Justice Gaolekwe has one of the most recognisable voices in the country ÔÇô the result of a 35-year career as a primetime newsreader on Radio Botswana. It was his voice that informed us of some of the most significant events of the past three and a half decades. It’s a long list of stories that define Botswana’s history. In that roll you’d have to include the deaths of Chief Justice Moleleki Mokama, former cabinet minister Englishman Kgabo, and most recently Sir Ketumile Masire, Botswana’s second president.
In those circumstances, he is often specifically asked to be the one who informs the nation of the passing of one of its elder statesmen. It’s an assignment that requires certain decorum, given the sensitivity of death, especially the death of a national figure.
Gaolekwe’s love for radio began very early. As a young boy, his father encouraged him to listen to radio broadcasts. He found an airwaves hero in Chris Bickerton, who presented the BBC World Service’s Focus on Africa programme, which was at one point syndicated to Radio Botswana. For 30 years, Bickerton ÔÇô who died from cancer in 2002 aged just 61 ÔÇô presented what was said to be probably the most reliable source of information about Africa even for Africans themselves.
At home, the kings of radio were the legendary trio of Radio Botswana’s newsreaders Lazarus Kobedi, Kgosietsile Mmamapilo and Rebaone Mookodi. They were known as outstanding newsreaders, but unbeknown to their listeners, the men did something else behind the scenes. They worked as translators, primarily from English to Setswana, of the news bulletins that they then relayed to the nation. It was early days. Radio Botswana was the primary source of news and information for the vast majority of the population. Illiteracy was exceedingly high, and some of the concepts and objects that formed part of the news items were unknown to the audience. Therefore, it fell on the translators to develop a new corpus of Setswana words to help their listeners visualise some of the things they were telling them about.
However, it was as on-air personalities that their talents shone through.
“Not only were they reading, but they talked to you as a listener,” Gaolekwe says.
He winded up behind the microphone almost by chance. He happened to be in Gaborone in the vicinity of the Main Mall, then the town’s central place, when someone told him that Radio Botswana was searching for someone with a good command of Setswana to join its team. As a Setswana teacher at Selebi-Phikwe Secondary School for the previous three years, he fancied his prospects. Nobody had warned him that there was something else that could open doors. They call it a microphone voice. A future director of the department of information and broadcasting, Moreri Gabakgore, was doing the audition.
“He said, ‘there is the mic, we want to find out if your voice is suitable for radio’… I got the job straight away,” Gaolekwe recalls the rather laid-back recruitment exercise.
It was February 1982. Employed a few months prior to his arrival were contemporaries such as Mogorosi Baatweng, Samuel Mbaiwa, and Basil Thathau ÔÇô the young Turks whose voices became synonymous with radio that decade. Before the rough gems could sparkle, first they had to be polished. That task fell to Robert Beaumont, a Briton who was training coordinator, and Dionysius Rabantheng, a broadcaster to his fingertips who passed the genes to his daughter, One.
“We were taught that radio presentation should be lively; that we should talk to the listener all the time,” Gaolekwe recalls.
From that class, Gaolekwe is the last man standing, the one who would live through the transition from the old studios next to the State House to Mass Media Complex. Baatweng joined the Botswana Defence Force in 1987, where he would head the Protocol and Public Affairs Department. Mbaiwa was shifted to the Ministry of Health after a run-in with the authorities over a contentious newsreel broadcast. Thathau is deceased.
At the end of the three-month basic radio production course, Gaolekwe’s fine grasp of Setswana and his passion for the language landed him at the translation unit. Thaaaaat voice ensured that he also took on news reading duties.
Looming large in both translation and news reading was a man who seemed to have been specifically created for radio. Mookodi was a colossal figure whose height, physique, booming voice, and spirited character radiated immense charisma. As a news reader, Mookodi remains an unequalled breed, even in death. His prot├®g├®, Gaolekwe probably comes second.
Mookodi’s most enduring legacy is perhaps in the area of translation. Often faced with a dicey situation where there was no Setswana equivalent for some English words and objects, he improvised. In the process, he created new words ÔÇô such as sesutlhalefaufau (rocket) and tlhoo-tomo (helicopter) ÔÇô that today form part of Setswana lexicon.
“When Rre Mookodi translated he made English simple, and when he read the news, he made you want to listen to the entire bulletin. He made news incredibly interesting to listen to. He knew Setswana words and how to put them together to make the language interesting. He always said, ‘don’t be rigid and equally don’t be casual’. He encouraged me to develop new words; he said that language is never static, and he made me aware of something I found interesting; that it is not always possible to have a Setswana word that means the same thing in English,” he says.
Gaolekwe learnt the tricks at the feet of the great man. In March 1991, when Mookodi retired, it was like a scene in the desert during the exodus from Egypt, when Joshua stepped up to the plate to fill the void left by Moses.
Like his mentor, Gaolekwe has coined words and phrases that have enriched Setswana vocabulary. Two years back, he created a new Setswana for a drone. Given the frequency in which drones were being mentioned in the news bulletins, he had battled for a while with how best to describe the unmanned aerial vehicle to an average listener with limited or no understanding of English. Then one morning it hit him, and the word mapotiela-maiphofisi was born.
“I said, ‘what does a drone do?” It surveys from the air and it has no pilot,” he explains how the word evolved.
Gaolekwe once received sagacious counsel from another astute speaker of Setswana, former President the late Sir Ketumile Masire, which has served him well over the years. It was that if one cannot immediately find a suitable word in Setswana that means what they seek to convey, they shouldn’t shy away from using the English word in the interim. That was what happened before he came up with mapotiela-maiphofisi. There were others before then, such as Mosireletsi (Ombudsman) and Twantso Tshenyetso Setshaba le go Gopela Itsholelo (Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime).
It’s not every translator who is equal to the task. Gaolekwe concedes the absurdity of some translations. A case in point is mmadikolo, ostensibly for university.
“I don’t even know where mmadikolo comes from,” he says. “We have always translated university as unibesithi. Setswana, like other languages, has constantly borrowed words from other languages. Words that are now part of everyday language like foroko (fork) were borrowed. I don’t mind borrowing words to make communication easier and meaningful. My only problem is when an appropriate Setswana word is pushed out in preference of a borrowed one.”
It’s always work in progress in Gaolekwe’s vocation, constantly revising words to ascertain if they are still relevant. He draws on what his secondary school Setswana teacher used to tell his class; that language is constantly evolving. To that end, he suggests that the way we speak Setswana today is not how it was spoken previously.
“This applies to every language. For instance, there are so many English words such as thou and thee that are no longer in everyday use,” he says.
With Setswana being steadily crowded out of everyday use, does it face possible extinction?
“I don’t think Setswana will become extinct, but it will be corrupted as its speakers continue to introduce a lot of English words in everyday discourse,” he says. “In my interactions with people who live around Johannesburg (in South Africa), I have heard them say they don’t know what language they speak. It’s not the isiZulu that is spoken in KwaZulu-Natal, nor is it the isiXhosa of the Eastern Cape, or the Sesotho of the Free State, or even Sepedi of Limpopo. That is what will happen to Setswana. Those who live around the major urban centres will end up speaking a language similar to Setswana, but it will be a very corrupted version.”
With the advent of television, many news readers jostled for the medium that guaranteed the limelight. I wonder why Gaolekwe chose not to make the transition to TV.
“I don’t want to be seen, but only heard,” he says. “I actually prefer to be at the back, and not in front. I cry for my privacy above everything else.”
And now for the urban legend. Is it true that he can translate an English script of the news bulletin into Setswana on air?
“If there is a statement that needs to be put out immediately, and there is no time to translate it, yes I can do that easily,” he says.