How do they do it? How is this fantastic school able to host some of the finest national and international shows? Anything from music to drama or film – you will find it at Maruapula – presented with supreme excellence. The school has now gone further, and it has taken on cultural preservation activities by hosting an annual Setswana week. This year, its third year running, is held under the theme: ngwao pinagare. With the Setswana culture increasingly under pressure from western cultures, this year’s theme is appropriate in that it affirms the centrality of the local culture as a central support to Batswana.
There is something strange though, even ironic, about a wealthy middle class school, like Maruapula, taking on a project of Setswana preservation. How could they do it? The assumption is that Maruapula students are snobbish and have an excessive love for the English language. A second assumption is that since Maruapula is an English medium school with a multi-cultural staff, it is incapable of hosting and maintaining a Setswana preservation event. They are the unlikely choice for preserving the local language and culture. However, indigenous cultures are rarely protected and defended by the people who may be termed the natural candidates for such activities. There is something right that Maruapula is doing, that no one else anywhere in the country is doing. There is no other place in Botswana which has so much culture and art as Maruapula. To think that Maruapula is a secondary school and not a large university or college makes its achievements impressive. I was fortunate to be invited to their annual Setswana Week concert on September 17th. The concert was wrapped around a play whose central theme was alienation and cultural discovery. A young man returns from studying abroad totally disconnected from his culture and now preferring all things foreign. He loves foreign music – performed in the play by the gifted Zeus, backed by the Mogwana band led by the saxophonist, Lister Boleseng. His alienation is a consequence of a failure of his own society to socialize him into an appreciation of the local culture. The play is a journey, a rediscovery of one’s roots and identity. It is interspersed by the outstanding performances by some of Botswana’s finest musicians, amongst these being Lister Boleseng, Zeus, Culture Spears, Shanti Lo, Helen, Nono and Maruapula’s traditional dance troop. I watch in bewilderment at the flawless performance. I had to keep reminding myself that Maruapula is a secondary school and not a college or university. The lighting, the sound as well as the overall arrangement is astounding. As I observe and think about Maruapula’s role in the quest to promote the Setswana language, I am reminded of my unlikely position as one fighting for the preservation and development of the Setswana language. There are many similarities I see between myself and this place. I graduated single major English from the University of Botswana and not a Setswana major. I later studied at England’s University of Oxford where I read Comparative Linguistics and Philology. As I watched the performance, I was reminded of my daily walks through Turl Street to Lincoln College and my monthly seminars at the magnificent Oxford University Press. I was also reminded of the intellectually stimulating discussion with Penny Silva of the OED and other editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. At Oxford, the more I was exposed to English linguistics and lexicography, the more I appreciated my own language and culture and wanted to do something about it. The more I studied English, the more Setswana called to me for attention. There is therefore something familiar, something normal, and something attractive about Maruapula. The school may indeed be an English medium institution, but its students and staff are probably the most unlikely to take Setswana for granted. Some have gone to the brink of losing their language and culture. Some, having been exposed to foreign cultures, have grown to appreciate the beauty and distinctiveness of the local language and culture. They are probably the least to glamorize western cultures since they understand them better than most of those who were raised in a village. Maruapula may therefore be a perfect place to launch a national cultural renaissance. First, their love for the Setswana language and culture cannot be misconstrued as a consequence of incompetence in the English tongue – no, not MAP students. They represent the kind of student Botswana wants to produce – one who is confident with himself and comfortable with both English and Setswana. Second, Maruapula is an international school. Probably more than any other school in the country, the school attracts international acts and its activities can be used as powerful tools of cultural exchange that can export Setswana culture to other nations while bringing international acts into the country. Third, Maruapula has resources that even the University of Botswana lacks. Its hall, Maitisong, has become a national epicentre of cultural activity. It is a well built hall with a decent PA system as well as a magnificent lighting system. The students are good mannered, articulate and well informed. I still have to remind myself that I am referring to a secondary school! If I was a government or a sponsor contemplating funding cultural activities, I would consider Maruapula seriously since it is already giving the capital city and the nation some pride and dignity in the performing arts. One of the current debates raging at UB is how we can make the university uniquely African; I think the university can learn a lot from Maruapula. Maruapula doesn’t have flashy buildings – but it is super organised with people who generally know what they have to do. Some institutions are cluttered with the so called experts who theorise excessively, but whose theorizing achieves very little. Maruapula gets things done effectively, period. Now that the school is in its third year of hosting the Setswana week, it is hoped that activities around the Setswana week will continue to grow and flourish, and hopefully restore dignity and pride to the language and culture of the Batswana.