Alongside systematic effort to model the Botswana National Front after the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) of Vietnam appears to have been a more personal quest by Dr. Kenneth Koma, the man overseeing this task ÔÇô to emulate the lifestyle of the ICP leader.
Koma’s middle name was Shololo but given how he lived, it could well have been Modesty. Some of his modesty is the stuff of legend – as when he is supposed to have stuffed fat cakes into the pockets of his trademark safari jacket to advertise his Everyman bona fides. However, given his material possessions and much like his hero Ho Chi Minh of the ICP, Koma lived way below his means. If Koma was modest, Ho was clinically so. Having triumphed against all foreign invaders, he became Vietnam’s leader and when everybody expected him to move into the Presidential Palace, Ho instead ordered the building of a stilt house (a house raised on piles over the surface of the soil) at the back of the palace. The house is now a national monument.
The fashion scene of the immediate post-independence era in Botswana is said to have been dominated by three young men, one a future Speaker of the National Assembly. These men were natty dressers who held everybody spellbound with a dazzling ar-ray of haute couture not available to the average man in the untarred streets of sixties Gaborone. With his exposure to the western world, his inheritance and his youth, Koma could have been the fourth member of this sartorial coterie but remembering what Ho had advocated, kept his fashion sense commie and spartan. The picture used on the cover of the book is of him wearing a safari jacket. As a young man, Ho seems to have indulged a passion for sharp suits ÔÇô there is a 1921 picture of him tied and suited ÔÇô but a long military campaign against occupying forces compelled him to wear attire better suited to the Vietnamese jungle. (Throughout his book, Koma refers to the late Vietnamese leader only as Ho, a name likely to be savagely punned by the urban young for its purely accidental similarity with a sexist pejorative minted in the morally dark recesses of ghetto America.) One of the most important works that Koma published in his lifetime is called Seforanta ke eng? in which he lays out a code of conduct for comrades engaged in a multi-organisation united front. All evidence points to the conclusion that Seforanta ke Eng? is a knockoff of “The ABC of the Vietnam Revolution or the Road to Revolution’ in which Ho spelled out the desirable traits of a revolutionary. Among 15 ideals and to quote the precise language that Koma uses in his book, the latter must be thrifty, resolute in his discharge of revolutionary tasks, greedy for learning, adopt the habit of studying and observing, place national interests above personal interests, neither conceited nor arrogant, little desirous of material things and generous towards all. Koma’s greed for learning was such that at his home in Mahalapye, he had a roundavel literally overflowing with books. Koma appears to have embraced this code a little too tightly and much to the chagrin of someone closest to him ÔÇô his ex-wife. Mmaserame Seretse, a royal stock Serowe woman he married in 1966, a year after he returned from Russia, saw little of the generosity KK raves about in Seforanta ke Eng? In a December 2000 interview with Kenneth Mokopane, a University of Botswana student doing research work on Koma for his BA thesis, the remarried Seretse-Sibiya said that Koma had not been a model husband.
“He was at times more liberal with his resources at party level than he was with his wife. Perhaps it is this liberality and eagerness to assist the not-well-to-do party comrades that led to his elevation as a ‘messiah’ of the party and a personality cult around him,” Mokopane offers in his thesis.
Koma’s generosity was such that the door of his Gaborone house in Village was open round the clock to comrades from all over the country.
The personality cult is another dimension of Koma’s story that hews very close to Ho. During a power struggle in 1945, the latter targeted Trotskyists, one of them a personal friend called Ta Thu Thau. When asked by a reporter to explain the latter’s murder, Ho responded: “Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.” In a sense non-homicidal, Koma could also dispense with democratic accountability and go all the way over to the dark side. Some have attributed the 1998 split of the BNF to his self-regarding entitlement to do as he pleased with a party that he had almost come to view as his personal property. Thus few eyebrows were raised in 1998 when Johnson Motshwarakgole, a trade unionist with strong BNF links, quipped that “Koma is the party.”
While some would frown upon Koma’s idolization of Ho, it is a huge credit to him that he humanises an iconic freedom fighter whom western media and scholarship have demonised for too long. The Vietnamese played no small role in the liberation of Africa because as Koma states in the book, he conceived emancipation of the oppressed in a broad, internationalist sense. Within that context, one can advance a connect-the-dots hypothesis that Ho played a significant role in Botswana attaining independence. There is indeed a lot of evidence behind Ho’s support for the independence of African nations.
The book says that the Vietnamese revolutionary travelled to many countries in Africa; that while he was in the United States he worked as a labourer in Brooklyn, New York and identified with the struggle of Black Americans in Harlem; that while in Paris he shared his discovery of Lenin with students from Algeria, the West Indies, Madagascar and Senegal; that the mission of the newspaper that he was managing editor of, Le Paria, was to expose colonial oppression in all colonies; that he produced a pamphlet titled “The Black Race”; that his party established fraternal ties with political movements in Africa; and that as a representative of the French communist party at the fifth congress of the Communist International, he demonstrated how L’Humanite paid more attention to sensational events in the colonies than on the suffering of the colonised. Little wonder then that besides the BNF, other African political movements gravitated towards the Vietnamese revolutionary model. In the editor’s note, Professor Bojosi Otlhogile (the immediate former Vice Chancellor of the University of Botswana) writes that in 1978, Oliver Tambo led a delegation of the African National Congress to Vietnam “to learn from and meet the legendary leadership of the Vietnamese struggle.”
Koma’s greed for learning took him to the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics where he became the first African to enroll at Moscow’s Institute of the Academy of Sciences. It was at this university that he obtained his doctorate. Coming back home, Koma was reportedly offered plum positions in the government but declined all of them, choosing instead to grunt at the coalface of the revolutionary front. Whereas Ho was an accomplished poet whose work is now required reading in Vietnam schools, Koma doesn’t seem to have honed that skill. The only poetry the late BNF leader has been able to master in his book is the reproduction of the first stanza from John Keats’ Endymion, which he uses as an epigraph to introduce a section on Ho’s 1941 return to his homeland to lead the revolution: “To sorrow I bade good morrow and thought to leave her far away behind/But cheerily, cheerily she loves me dearly/She is so constant to me and so kind/ I would deceive her and so leave her but ah! she is so constant to me and so kind.” The end notes misattribute the poem to “Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native.” The reality is that, just like Koma, Hardy used the same Endymion stanza as an epigraph in his 1878 novel, The Return of the Native, some 60 years after Keats’ poem was published. Ho would be less than thrilled with his African prot├®g├®’s deficient handle on poetry. With regard to prose writing, however, Koma was almost as prolific as Ho, notably publishing “Pamphlet Number 1”, “Education in Black Africa”, “Seforanta ke eng?”, the “National Question in Botswana” and post-humously, “The Experience of Vietnam on the Multi-Organisational United Front.”
Having practically grown up abroad, Ho was a polyglot who in addition to his native Vietnamese, spoke English, Russian, French, Mandarin and Cantonese. The foreign languages that his Motswana idol spoke were English and Russian. In matters linguistic, Koma branded himself with the verbal mannerism of a sibilant sucking in of a small amount of air through clenched teeth that terminated with deadpan expulsion of a Setswana exclamatory word that expresses amazement: “Thakaa!” It is likely he was the one who introduced “Comrade” (the title for a member of a communist party) to Botswana.
Tragically both men were afflicted with diabetes and ended up succumbing to it: Ho at 79 in 1969 and Koma at 84 in 2007. At the time of his death, the BNF founder had lost his sight, something that bothered him a great deal. One morning when listening to Radio Botswana’s breakfast show, he heard about pioneering eye surgery to restore sight that was being developed in France and was anxious to gather as much information about it as he could. At the time he was writing a book (through dictation) about the experiences of the Congo in the Patrice Lumumba era. It is likely that manuscript is lying somewhere, waiting to be salvaged like happened with this one on Vietnam.