Thursday, September 28, 2023

Late former MP was a refined linguist and rare source of pre-independence era history

With as much interest as he took in language and history, the late Jerry Gabaake was a fountain of knowledge that flowed freely through letters that he would write to editors on the finer points of language use as well as obscure historical facts that would otherwise have remained hidden.

If Botswana had a Setswana council in the style of The Acad├®mie Fran├ºaise in France, the Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (National Swahili Council) in Tanzania or Asociaci├│n de Academias de la Lengua Espa├▒ola in Spain which regulated language, he would certainly have been part of it. There were occasions when Sunday Standard would tap on this fountain.

Branding became en vogue around the time that the Botswana Democratic Party ÔÇô which Gabaake was a member of, was transitioning from an electoral college to the present-day system where any member in good standing can vote in its primary elections. The new system was branded with the ungrammatical “Bulela ditswe”, Setswana that would ordinarily be used to instruct someone to open the kraal gate and let animals out. What is wrong with the verb is that in any language and even for people unfamiliar with a language, a direct command always takes a recognisable base form of a verb: for example, “Open!” in English, “Ouvre!” in French, “Kai!” in Mandarin, “Vhura!” in Shona and “Zhula!” in Kalanga. Rightly, “Bulela ditswe” should have been “Bula ditswe.” Despite what would perceptibly have been inclination on his part to side with his party, Gabaake agreed that “Bulela Ditswe” was indeed grammatically incorrect Setswana when Sunday Standard picked his brains on this subject.

His linguistic purism was as useful when he explicated the subject of a phantom phenomenon called “Tswana-medium schools.” Unless one is speaking of the apparently now defunct Bakgatla traditional initiation schools and if “medium” means language that is used for instruction, there is no such thing as a Tswana-medium school. Officially, the medium of instruction in all government schools is English and on such basis, Ben Thema, New Xade, Xanagas, Thamalakane, Gantsi and Sojwe primary schools are all English-medium schools. Tragically though, the myth of a “Tswana-medium school” persists in popular culture.

Gabaake’s illumination of this subject was to provide a historical account of how the term “Tswana-medium” came about. In the Bechuanaland Protectorate (as Botswana was called before it gained independence from the British) there really was such a thing as a Tswana-medium school. There were schools for English-speaking pupils only and those – like Lesedi and Camp primary schools in Gaborone, where instruction in the early stages (Substandard 1 to Standard 2) was in Setswana. For that reason, the latter were rightly referred to as Tswana-medium schools.

“Strictly speaking, there is no longer a Tswana-medium school because instruction is in English,” said Gabaake, a former schoolteacher who was a Specially-elected MP in the 1994-1999 parliament.

As a source of historical knowledge, he weighed in on an account retailed by former Parliament Speaker, Margaret Nasha, in her autobiography, “Madam Speaker Sir!” The book says that when it was established in 1966 in independent Botswana, Thornhill Primary School immediately became a mountain of thorn in the side of some parents because it did not admit black children. The school was only desegregated when a group of activists waged a campaign against this racist policy, the book alleges. Gabaake, whose daughter went to Thornhill in the same year with the new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, asserted that he had no recollection of the school ever being racist towards black children.

“If there was ever any such problem, I never became aware of it,” he said.

The former MP died on Tuesday and was buried yesterday in Gaborone.


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