Thursday, April 25, 2024

Sesana’s ancestors saved Bangwato from Ndebele invaders

Tjako Mpulubusi puts the date at “just before the birth of Khama III”, President Ian Khama’s great grandfather. According to Mpulubusi, who is the former Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, the Bangwato used not to have a fixed physical habitation.

“Starting in the 1700s to just before the colonial period and depending on the circumstances, the Bangwato rotated residence between three principal locations in their territory: Shoshong, Lephephe and Mosu,” he says.

Shoshong needs no special introduction but the two other places do. In the dying days of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Lephephe was part of Ngwato territory but was hived off to Kweneng when a veterinary cordon fence was constructed to fight food and mouth disease. In a water-stressed country, Bangwato were attracted to Lephephe pans which held adequate amounts of water for their own use as well as for watering their livestock. Mosu used to be another obscure small village that cartographers didn’t even care enough about to show on a map. That was until its association with Khama became headline news. Given the context in which “nomadic” has been used and understood, Mpulubusi’s account would mean that Bangwato were nomadic at one point.

With its cluster of hills ÔÇô which have a warren of caves ÔÇô Shoshong was a natural fortress at a time that a breakaway Zulu group now calling themselves the Ndebele, were terrorizing much of present-day Botswana. At this indeterminate just-before-Khama-was-born date, a 1500-strong band of marauding Ndebele warriors was on the march, headed towards Shoshong where they hoped to slaughter able-bodied men and claim material possessions as booty. (Tragically, this hideous civilizational practice hasn’t changed in any fundamental way.) The Ndebele walked into an empty Shoshong, with the Bangwato having left for Lephephe. They had also left behind, the telltale evidence of where they headed. The warriors wasted no time in getting on the trail, bloodbath guaranteed when they caught up with the unsuspecting Bangwato. Mpulubusi’s account is that the Ndebele were walking in a single file, each warrior separated from the one in front and behind him by a long enough distance for all three to see each other. This formation proved fateful. As fateful was the battle accessory of leather armbands that the warriors wore too tight and high around their arms.

Thankfully though, the warriors were espied upon by a hunting party of Bushmen who, apparently familiar with the migratory patterns and movements of the Bangwato, immediately set off to warn the latter of impending danger. On getting this warning, the Bangwato changed course and fled towards the desert. Staying on the trail, the Ndebele noticed both the deviation and footprints of a panicked quarry.

As the Bangwato fled, the Bushmen lied in wait and hatched a battle plan to take the Ndebele out. Mpulubusi estimates that the grass would have been about two metres tall, providing just the perfect cover for the Bushmen who were armed with spears, blowguns and quiverfuls of porcupine quills whose tips had been treated with venom milked from a black mamba. Conversely, being naturally tall people, the Ndebele were exposed as they hurried towards the Bangwato. 

The battle plan was that the Bushmen knot would unspool deep in the grass alongside the path and the Ndebele warriors would be felled with stealth, aerial attack of porcupine quills. It turned out the armbands were not a good idea because working almost like tourniquets, they occluded the veins, causing the arms to swell up with blood. The Bushmen aimed the quills at the swollen area of the arm; on being struck, the target got the sensation of being bitten by mosquito and would absentmindedly slap the arm to swat it. Actually, he was being bitten by the deadliest snake on earth and in no time, the Ndebele brigade was almost annihilated. The discovery of this grim reality came when the commanders at the head of the procession stopped to regroup their charges. Fewer than expected warriors showed up and on investigating, the survivors hundreds upon hundreds of bodies strewn along the path they had taken. From this part of the story was crafted a commemorative song (Tebele le Lengwe ga le yo) which while having died out, would be remembered by Bangwato who are elderly enough to qualify to get customer service from a dedicated teller counter at Standard Chartered Bank branches.   

The Bushmen took advantage of the emasculated numbers and panic to strike, killing more Ndebele warriors and completing eliminating the danger they had earlier posed to the fleeing Bangwato. Years later, the latter returned the favour by enslaving the Bushmen on an industrial scale. A survey conducted by the colonial government in Bechuanaland Protectorate found that Khama III’s son and Bangwato Regent, Tshekedi Khama, “owned” 3000 Bushmen. God alone knows what would have happened if the Bushmen hunters had not seen the Ndebele warriors. In a situation where a large-scale military attack was totally not expected, the ranks of the Bangwato would probably have been so decimated that they would have dispersed in different directions to seek protection. An altogether different village would be producing the nation’s state presidents and a wholly different family would be dominating Botswana’s national politics and public procurement system. 

Much later, in another part of Botswana, a joint Bushmen force made up of the Namas and Griquas repelled a Boer attack on the Herero and Damaras in the Kgalagadi district, using no more than bows and arrows. On account of who was involved in this battle, this is both Botswana and South African heritage and ordinarily the latter should have custody of the battlefield and all its artefacts. However, something very odd happened. Mpulubusi says that over the years, a parade of South Africans has been visiting the battle site to retrieve spent cartridges and he doesn’t hold out much hope that any more would be left. He says that while he was still at the National Museum, he sought to protect this site but his principals told him that there were no funds. That was not always the case.

Joining the National Museum after finishing his secondary school, he sat at the feet of then National Museum director, Alec Campbell, and drank from his deep well of knowledge. An archaeologist extraordinaire, museum curator and founder-member of the Botswana Society, Campbell founded the Botswana National Museum and Art Gallery. Mpulubusi recalls that Campbell would send him all over the country to investigate some archaeological lead he had about some historical site in the country. Coming of age professionally, Mpulubusi would strike his own bodies of knowledge. On the basis of the Bushmen’s military history, he makes it clear that it rankles with him that the contribution of this over-persecuted group of people in making Botswana what it is today has never been acknowledged. 

On the whole, the military history of Botswana’s different cultural groups is neither celebrated nor taught in schools. Botswana never got it right from the get-go. In the immediate post-independence period, the history that junior secondary school students were taught will be classified as either child abuse or a crime against humanity in a future that provides adequately decolonized education. Sheila Bagnall, who was the Deputy Principal of Swaneng between 1965 and 1972 details this debacle in her book. The collection of her letters to her friends back home in the United Kingdom has been made into a book (“Letters from Botswana: 1966-1974”) that was edited by historian and newspaper columnist, Sandy Grant.

“Today the students sat J.C. History,” Bagnall wrote on November 15, 1967. “There were 60 ballot questions, of which they had to answer 40 and even the history staff couldn’t manage more than 35! ‘Which dynasty preceded the Almoravids? What were the functions of the Areopagus? Which city throve when Carthage fell? Who succeeded Hammurabi? Name the canal built in something or other B.C.?’ All so irrelevant to an emerging country. I sympathise more with Pat’s wish to replace history by book-keeping.”  

The Pat she is referring to is Patrick Van Rensburg who founded Swaneng Hill School as well as Madiba and Shashe secondary schools and would later incorporate vocational training brigades into them.


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