Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Schools don’t teach Cultural Studies but Setswana Studies

At first glance, nothing seems out of place with the “Extended Family” section in the Cultural Studies textbook for Standard 2 pupils. Kgotla, a cartoon character, introduces both himself and his extended family who include his cousins Donald, Omphile and Bontle. Then follows an assignment that requires pupils to draw their own family tree and “write labels under each person such as grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousin.” At second glance, there is an awful lot of wrong with that scenario. Being a Motswana manifests itself in two ways: being culturally Tswana and being geo-politically Tswana. Some citizens are both, others are not.

For a seven-year old pupil at a primary school in the North East district who has absolutely no world view and is only geo-politically Tswana, the concept of “cousin” would be extremely difficult to relate to. That is because his culture doesn’t recognize such kinship. In Kalanga culture, there is no such thing as a cousin: depending on gender, your uncle or aunt’s child is either your brother or sister. As a matter of act, Kalanga language doesn’t have a native word for “cousin.” The same would go for a Standard 2 pupil in the Chobe district because likewise, Subiya doesn’t have “cousin” in its sociological conception and vocabulary of kinship.  That Setswana is the only indigenous language that is used in schools is a well-known political injustice that even the Assistant Minister of Basic Education, Moiseraele Goya, couldn’t credibly justify when the recent session of Ntlo ya Dikgosi tackled him on the issue. Kgosi Rapelang Khuwe of Tutume region had tabled a motion calling on the government to consider introducing other indigenous languages in schools to make learning easier. There is another injustice happening in primary schools that very few are aware of. In 2001, the Department of Primary Education introduced a subject called Cultural Studies in schools under its control. The innocent-sounding name is deceptive because what is actually taught is Setswana Studies.

In the Standard 1 textbook, a young boy introduces himself with “I am Abotle Setlhare” and a girl follows up with “I am Gorata Pule.” Then, as you read on, you realise that about 99 percent of the cultural fare (like names, food and cultural practices) is disproportionately Tswana in a book that is supposed to be about all Botswana cultures. Book 4 drops all pretence of inclusivity by stating in one part that “We can see how important cooperation is in Setswana culture by looking at some proverbs.” Then follow Setswana proverbs. However, after brief lapse, the pretence returns with a section on “Equality” which says that this concept means having one’s culture “recognized and respected” and “equal treatment as citizens.” Outside of what a textbook for nine-year olds can say about a concept this weighty, some of the most erudite scholarship says that all around the world – and even at a rhetorical level, democratic dispensations tend to place more emphasis on rights than on equality.  That may explain why the blatant inequality in the delivery of Cultural Studies in Botswana schools has escaped public attention. A University of Botswana study that was published in the Journal of Education and Human Development, says that most primary school teachers (80 percent) feel that the cultural values, norms and beliefs of historically marginalised tribes are less evident in the teaching of Cultural Studies in primary schools.

How could something like that happen? Part of the answer may be found in the Education and Training Sector Strategic Plan, the supposed silver bullet to Botswana’s education problems that President Ian Khama enthused about in his state-of-the-nation address. The Plan says that while the Department of Curriculum Development and Evaluation seeks regular feedback from teachers implementing the curriculum, “there is not sufficient consultation with and involvement of teachers (especially primary school teachers) in the process of developing the curriculum.”  While it doesn’t specifically address the Cultural Studies issue, the Plan stresses the need for “a curriculum that is inclusive of the culture and forms of understanding of Remote Area Dwellers and other population groups that may currently be marginalized by an ‘alien’ curriculum.” Another revealing UB study says that Botswana’s policy-making is based on Tswana culture and that other tribes are forced to live with acultural policy. Corporal punishment would be a good example. Bushmen don’t use this method of punishment in their culture but their children are not exempted from corporal punishment which is applied in all government schools.

As everywhere else, Cultural Studies characterizes the kgotla as a seat of indigenous government that doubles as a court of law. That characterisation is not entirely accurate because according to Bushman activist, Roy Sesana, in his culture (which is made up of 16 or so tribes) the kgotla is strictly used as a sleeping place by bachelors and widowers. The 2009 World Telecommunication and Information Society Day commemoration in Kaudwane proved how bad an idea restricting cultural knowledge to Tswana tribes is. Kaudwane is a small settlement that was established 12 years ago by a Bushmen community that was forcibly removed from the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve in 1997. Now and again, the youthful emcee would implore the predominantly Bushmen audience to clap hands with continual “legofi! legofi!” Without such imploration, the audience ÔÇô which looked confused, seemed less willing to do so. This the problem: Bushmen verbalise show of appreciation with expressions such as “mm”, “ehee!”, “aiyoo!” and “iya-iya!” which may be accompanied by head-nodding. The word “legofi” (clapping of hands) does not even exist in the Dcui, Pshila and Dxana dialects of the Kua people in Kaudwane. The word’s equivalent in Dcui, “x’am”, cannot be used to issue a direct command in the manner that “legofi!” (call for applause) functionally operates in Setswana. Not that the Bushmen do not ever clap hands.

They do but hand-clapping is only used when singing or as rhythmic accompaniment to dancing. Ahead of an interview at the WTSID event, a Btv reporter announced that he wanted to hear from a “mohantjana”, a Shekhalagari (not Dcui) word for “boy.” Dcui does not have the equivalent of “boy’ or “mosimane” in Setswana. The closest Dcui has to “boy” is “kg’aokocoa” which means “little man” – or “monna yo monnye” in Setswana.  Nothing suggests malice on the part of the emcee or Btv reporter. As children, both would have gone through a school system whose curriculum paid no comprehensive attention to the importance of indigenous cultures of the historically marginalised and as adults, they live in a society which has an entrenched tribal-cultural caste system. When you think of it, the reporter really wanted to validate what he wrongly assumed to be Bushman culture – not to mock it. Such sentiment is very strong among a majority of today’s youth who seem to be more ethically evolved than older generations. Tragically though, their cultural IQ on the broad sweep of indigenous culture is very low courtesy of an imperfect education system which, in its most egregious affront, refuses to acknowledge the intellectual worth of indigenous cultural knowledge.

It should boggle the mind that if you combine the entire stock of Botswana’s cultural heritage, you create an asset more valuable than Jwaneng mine was on the day it started operations. There is social science research that says that it takes a minimum of a century for a patchwork of different cultures thrown together by circumstances to cohere into a unified whole. If this assessment is accurate, Botswana still has 949 more years to go before it attains that perfect state. The most rudimentary conflict analysis would yield a scenario in which the cultural inequality that obtains in Botswana provides a potential trajectory of a conflict situation that lies farther down the road. Tragically, while education can be used as an inter-ethnic conflict management tool, in its present form, Cultural Studies constitutes a national security threat. The curriculum has been designed to exclude other cultures and in that way, subliminally communicates very dangerous messages about an artificial tribal hierarchy.

As part of its national security plan, the government has active plans to buy jet fighters worth P5 billion. As all previous purchases, the primary practical use of those jets may (some say will) be limited to training pilots and conducting flypasts on the Botswana Defence Force Day. For way less, the government can develop a Cultural Studies syllabus that gives an explicit nod to cultural diversity and thus creates conditions for cordial cultural/tribal relations. At a Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions conference last month, a University of Botswana lecturer, Professor Monageng Mogalakwe, lamented the “cultural genocide” that is currently going on in Botswana. The Cultural Studies debacle is part of it.

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