The setting is the pitch black that was Bechuanaland; perhaps it was a couple of centuries before the name was coined. I have heard the etymological claim that the name comes from – Ba a tshwana. It sounds creative and terribly deceptive just like the makgwiwa mambo jumbo. We shouldn’t get distracted. Then, compared to now, there were neither paraffin lamps nor electric lights. There was only the God-given sun, moon and stars; the light sand, the shrubs, the beasts of burden and the birds of the air. The land was occupied by the industrious cattle ranchers; the tillers of the land, great dancers, the stunning women and the proud Tswana men. It should have come as a useful tool of communication to recognise one as an individual in the open lands in which these patient men and women lived. All you were expected to express to another was dumela. It was a certain way to separate the mute from The Articulate Mammal as Jean Aitchison would later title her book. All one had to say was dumela. Gore ba dumelang was immaterial. It was a sure way of separating ‘one who comes from elsewhere’ from the local. All that a member of the community had to do was utter dumela. Dumela became a principal tool of recognising the other as being, as existing, as one worthy of recognition. To deny one dumela was to deny them recognition of existence. It was to ignore and negate one’s presence. It in fact became rude not to say dumela for to deny another person dumela was to say “I don’t see you; you do not exist.” Dumela attained a critical meaning for it said you matter, I see you, you exist. Linguists have a technical term for expressions which function in this manner, they are called phatic communion. These are communicative acts devoid of any intrinsic semantic value; instead their primary function is to establish and maintain rapport and to open channels of communication between individuals who have just met. Dumela is however not limited to the establishment of the mood of sociability. It is also the cohesive glue which binds people who have known each other for many suns. Those who know each other share dumela – they share it like magoana a baRuele; the typical – a se tle ka molomo.
Dumela however did not stop with acquaintances. Dumela also permeated age and class. Those who wished to be recognised demanded dumela from the recognisers, that is, the lower class and the young. An elder, claiming seniority on the basis of age, demanded the young, who on account of their youth attained lower social status, to utter dumela to him. It therefore became a badge of seniority as elders expected dumela from the young. The young uttered dumela to say you are senior and I recognise you. It became a symbol of submission, in the words of social etiquette; it became a sign of good manners. Conversely, it became a badge of rebellion not to utter dumela to those who believed they deserved it. Dumela expected, but dumela denied, was elevated to an insult. How rude one could be to deny another dumela. Some not satisfied with a simple dumela, demanded that it be conjugated for plurality, so that although they were alone, they should be addressed as if they were many. Dumelang was born. Unsatisfied with this tortured grammar, Bangwato elders took this a bit far. They demanded that nouns referring to a singular adult be pluralised. This would be the ultimate respect that creates an uncontested chasm between the young and the old. Dumelang bomme, dumelang bontate for many years, even up to now, gratified many Bangwato elders who demanded respect and recognition from the young.
When the missionaries came amongst the Batswana, they tapped on dumela to drive the good news of the gospel of Christ home. The clarion was clear: Dumelang on Christ. The call was not just for persons to believe in or trust Christ. It was a call for one to recognise their existence and being as situated inside Christ. That is why the call was phrased as: Dumelang mo go Keresete. One had to see themselves as existing in Christ. It was not really a call for people to forsake their set of beliefs. It was a call for people to shift, to live elsewhere, inside Christ. Once this shift of perspective was achieved successfully, these recognising people or badumedi were to look around themselves and see their swarthy lives as incompatible with their residence, as it were. Go dumela was therefore a two-stage movement. First, one had to recognise themselves in Christ. Second, they were to check their lives against their immediate new surroundings of faith for compatibility. Tumelo, popularly known as belief, is actually recognition of existence, in this context, the existence of God. Is there a greater mark of unbelief than not to recognize the existence of God?
Dumela was seized by lovers too, yearning for recognition. Like the baboon with his red behind asking to be seen or like the brightly coloured peacock in its majesty, splendour and beauty, makolwane approached maroba and asked them mothonyana ntumela. The plea was for recognition. It was a plea for one to stand out from the many. Let me not be the background – foreground me, recognise me, see me, acknowledge my existence. The thing they call love is merely seeing differently. Mmereki Marakakgoro was expressing this very idea when he characterised his wife, Mary, as a rose amongst thorns.
It may indeed be apt that dumela is vanishing from our society for increasing we don’t recognise each other. The village spirit of oneness may be subsumed in this simple word whose etymology speaks of grunts of crude and rustic village peoples. When such a spirit dissipates, when it vanishes from the very fabric of our society – it may signal that when we look in the mirror, we are confronted by Frantz Fanon’s Black skin white masks.