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Home » Columns »  “A People Without a Past is a People Without a Soul”

“A People Without a Past is a People Without a Soul”

Publishing Date : 04 September, 2017

David Magang

Sir Seretse Khama’s Vision of Development of Botswana (Part 3)


Newer Lights of Knowledge Must be Taken into Account

I also note to my dismay that our historians don’t seem to be that keen to give history a re-look in light of newer insights that have emerged regarding our origins as the Tswana race and certain of our totemic dogmas that we have all along taken as gospel truth. Researchers, some of whom are not even conventional historians, have turned up virtually incontrovertible evidence that we originate not from Cameroon or the Great Lakes regions of Mother Africa but from southern Egypt.


In my own interactions with and observations of the South Sudanese, I have come to recognise that their traditions and customs as well as the cadences and inflexions of their speech patterns bear striking parallels with our own. To me, they come across as our veritable kith and kin with whom we hot-tailed it from southern Egypt at a time when the white-skinned Hyksos invaded that country and triggered a mass, multi-directional   exodus of Bantus.


Mmegi newspaper columnist LM Leteane has demonstrated, with awe-inspiring originality, that Setswana is actually a primeval language that go back to the Sumerian civilisation of 6000 years ago. It explains why Leteane is able to understand and interpret the Sumerian records much more sensibly and convincingly than scholars who trained in the swashbuckling, Ivy League institutions of the Western world.


I appeal to our historians and other academics, including those in the scientific fields, to reach out to and compare notes with this remarkable, phenomenally gifted man. The local media, both public and private, should also demonstrate a readiness and keenness to provide a forum for profound historical motions as adduced by such percipient, self-driven pundits of history as Leteane.

Revisit those Totems Please

The Ngwato totem of Phuti can also now be put into its proper context thanks to the ground-breaking labours of people like Leteane. Phuti, it turns out, has nothing to do with a duiker that scurried out of a thicket behind  which a Ngwato royal had taken refuge whilst in flight, in the process deflecting his pursuers, as is the ingrained belief. It is actually an abiding reverencing of the great Egyptian god of yore who was known as Ptah, or Enki in the Sumerian chronicles, and who was the most worshipped on the continent of Africa. Indeed, the BaPhuti tribe of Lesotho, the cousins, apparently, of our BaNgwato, do not remotely recall the aspect about the duiker in their peregrinational annals.  


Even my own totem as a  MoKwena, the crocodile,  can also  now  be properly contextualised. It does not stem, I believe,  from our miraculous crossing of a river once upon a time on the backs of  witting crocodiles lined nose-to-tail to form a providential  makeshift  bridge to conduct us to safer shores. Rather, it emanates from our veneration of a water-borne dragon that was the most sacred animal in the Egyptian culture. This dragon, which in Setswana we call kwena and in English crocodile, was known as the messeh in Egypt or mus-hus in Sumeria.   Since as a people we originally came from Egypt, we carried along these cultural lores and in the course of the centuries’-long, stop-go great trek from the north to other parts of Africa, they naturally assumed newer glosses, contexts, and embellishments bordering on sheer mythology.   


I would love to see a new revisionist thrust on the part of our historians where this new enlightenment about our past is zestfully and zealously mainstreamed both in high schools and universities. History is dynamic, in terms of its elasticity and therefore capacity to yield newer lights: it is not meant to stand as unimpeachable testimony before the court of posterity through and through like some kind of Holy Writ. History does not have a tone of finality. It is not as unassailably factual as the hard sciences such as physics or chemistry.  It follows, therefore, that to rigidly adhere to the history that was an article of faith decades ago is a serious indictment on the intellectual vigilance of people who  brandish PhDs in history and on whose word we lay people are of necessity obliged to hang.


If the new narrative about our origins as advanced by the likes of  Leteane is peppered  with cracks and so falls dismally short of verisimilitude, then our conventional historians must make their way to the dais and bravely  debunk it instead of simply nonchalantly and unscholastically dismissing it offhand.  

Festivals, Dances, are for Show Only

Much has been said about the cultural revitalisation witnessed in recent years as a great leap forward in the accentuation of our historical heritage. On one level, this takes the form of popular dances such as setapa, borankana, matshela-kankgwana, dikopelo, tsutsube,  hosanna, etc. On another, it assumes the guise of cultural festivals such as Letlhafula, Dithubaruba, and Domboshaba. The revival of initiation ceremonies such as bogwera for males and bojale for females are also emphatic statements in the crusade for cultural reawakening.


Yet most of these spectacular assertions of cultural renaissance are driven in the main by ulterior economic motives: they are packaged for sale, to either the tourist or the ordinary reveler,  and geared toward sheer entertainment. Instead of focusing on entrenching our history on the psyche of our people, they are tainted with commercial overtones, with the result that what is ultimately put on parade is cultural caricature rather than authentic historicity which reach back to our very genesis as merafe, or polities. So whilst I applaud them – something is better than nothing at all – I am not that seduced, sorry.

The Cost of Western Perversion

What are some of the virtues and values  we have lost on account of our being almost completely oblivious to our past? They abound. We no longer set much store by the primacy of  the extended family system. We address elderly folk by their first names and even when we deferentially address them by their surnames, we do not respectfully prefix them. The specific roles of a female spouse and a male spouse in the household remains a moot point even when centuries of matrimonial ethics lay bare as to who is senior and who consequently should submit to the other. The bone of contention stems from the intrusivist paradigms of “modernity” and “civilisation”, either of which is simply code for the encroachment of Western value systems.  


Our own traditional forms of therapy have completely been discarded with the result that we have to resort to Western-manufactured pharmaceuticals at the slightest sign of even a fleeting ailment.   The white-coated doctors with stethoscopes slung from their necks just will never see common cause with the “primitive” and “benighted” herbalist. Our own spirituality which was based on the invocation of badimo has long been sidelined and forgotten: we’re now Christians or Muslims because some missionary who came with the Bible or Koran in one hand and the gun in the other convinced us that our religion was “barbaric” and “primitive” and we had to convert to a new faith that was progressive and spiritually unsullied.  What this new religion did fundamentally was to turn us into a docile lot eager to offer the other cheek when the white man viciously bludgeoned the other.


We were told that we should not mind a life of hardship and appalling lack in this world as it wasn’t actually our home: our eternal and blissful home followed after death.  Thus whilst the likes of Cecil Rhodes were living life to the full in this very world which was not their permanent home, we ourselves were enjoined to make do with prayer only! To cut a long story short, before we knew what had happened to us, we had lost our lands, our sovereignty,  and our culture thanks to the blindfold called the Bible.  


Even our age-old cultural practices such as bogwera were condemned as primitive and potentially harmful to our wellbeing when in fact they had advantages that disposed men to warding off sexually transmitted  diseases as it has now come to light  in recent times. One of our kings, Sebele II, was hauled over the coals by our  colonial overlords for religiously enforcing the rite of  circumcision: he was deposed, replaced by his estranged and conformist younger brother, and exiled to Ghanzi District, his Siberia.

The Guilty Parties


If our history is not being effectually embedded in the value orientations of our people, the reason for this  tragedy, as I deem it, are legion.   They include the indifference  on the part of Government itself, which seems to relegate history to the very margins of curricula imperatives; the apathy of the private sector; the corruption of Western acculturation, which is more pervasive today than it was in yesteryears; the tendency to adhere to syllabi that have outlived their shelf life; and the lack of drive on the part of our major university to acquire its own printing press.


I remember once asking the late Professor Thomas Tlou why most of the theses of our indigenous historians were based on research conducted in other countries when ideally our own country ought to take pride of place. The professor laid the blame squarely on Government: he told me whereas other governments were prepared to avail funding for research to even non-citizen historians, ours didn’t seem to care an iota. Almost every University of Botswana lecturer I have had occasion to talk to over the years bristles at the stigmatic absence of a printing press at a university that prides itself as one of the best on the continent.


An in-house  printing press would make information dissemination by way of  books easier and cheaper. It would open the floodgates of indigenous bibliographical output, which presently comes only in trickles as international scholarship arbiters repeatedly lament. Equally culpable is the private sector, which is not playing its part in promoting the proliferation of historical literature, though that hardly surprises me anyway as most of the leading lights of Botswana enterprise  are  overwhelmingly domiciled from across the border and therefore their  priorities cannot be expected to be evenly aligned.


A few years ago, I was approached by one gifted writer who proposed a biography on Sechele. Since the project required funding and the idea captivated me, Phakalane Estates made a pledge and even set up an account in which to pool donations from sponsors. The proponent of the project then wrote to more than 100 leading companies in the country for the requisite financial assistance. Only one company made a donation and a very inconsequential one for that matter. More than five years on, the project is yet to see the light of day.
     
All Hands Must be on Deck

Contrast that with  South Africa, where the private sector is typically the prime mover in initiating literary projects from which they do not even directly benefit. Most book projects of a biographical nature in South Africa are bankrolled by the private sector long before they arrive on the desk of  the publisher. It goes without saying that our own, home-grown  pillars of the private sector should emulate their counterpart across the Limpopo, who even when based here in Botswana and making money from Batswana continue to support book propositions in their home country whilst giving ours a cold shoulder.


I appeal to the stalwarts of indigenous Botswana enterprise to join the bandwagon and help bring about an explosion of historical chronicling in our country from across the board.    Such a seismic shift in our view of history would certainly make our beloved founding President Sir Seretse Khama smile in his grave in that the ensuing cornucopia of historical literature would reverse the stigma so that we’re no longer “a people without a past and a people without a soul” but a people with an amply illustrated past and a people with a soul or substance.


In many African societies, the respect for and deference to fallen heroes not only is paramount but palpable. In our case too, kowtowing to the expressed wishes of our leading lights who have long departed the stage must take precedence over everything else. As such, let us in heed of this moral shine the spotlight on Sir Seretse Khama’s concern and accordingly set about embracing and promoting our history with the zest and gusto he envisaged. Trust me folks, the socio-economic and political challenges that currently beset us as a nation would be overcome, not necessarily in one fell swoop but incrementally.  History would be made and we would become a truly united and proud nation.


This is the last of a three-part comprehensive version of the speech David Magang gave at a UB function on August 17 2017. It is scheduled to appear in BOTSWANA NOTES & RECORDS, the Botswana Society’s annual publication.

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