Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

4:    Culture

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Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999


It is a truism to say that all countries are multicultural but at the same time are linked to globalized culture. But the recognition of multiculturalism in Botswana has been blocked, until the later 1990s, by the need to develop a unifying national culture. That national culture is based largely upon Setswana (Tswana language) culture. It represents the growth of a distinct Botswana nationality defined within state borders, and embraces elements of postcolonial English culture.

Tswana national culture can be traced back to the incorporation of diverse peoples under a string of Tswana states, beginning in the later 18th century and reaching maturity by the time of British colonization at the end of the 19th century. The Tswana states, linked by the the kinship ties of their rulers speaking linked dialects of a common language, were brought together in allianceagainst common enemies between the 1850s and the 1890s. Such'tribal' federalism continued into the colonial period.

Everyone within the colonial boundaries of Botswana came to be regarded as a Motswana, regardless of ethnic origin. Hence many outsiders assumed that Botswana was a monocultural entity with only one 'tribe'. But it was not until the end of colonialism that the old Tswana states were incorporated into a unitary state, under a powerful central government, between 1964 and 1969.

The dominant national culture of Botswana today reflects the dual heritage and intermingling of Tswana and English cultural dominions.

In practice the two languages and cultures are subtly mixed and alternated in urban and official situations. Membership of Botswana's ruling circles is marked by equal facility in both languages and cultures, irrespective of the individual's regional or ethnic origin and home language.

Multiculturalism, in the form of official recognition of different local languages for use in schools and on the radio, has been taboo since the 1960s. It was seen as promoting 'tribalism', i.e. sub-national separatism and national disunity. (For the same reasons, the government of Botswana followed Zambia in proclaiming a national policy of 'nonracialism' rather than 'multiracialism'.)

But by the end of the 1990s, now that the universal acceptance of national identity is no longer seen as a problem, there is a more relaxed and permissive attitude in Botswana towards multiculturalism in general and multilingualism in particular.

Meanwhile Botswana makes its contributions to global culture. Words derived from Setswana in foreign dictionaries include Kalahari, Tsetse, and Tilapia. Distinctive baskets from north-west Botswana have carved out an export market in the United States since the 1970s. The most successful (and controversial for Margaret Thatcher) design of a British Airways tailplane in the late 1990s was by an artist from the Kuru Project in the Kalahari. Blue and yellow coloured diamonds from Botswana are found on fingers and necks across the globe - though the typical Botswana diamond is clear and cloudless, full of reflected light.

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Music & drama

Traditional Tswana music was generally based on the human voice and string instruments, with a general lack of drumming. Traditional music and dance generally declined during the last decades of the colonial period, as such culture was suspected of being antithetical to modernity and development. Since independence there has been a revival of interest, with school dance troupes welcoming official visitors, but music on radio is dominated by black South African and imported African-American 'soul' music.

See the Music from Botswana page on on a French-sourced world music site (available in English, Français, Español). At present it features only one musical group, Kgwanyape Band (1993 album 'Mepatho ya maloba'), with plenty of room for more.

The 1970s saw the emergence of didactic drama to raise popular awareness of development issues. The 1980s-90s have seen some revival of teaching of music and art in schools.

See also Literature page, and Gareng-ga-Dithaba theatre group.

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Fine arts & crafts

The art form best known abroad is the traditional craftwork of basketry, most of it from north-western Botswana. See Botswanacraft link. For wooden crafts see ITC UNCTAD/WTO's Virtual Exhibition Centre/ Botswana.

The National Museum & Art Gallery in Gaborone holds regular exhibitions of local graphic artists, and its annual Artists in Botswana around every April. The doyen of Gaborone freelance artists is Philip Segola. Other artists include three women painters who exhibit together: Coex'ae Qgam (Dada), Ann Gollifer, and Neo Matome. See Mambo Arts Commune.

Though Botswana has a number of new towns, notably the capital city founded in 1964, the architecture of its major buildings and its town planning is generally undistinguished. Traditional architectural forms, particularly the use of outdoor space and shade, have hardly been utilized. One of the more successful architects, particular in the design of tourist lodges, is Paul Munnik.

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Film and television

The most important filming in Botswana has so far been of wildlife documentaries, including those released through the U.S. National Geographic Society. No major feature films have yet actually been shot in Botswana. The Government's Botswana TV station is scheduled to begin transmission in late 1999.

The biggest fiction film ever made supposedly about Botswana - but not actually made here - was The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), with a sequel (1989) and a further sequel called Fei zhou he shang (1991). All three starred a South African actor called N!xau. The first two were filmed in the Northern Transvaal, and the third in Hong Kong. ("The Gods Must be Crazy" is also the name of the TNT Botswana Travel Page. Also not filmed in Botswana is the fictiona film Sands of the Kalahari starring Stuart Whitman and a troupe of baboons.

See also my review of the BBC video "Rhodes" and historical films on Africa, and the Media Page.

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Cultural institutions

There is a National Museum and Art Gallery in Gaborone, and district museums founded by local community initiatives at Mochudi (Phutadikobo), Serowe (Khama III Memorial), Francistown (Supa-Ngwao), Molepolole (Sebele I Memorial), Maun (Nghabe), and the Kuru Development Project. Other district museums have long been planned for Kanye and Ghanzi. See the Botswana NGO list.

The national learned and semi-scientific society, the Botswana Society, holds regular lectures and publishes an annual journal (Botswana Notes and Records)and books. See Page 3 above for advances in archaeology and Page 12 below for notes on science in Botswana.

The National Library Service has relatively well-stocked branches, many in association with schools.

There is a 500-seater theatre in Gaborone, the "Maitisong" at Maruapula School, used by amateur theatrical and musical groups. It has a regular Saturday evening public programme, and hosts visiting professional productions from abroad. There is an annual Maitisong Festival held for two weeks every April at many venues in town, involving groups from all over Botswana and foreign musicians and actors.

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Sport & recreation

Soccer is the national sport, played on fields and at stadiums across the country every Saturday. That national team is the Zebras. The local league consists of (Mochudi) Centre Chiefs, (Lobatse) Extension Gunners, Gaborone United, Notwane (present champions), Township Rollers, Mogoditshane Fighters, Jwaneng Comets, BDF XI, Prisons XI, Police XI, Tafic, and FC Satmos. Soccer results seem to be off-line at present, but can normally be found by a bit of web trawling.

Tennis, golf, and softball are other significant minority interests in towns. There are many opportunites for recreation in the great outdoors. Foreigners are restricted to photo-safaris, with very few opportunities for hunting. "Squash in Botswana" has no web page as yet.

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Culture links

The Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs covers the culture portfolio in the Botswana government - including departments of "Culture and Youth" (including Performing Arts, and National Cultural Council), National Library Services, National Museums Monuments and Art Gallery, Sports and Recreation, and Women's Affairs.

Okavango Delta Peoples of Botswana on the culture and history of Bugawe, Dxeriku, Hambukushu, Wayeyi,and Xanekwe peoples, was constructed by John Bock (and seems to be regularly updated).

See other Botswana History Pages especially Page 8: Language, Page 13: Societyon Ethnicity.

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

The Botswana History Pages by Neil Parsons may be freely reproduced, in print or electronically, on condition
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Last updated 19 August 1999