By Saleshando, I mean Prof. Lydia Saleshando and not the BCP leader, Hon Dumelang Saleshando. Addressing the National Broadcasting Board, she is reported to have claimed that 65% of the Botswana population is undergoing forced assimilation and cultural genocide to the benefit of the 17% of the population. It is her claim that non-Tswana speakers constitute 65% while 17% are Tswana speakers. It is these claims that I find very unfortunate, offensive and dangerous, intended to polarise the nation, offend and anger native Setswana speakers. But her claims are not new. Mmegi of Wednesday 10th May, 2011, reports that Nyati-Ramahobo, now Saleshando, claimed that 60% of the total population was formed by unrecognized minority tribes while the Setswana speaking tribes constituted 17.9%. It would appear that since her claim some 5 years ago, these unrecognised minority tribes have continued to grow, as the Tswana speaking groups continue to shrink. Prof Saleshando’s statements demand a response. Saleshando argues that government has demonstrated a fear of learning the “accurate linguistic landscape” of the country by refusing to include the mother tongue question in the population census. What Saleshando is unhappy about is not the language question or indeed any inaction on the part of government on attempting to determine the language landscape of the country. It is the phrasing of the language question on the census papers that makes her unhappy since the language question exists in the census. The question is: “Which language do you use most at home?” Indeed the question is a fair one. Whether you are in the North East, Gaborone or South West, if you speak Kalanga, Sengologa, or Sesotho mostly at home, your answer to the question should stay consistent regardless of where you are. With Botswana’s multilingualism perhaps an additional question should have been: “Apart from the language that you commonly use at home, which other language(s) do you speak (at home)?” This would capture the linguistic complexity of the country more accurately and not give a distorted view that the larger population is monolingual. However it appears what Saleshando wants is a question that says: “Which language is your mother tongue?” How will we phrase the question in Setswana? Puo ya ga eno ke mang? Or perhaps: Puo ya gago ya letsele ke mang? The obvious danger with this question is what ga eno means to an individual? The question is much more likely to conceal the linguistic landscape of the country and over emphasis and conflate ethnicity with linguistic patterns. I have argued before on this column that “it is [also] important to outline the linguistic map of the country by determining languages that are commonly spoken at home – whether they are mother tongue or not.”
It is obvious that what Saleshando wishes for is ethnic associations of individuals, which she conflates with linguistic patterns. In other words, Saleshando assumes that all Baherero speak Seherero and all Bangwato speak Sengwato. But the problem is much more complex than she presents it. Let me below reproduce and earlier argument made on this column. 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? A colleague of mine, Dr. Mtubane informs me that there are the Mkandlas in Matebeleland, who are Bakgatla who have moved into the Matebeleland a number of years ago. These are Ndebele with Bakgatla roots. A similar group of former Bangwato is to be found on the outskirts of Bulawayo.
Let’s follow the matter a little further. 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 the children of a Mongwato father who has not paid bogadi for their Mohurutshe 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? Is Obama Kenyan or American? The argument can go on. It appears that the subject of tribal identity is much more 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. Here therefore lies the problem with the tribal question: How can we document tribal identity association 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 Rastafarians from Jamaica whose ancestors were sold to slavery and now feel more African than many people born on the African 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. I am therefore troubled by Saleshando’s claims because they over simplify the problem at hand.
The final issue to dispense of is the claim that Tswana speakers constitute 17% of the population. I think here Saleshando means Setswana native speakers. From the deep south of Botswana up to the northern tip of the country, Setswana is spoken in various competencies by between 80% & 90% of the population, probably more. To some, the language is the first language/the gendered mother tongue; to other it is a second or even a third language. Most Botswana citizens are competent in the Setswana language. Setswana is Botswana’s lingua franca used by government officials across the country with great success. To deny this fact and claim that only 17% in the country speak the language is most bizarre and the highest level of denial. While I agree with Saleshando that there is a need to nurture unity in diversity, I differ with her that such a noble goal can be achieved through denying the majority made by the Bangwaketse, Barolong, Bahurutshe, Bakwena, Bakgatla, Balete, Bangwato, Batawana and other Tswana speaking groups in the country. I am in total support of the development of Botswana’s minority languages, which have suffered much neglect for the past 40 years, but I don’t believe that will be achieved by being creative with the numbers, which may offend even those who support the development of minority languages. It is no wonder Batswana ba re: Phomphokwe yo o maithukutho mabe o iphatlha ka lehuka e le la gagwe!