The sharp and crystal clear voice that ensured we didn’t deviate too far from the straight and narrow during our childhood belongs to a matronly woman with a welcoming demeanour that is accompanied by an easy smile.
For a radio personality of over 30 years, Hildah Mampane is surprisingly so media-shy she initially spurned all overtures to do this interview.
When she finally relents, albeit grudgingly, I get to meet the person to whom belongs the distinct honour of not only shaping my generation’s early belief system, but our children’s as well. And the way she’s going, I wouldn’t discount that she will still be around to shepherd our grandchildren.
It’s clearly not an inflated sense of self-importance that instinctively makes her parry away requests for media interviews, but old-fashioned humility.
Mampane has been a permanent fixture on our airwaves since 1976 at the start of the Sunday School programme that has aired consistently on Radio Botswana every week.
The only other voice from that era that is still part of local radio belongs to Geoffrey Motshidisi. But even then, she recalls that Motshidisi debuted after her, which probably makes her Botswana’s longest serving broadcaster.
The Sunday School programme, together with others that propagated the Christian faith such as O rudisa moya wame and O nkamile (He touched me), were the work of an organisation that was linked to the Dutch Reformed Church.
Recordings were done at a makeshift studio at the organisation’s office, and ready-to-broadcast tapes brought to Radio Botswana. When the organisation decided to close its Botswana office in 1980 and relocate back to South Africa, it meant that the Christian programmes would cease as well. But the programmes had become so popular that the local churches stepped in. They formed what would be known as the Radio Church Council, which took over production of the programmes. Mampane went to work for the Radio Church Council as a link between it and the national broadcaster.
She narrates how she used to carry heavy recording equipment all by herself to different schools and churches to record the Sunday School programme with different children every week. On some occasions she would travel by bus as far as Francistown.
Even though in theory she worked for the Church Radio Council, in practice she was a volunteer who had to bear even her travel costs.
“It was tough but I soldiered on,” she says without even a shade of regret. “I would go for months without pay, and I learnt to live by faith alone. I learnt to work and survive where there is literally nothing.”
At one point she was both the producer and presenter of the Sunday School programme as well as O rudisa moya wame. This was on top of producing yet another scripture-based programme Utlwang Lefoko, together with the morning and evening church services that aired at the opening and closing of the station. This, by the way, was before the advent of 24-hour radio.
She looks back at that time as an enriching life experience which taught her to improvise and be able to do much with little or nothing. She jokes that she often tells people that she has never had a pay slip because she has never really been on any organisation’s payroll.
To the question on what has sustained her drive for the past 37 years, her response is one word that she says with a lot of conviction.
“Grace,” she responds.
Then she repeats the answer ever so lovingly: “Grace, and I say this seriously. When you encounter God’s grace, it guides you. Even in the face of all sorts of challenges you will live as if everything is just fine. I live by faith because God is the provider of all things.”
As she explains, to her this programme has never been a job, but a calling. It is in this light that she states that she feels her work is not yet complete; that she still feels obliged to do more.
Under such challenging circumstances she managed to raise six children, and many others who connected with her through the Sunday School programme.
Today, wherever she travels throughout Botswana, she meets overjoyed men and women in their mid to late 40s who tell her that she is their mother. Many of these never knew her face, but just the voice. The most profound moments come when they inform her that their own children listen to the programme.
“Many of these tell me that they turned out right, thanks to that programme,” she says.
Though she credits many people for mentoring and supporting her over the years, the one who appears to stand out the most is John Graham, the presenter of He touched me, who became her voice coach. Though he had a stutter, the moment he got behind the microphone he flowed faultlessly.
“One day after listening to one of my pre-recorded programmes he said, ‘the message is good, but your voice is horrible.’,” she recalls.
After that rather frank feedback, she gladly accepted the offer for free voice coaching lessons. Graham was also the man he sat down with to choose the Sunday School programme’s signature tune. They settled for a rendition of I am so glad that Jesus loves me, and it became one of the most enduring sounds in local radio. Since the first segment of the programme, the signature tune has never been changed.
The challenge to Mampane’s memory comes when I ask her whose recording the song is.
“We got it from one record, but I forget which one exactly,” she says.
Mampane made the crucial decision to lead her life according to the Christian faith when she was aged just 12. When she took that step, she became the first convert of the Molepolole congregation of Assemblies of God. It so happened that the pastor who had been given the task to plant the new congregation in the village was Mampane’s uncle, and the first services were held in her parents’ home.
She would become an ordained pastor within the church, even though she currently does not have a congregation due to her travelling schedule to meet and teach children all over the country. She finds this fulfilling because it has put her in a place where she can confidently declare that, “I am not working for a church, but the church, which is the body of Christ”.
“My calling is to go out and do discipleship among children, and to teach them to disciple others,” she says.
At a time when there are questions about the parenting skills of today’s parents, especially the upwardly mobile professionals, Mampane states that there are some who try hard to instill good values in their children.
“As parents, we should always strive to set our children on the right path, as the Bible tells us in Proverbs 22:6, and I know that some parents try their best, ” she says. “But we know that ultimately children also make their own choices.”
Declaring that she is happier when with children than in the company of adults, her greatest fulfillment comes from knowing that she is helping to shape the outlook of future parents. She also finds it a weighty responsibility because in their innocence, children often believe everything they are taught unconditionally.
“I believe a church founded on children is a solid one,” she says.