Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The question: “what is your tribe?” is hard to answer

Finally the census lady did come around to ask a plethora of questions. The questions were exceedingly interesting. I thought they were counting just people ÔÇô but she was also counting other things too: computers, laptops, mobile phones, cars, the number of children I have, stoves and televisions in my family’s possession.

So as a linguist I did find the language question interesting. The question is: “Which language do you use most at home?” To such a question I suppose it is easy to answer: Setswana, Kalanga, Sekgalagadi or English, depending on the language that represents the linguistic situation of one’s home. What the census doesn’t capture however are the other languages that may be used at home. For instance, we may be using predominantly Kalanga at home but also using Setswana or English at different times in the house. Many families in Botswana are multilingual and it would have been informative to capture this multilingualism by asking the question: “Apart from the language that you commonly use at home, which other language(s) do you speak at home?” Others have however argued that the question that is currently asked in the census is not appropriate. They have argued that the appropriate question should be: “Which language is your mother tongue?” Their argument is that although someone may be speaking Setswana at home more than any other language, their mother tongue may be Subiya, Sekgalagadi or Herero. Establishing individuals’ mother tongue would therefore shed light on the number of mother tongue speakers of various languages in the country. I am not certain whether such a line of enquiry would bear much fruit though. It may indeed be interesting to know someone’s mother tongue even if they do not speak it regularly, but it is not clear what such an investigation would achieve. Perhaps it would intensify the need to revive the diminishing local languages, which would be a good thing. However, it is also important to outline the linguistic map of the country by determining languages that are commonly spoken at home ÔÇô whether they are mother tongue or not.

The other question that is not asked by the census is: “What is your tribe?” I use the term “tribe” in a non-derogatory way and one may replace it with “ethnic group”. The question appears fairly easy, but it isn’t. The problem with the question is “What is a tribe?” One person might identify themselves as Mongwaketse, another Mokgalagadi and we may treat those as two distinct groups. The problem however is that there are different Bakgaladi groups. Should we split the group into its subgroups of Bakgothu, Bashaga and others? What will inform the decision to divide or not to divide? What about the Tswana groups should they be divided into Bangwato, Bangwaketse, Bakgatla, Bakwena, Barolong, Bahurutshe, Batawana and others or should they be regarded as a single unit? Assuming that we do collect statistical data on tribal affiliations, how then will such data be of benefit to us? Some have argued that such data would only be useful to fuel tribalism. That may be a pessimistic view. Perhaps there is some good in knowing the composition of each tribe in the country. Perhaps the statistics will aid us in appreciating the number of non-native Tswana speakers in the country. Perhaps the data will reveal the state of Botswana’s multilingualism and multiculturalism. However that is not the question. The question here is on tribe, unless we assume that tribal identification is synonymous with dialectal or linguistics identity ÔÇô they are certainly not identical and it would be a mistake to conflate them.

The second problem is that of sheer identity. There are Kalangas who have stayed in Serowe for many decades who identify themselves as Bangwato. Are they wrong? Are they Kalangas or are they Bangwato? Who is to say? If a Mongwaketse woman marries a Moherero man, does she become Herero as well or she stays Mongwaketse? Well it depends on who you ask. What about if a Mongwaketse man marries a Kalanga woman and they settle in Francistown, are the children Bangwaketse or Kalanga?

Who is to say, especially if the children speak Kalanga and not Sengwaketse? What about children of a Mongwato father who has not paid bogadi for their mother? Can these children take the tribal identity of their father? Why should children take the tribal identity of any of their parents? Why can’t they choose whichever tribe they prefer? What about the residents of Ramotswa? Are they Matebele or are they Batswana? It appears that the subject of tribal identity is much of a social construct. It is just as difficult to pin down as is the question of whether one is a woman or a lady. Some people identify a woman as a married female while others define her as an adult female.

But who is an adult? Now, that would take us into another quagmire. Here therefore lies the problem with the tribal question: How can we document tribal identity when we don’t know what it is? It is like trying to define who an African is. If you define an African as one born in Africa; what about other Africans who were born outside the African continent? What are we to do with a Rastafarian from Jamaica whose ancestors were sold as slaves and he now feels more African than many people born on the continent? But is to feel sufficient to determine one’s identity? Isn’t there something slightly more to the matter? But we are getting dragged away from the question of language by the problematic matter of identity. Locally, the language issue is entangled with the tribal one. It is so entangled that even amongst the Tswana speaking tribes we have largely mistaken tribes for dialects to the level that where there are no discernible dialectal differences between tribes we have worked hard to impose them. Nationally we have a hostile co-existence with each other which presupposes a pure and clean tribal barriers although many of us are increasingly born of parents from different tribes. Who knows, the quintessential Motswana may have no tribe at all!


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