It is now a truism that modern Botswana was built by what was perceived by some as merafe or some kind of autonomous nations. Here we meet a clash of terms, for what the English term nation denotes is not identical to the concept of merafe in Setswana, in particular as we see the modern Botswana nation being inclusive of various merafe. It is no wonder that the term morafe is sometimes glossed in English as tribe by some and nation by others. The term nation has been defined by the British lexicographer Michael Rundell as “a country that has its own land and government” or “the people of a particular country”. Rundell’s definition will obviously marginalize many Tswana groups such as the Bakgatla ba ga Mmanaana and many merafe living within the land of Khama. Even in Setswana, the term morafe is riddled with much ambiguity. Morafe can be just a large group of people as one can say: Ke fitlhetse morafe o tletse ka kgotla ‘I found the kgotla packed with a large group of people’. The term can also be used to mean a group of people led by a kgosi. I again here avoid the English word chief with its negative connotations. It is clear that language is really not just a carrier of meaning, but a carrier of concepts which are sometimes difficult to transfer across various cultures.
Recently I have been reading a bit of Botswana history, much of this is thanks to Professor Fred Morton, who has opened my eyes to all sorts of important historical facts of Botswana, her people and the history of the Tswana speaking people in general. Having read so much history, one wonders why History is not compulsory in schools! I was recently impressed by how many in the 50s to the 70s were concerned about Botswana’s national unity. One such person was Motsamai Mpho. A Murray writes that “Mpho then tried to disassociate himself from the BaYei separatists. Their cause had become a political liability, tainted with “tribalism”. In Mpho’s words, BaYei had to be taught that “tribal divisions are unhealthy….Beachuanaland needs one united Batswana nation irrespective of their race or creed(s)”. To distance himself from the separatists, Mpho took up permanent residence in GammaNgwato and based himself in Palapye.” I was impressed by this commitment to the concept of nationhood by those who went before us. They were so committed to the idea of unified Botswana to the point that they could relocate from perceived separatists.
The quest for nationhood has also been captured in The Report of the National Commission on Education of 1977 which tried to establish the structure and direction of Botswana’s education system was submitted in 1977. It study that led to the report was led by Prof. Torsten Husen, Director of the International Education, University of Stockholm, Sweden. It had at the core of its recommendations an aim to redress the historical imbalances brought about by Botswana’s position as a British protectorate. The commission therefore recognised in its preliminary pages that: “For 81 years until 1966 Botswana was the Bechuanaland Protectorate under British rule. Not surprisingly, the institutions and culture of the colonial power were imposed on the country. To some extent the indigenous culture became submerged and many Batswana were encouraged to believe that their own cultural inheritance was inferior to that imported by the British. With Independence has come the opportunity to reassess this situation, to reassert the national identity, and to build a society which gives expression to the noblest values from the past” (RNCE, 1977:11).
The report recognized a need to “reassert the national identity and to build a society which gives expression to the noblest values from the past”. To create a unified nation and reinforce national cultural identity, the commission identified language in the educational system as a critical component. It argued that: “Language is one means by which cultural identity is strengthened, but education provides other ways to inculcate in every Motswana a sense of pride in and identification with his or her cultural heritage. … The education system should orient young people toward the social, cultural, artistic, political and economic life of their unique society and prepare them to participate proudly in it” (RNCE, 1977:12).
Setswana was therefore identified as a language to be used to foster national unity and national cultural pride. Every Botswana national was urged to rally behind the national language. “The pursuit of unity calls for every Motswana to appreciate his or her rights and responsibilities as a citizen of Botswana, to become fluent in the national language, and to take pride in the national cultural heritage” (RNCE, 1977:30). While this report was right on its attempts to foster national unity, it failed to address the needs and demands of other voices in the republic. In the 1930s and 1940s the BaYei and OvaHerero wanted to separate from Batawana and the Batawana and the British worked in concert to suppress the separatists. In the 1920s a small group of Babirwa under Kgosi Malema tried in vain to defy Kgosi Khama III. They were crushed and scattered. They fled to South Africa while others found their way into Southern Rhodesia. Their Kgosi Malema was flogged and humiliated, and fled to South Africa. The song Selelo sa Malema se botlhoko was composed to freeze in song the painful occurrences of the time. In Gangwaketse Bathoen II made the life of Kgosi Gobuamang of Bakgatla ba ga Mmanaana living hell. Not that Gobuamang was any better since he had told Bathoen and the Resident Commissioner Rey “to go to hell”. After being imprisoned in Gaborone for several months, Gobuamang was barred from returning to Mosopa. He found refuge in Kgosi Kgari Sechele’s Thamaga, where he was joined by about 5,000 Bakgatla in 1935.
In many ways, there has always been some degree of contestation amongst the Batswana. In the middle of the separatists and battle for recognition there has always been a desire for nationhood. Perhaps we have much to learn from the United States of America.