German leader with troops from the dominions. As a result, young men from the Bechuanaland Protectorate were organised into the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (AAPC) which became a subgroup of the Royal Pioneer Corps of the British army. The AAPC was deployed with the Allied 5th and 8th Armies in North Africa, Middle East and Italy from 1941 to 1946.

Being that far away, the Batswana soldiers were understandably anxious about what was happening back home. In a book titled “The Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners”, Deborah Ann Schmitt says that Bangwato men would write to Regent Tshekedi Khama to enquire about family matters, children’s schooling and economic activities. In order to fill this information gap, the colonial government started bilingual “home letter news” that carried near comprehensive news reports about what was happening back home. Each tribal area had its own.

No less a colonial officer than the Resident Commissioner (RC) took active interest in the flow of news. When in June, 1944 there was a shortage of editorial contributions from citizen journalists, his office in Mafikeng issued a circular memorandum telling district commissioners to “take steps to improve the supply of news.” Contributions from around the country were to reach Lobatse every other Thursday. They would then be sent to the editorial headquarters in Mafikeng before being shipped off overseas.

In terms of editorial content, the home letter news were comprehensive in every respect. In addition to death notices and crime news, there was also content on births, weather, crop performance, sport, activities of the veterinary department, business news about prices on the cattle market as well as some tabloidish spice that would make the front page today. When a Mogobane lad called Thantshi Tshwaedi suddenly keeled over and died, rumours soon spread through the village that his death was due to the severe beating he had received a few days earlier from a young woman called Setshego.

A doctor was called from Lobatse, the body exhumed for a post-mortem examination but the doctor’s findings were that he had died of kidney troubles. “Bamalete Home Letter News” ensured that this information reached the troops in the Middle East.

Most popular though with the servicemen was a section that contained information about places where their dependents were paid and the dates such payment was made. “News of this kind is of considerable interest to members of the AAPC and would to a large extent, reduce the number of welfare queries in this connection,” wrote an officer from the RC in a memo to DC’s.

The publications were a war project and when the war ended so did they.


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