Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

11:    Religion

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See also Afrobarometer findings and Report on 2001 Census on religious statistics

Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999

"Traditional" religion is rather a misnomer, since it implies the coherence proper to fully institutionalized religions with set places of worship and a hierarchy of officiants. The only coherent religion in Botswana in this sense, often called a "cult", was that of the High God called Ngwale or Mwari worshipped among Venda and Kalanga, and represented by spirit mediums who spoke in His/ Her voice. Its origins before the 18th century are unresearched.

The High God in Setswana is referred to as Modimo - the same word used in the plural (badimo) for ancestor (also used in reference to spirit possession in Moffat's Bible translation in a place where the English Bible refers to "devils"). The theologian gabriel Setiloane has argued that Modimo ("the one out there") is equivalent to Jahweh, Allah, etc. and should correctly be referred to as It rather than He or She.

Tswana rulers attempted to control reverance for royal ancestors, rain-making ceremonies, male circumcision camps etc. But Tswana rulers were hardly priest-kings and certainly not god-kings as among the Lunda and Luba of south-central Africa.

Christianity was brought by European and African missionaries from the south, notably the Scottish Congregationalist Robert Moffat and his son-in-law Dr. David Livingstone. The story of Livingstone's conversion of Kgosi (king) Sechele of the Kwena was told in Livingstone's Missionary Travels (see especially chapter 1), and has been retold by a modern secular stage play by David Pownall.

During the last part of the 19th century, Christianity was established as the official religion of the five major Tswana states. Kwena, Ngwaketse, Ngwato, and Tawana churches were served by the London Missionary Society (LMS), and the Kgatla state church by the Dutch Reformed Mission (DRM).

Allegiance to the old "tribal" state churches was disrupted by incoming missions (Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, Roman Catholic) in the early 20th century, and attendance in the old churches has rapidly declined since the 1950s.

The two most active and popular churches are now the Zion Christian Church (both Star and Dove branches), based in South Africa, among the working class, and the Roman Catholics among the middle class. There are also numerous other small Zionist and Apostolic churches in rural villages, as well as United Reformed (Congregational & Methodist), Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican churches, and predominantly expatriate Muslim, Quaker, Hindu and Bahai congregations in major towns.

Indigenous religious and medical practices, notably respect for patriarchal ancestors, have either declined or been assimilated within popular Christian beliefs. Rites of burial, wedding and birth have been adapted to Christianity and remain extremely important in Botswana life. Traditional rites of adolescent initiation for males have been retained in a few places - circumcision now being conducted in hospital.

Be cautious about statistics quoted in various sources as to Christian affiliation and church membership. Membership of independent churches is hard to measure and is often overlooked.

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Contact UB Theology & Religious Studies and the Botswana Council of Churches. The Bible Society (actively translating scriptures into Kalanga), do not have web-sites. Translation of the Yeyi Bible is also in progress. For dates of Bible translations into Botswana languages see Page 8: Language under "Standard Dialects and Publication".

The Joshua Project 2000, a US Evangelical Christian web-site connected to TransWorldRadio of Swaziland, has targeted four "unreached" Botswana ethnic groups for conversion by the year 2000 - the baKalanga, the waYeyi, the Aukwen (Auen), and the Bukakhwen (Tannekwen).

The 1913 Catholic Encyclopaedia, which is being put on-line by the New Advent project, includes an entry describing the Zambesi Mission, covering the Rhodesias and Northern Bechuanaland.

See our page on UB publications for information on the History and Theology Departments' joint series "Studies on the Church in Southern Africa".


(11a) SETILOANE, Gabriel M. The Idea of God among the Sotho-Tswana Cape Town & Leiden: A.A. Balkema, 1975

(11b) LANDAU, Paul Stuart, The Realm of the Word: Language, Gender, and Christianity in a Southern African Kingdom (Portsmouth, NH, 1995)

(11c)COMAROFF, John & Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution (Chicago, 1991).

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

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Last updated 3 June 2008