I recently attended the Southern African Historical Society’s 24th biennial conference hosted by the University of Botswana History Department here in Gaborone. One of the books that I purchased is “Words of Batswana: letters to Mahoko a Becwana, 1883-1896” written by Professor Part Mgadla and Stephen Volz. The book is not new. It was first published in 2006. When it first came out I was not in the country and therefore totally missed it. However, I must confess that I have heard about it before the History conference but had thought that it wasn’t available in the country. The book’s flap summarizes the book’s contents in the following manner: “Words of Batswana presents a selection of letters and articles that were written by Batswana for Mahoko Becwana (News/Words of Batswana), a Setswana-language newspaper published by missionaries of the London Missionary Society at Kuruman between 1883 and 1896”. The letters were not written by Batswana only, some were written by the English missionary editors such as Wookey and others. The authors of this book therefore republish these letters which were first published in various editions of the newspaper. I found this book most informative, the letters most delightful and revealing of the thinking of the time. The letters cover a number of themes, amongst these are the standardization of written Setswana, mission work, matters of cultural contact and governance. Each letter or essay is accompanied by a translation, an important element which makes the material accessible to a wider reading public. In this column I quote snippets of these letters which reveal the critical nature of the writers. The sad matter obviously is that while we had a Setswana newspaper that early, we now have no Setswana newspaper. The closes thing to a Setswana newspaper is the two Setswana pages that appear in the Botswana Daily News. Mmegi’s Wednesday edition still drags on with a two-page Setswana news edition which looks tired and nearing its death. The Setswana newspaper in our recent memory is the Mokgosi newspaper which failed spectacularly in 2005. It was only about 3 years old when it died prematurely. Setswana in the media is almost non-existent in print; existing mostly on radio and television – cementing the position of Setswana as a largely spoken language. Obviously this in part explains why many Batswana are semi-literate in their own language and literate in English – a very sad reality indeed.
In June 1883, Anonymous/Motlhoka-leina writing to the paper ponders on Setswana orthographical matters thus: “…me cwè Moruti, korantanyana ea Bacwana e tla gatisiwa ka puō ea bahe? Aitse, leha Makgoa a re shobokantse ka leina ya go re Macwana, rona mo go rona, re dichaba chaba hela, re dipuopuo hela. Go Batlhapin, go Barolon, go Banwaketse, go Bahurutshe, go Bakwena le Bamanwato, ke sa bale dichaba tse dintsi tse go twen tsa Makoni. Me ka re, moruti, korantanyana ea Batswana e tlaa gatisiwa ka puo ea bahe? […So please, teacher, in whose language will the newspaper of the Batswana be printed? Realize that, although Europeans group us together as “the Tswana”, we are ourselves a variety of different nations and languages. There are Batlhaping, Barolong, Bakwena and Bangwato, and I have not mentioned the many nations of the northeast. So I ask, teacher, in whose language will the newspaper of the Batswana be printed?]” It is interest that since many tribes were under different chiefs who ruled over distinct territories, many Batswana saw themselves dichabachaba fela & dipuopuo fela! The desire to have the Setswana language codified existed then and the writer only wanted to know which of the dialects would be used in the writing of the paper. Did you realize that the writer complains that the Makgoa have given the different Tswana groups the name Macwana! Whether the use of the word Macwana was common in the 1800s in unclear, however, its use here is most interesting.
Sometimes the debates were about matters such as smoking and Bathoen Gaseitsiwe’s letter of October 1883 is most delightful. I quote it extensively. Please note that his spelling and orthography is maintained. He writes: “Mafhoko a lowa builen wa tsetse kgan kaga motsoko ga o na go senya motho motirong epe le fha ele owa kakana le fha ele o o sidilwen o yewa le Baruti ba rona me ga gona kgo re le co epe tiro ea bone ke go ruta Lefhoko ya Modimo fhela motsoko ba o o ya ke bua ka mmanete kaga motsoko yana. Mosadi owame oa o ya, me ke motho eo molemo eo opelo namagadi; ebile Nwana oa Kgosi Morwa Sechele. Mogatse o bidiwa Bathoen Gaseitsiwe Kgosi ea Banwaketse”. Here Kgosi Bathoen was making an argument that tobacco is not sinful since the missionaries smoked it. He also argued that his wife, the daughter of Sechele smoked it as well and that the smoking of tobacco did not make destroy her in any way. This argument by Kgosi Bathoen was dismissed by one Moitsedilo (probably a pseudonym) spectacularly. Moitsedilo argued: “Entseana le lona barulaganyi loa tlo lo horwe ke batho? Bathoen ga a gu bolelele mahoko a e leng aona – oa gu tsietsa. Mosadi eo o molemolemo eo o bolelwang ke Bathoen ga se mosadi oa gagwe, o agile nae hela e le nyatsi ea gagwe – a mo tlositse m go Pilane ka go mo ucwa. Ekete lona Makgoa lo hitlhela Bacwana bantsi e le batho ba ba senan ditlhon bobe. Leha go ntse yalo re gakgamalela bopelokgale yoa ga Bathoen. Re utlwa mo lokwalon loa Modimo go twe dilo tse batho ba di buan mo sephirin di tla bolelwa mo godimo ga matlo. Me Bathoen ena o gaisitse mouo, ka go bile go pagame ena ka esi, a ea go kua go re, “Itsen batho lotlhe ha nna Bathoen, morwa Gaseitsiwe, ke ucule morwadia Sechele, eo o la a nyecwe ke Pilane, me ke mo ntshitse nyatsi, me ke hitlhela e le mosadi eo o molemogo gaisa basadi bantsi ba ba molemo.” Botlhoka-ditlhon y obo kalokalo, le rona Bacwana boa re chosa, bogolo ka e bile e le boatla y obo naparetseng bana ba dikgosi tsa rona.”
Unfortunately this beautiful engagement which was held in the Setswana language is lost; perhaps forever.