11 March 2005

Botswana Artifacts - What Are They, Where Are They?


In 1975/76 when the virtually bankrupt National Museum was being taken over by the government, another museum was being launched in Mochudi. This was the Phuthadikobo Museum whose chosen theme was "Mochudi and its people" - thus tribal man, semi urban man, and simply man during years of change.

Isaac Schapera's photos and his immense literature on Mochudi helped to launch the new initiative and provided a bridge to link the 1930s, 40s and 50s with the 60s, 70s and 80s. This linkage was underpinned by a continuity of family, of tradition, custom and culture. But was anything left of the material culture of the Bakgatla/Batswana? In their 1983 consultancy reportOram and Nteta observed that Botswana lacks a rich material culture and that this makes it more difficult to find and collect artifacts and historical material.

Some time ago, Professor Neil Parsons remarked that Phuthadikobo had more of these artifacts on display than anywhere else. Indeed many, but certainly not all of those items are to be seen there. But at that time, there were only two museums in the country and the National Museum, with its focus on the environment, preferred to keep such items in store. Later, the Serowe Museum came to possess many of the artifacts listed here.

Having indicated the range of Setswana artifacts that still exist, it is now necessary to add a little more about where they are to be found. The best information about medicinal plants, for instance, is available in the Mafikeng Museum (South Africa) whilst Serowe has probably the best collection inside Botswana. Mochudi, Serowe and Kanye have very fine clay pots on display but, by far and away, the best bet is the National Museum; but permission would be required to see them in store. For traditional foods, Mafikeng's display is unmatched.

For contemporary traditional building, Molepolole Museum is way out on its own and a visit there allows the opportunity to discuss techniques, materials and tools both in terms of construction and decoration. Only there can the traditional cupboard (koboto) be seen. A reproduction of an older vintage house, from the iron-age, can be seen in the Mafikeng Museum. Granaries are a problem. Serowe and Molepolole have examples of the sometimes very large woven granary - the sesigo - whilst special arrangements would need to be made with Phuthadikobo to see an example of Mochudi's spectacular clay made granary - the sefala. The National Museum has an ox wagon in reasonable shape and Phuthadikobo the oldest tractor to be owned by a Motswana.

No museum has made a particularly convincing attempt to demonstrate how clothing has changed although Mafikeng has made excellent use of historical sources and illustrations to show what was worn from early to mid-19th century. The photos of Duggan Cronin and Schapera at Phuthadikobo give some idea of what people were wearing in the early part of the last century and help to provide evidence of the genesis of the traditional gathered, Sekgatla skirt or toitshi. Francistown museum, which naturally specialises in Kalanga rather than Setswana artifacts, has tried to focus attention on German print dresses and skirts and this has demonstrated the need to establish regional variations and the nature of change over the last 50 to 100 years.

For the personal papers of Setswana Chiefs, the first port of call must be Serowe with its Khama family papers.

These include Tshekedi's letters. Arts and Culture learnt that the University of Botswana Library now holds others that belong to him. Phuthadikobo has the remnants of Isang Pilane's papers, which include Simon Letanke's extraordinary, "I have lost the hope of the natives ever becoming a nation," letter of 1933, as well as copies of letters of Chiefs in the 1930s donated by Schapera. These may or may not have been included in his article of 1933, The Native As Letter Writer. It also has the bible presented to Lentswe I on his conversion in 1892.

If only because it is situated on a rain hill, Phuthadikobo has a special interest in rainmaking. Almost inevitably it is also strong on initiation (bogwera and bojale) for the simple reason that Kgosi Linchwe hugely revived these practices in the period 1975 to 1988. Originating from a very much earlier period, however, are the two bojale drums, which were re-discovered in Mochudi in 1975. These drums have been brought into this country by the Bakgatla when they migrated from the old Transvaal in 1869-71. One drum is held in trust by the National Museum and the other is in Mochudi. With the Chobe buffalo the two drums must be amongst the country's most important cultural and historical possessions.

Phuthadikobo is also unusual in possessing brass/copper neck rings. My own speculation is that these rings were worn only by Bakgatla women who had taken part in the great trek. Either they must have gone out of fashion or had become unavailable as a result of moving away from sources of supply.

For some unknown reason, they appear to have been found in this country only in Mochudi. There is a real need now to help researchers and interest groups by recording Setswana artifacts and their whereabouts in a national register, by identifying those which are yet to be collected by record variations of name, and by studying differences in style and design - for instance, baskets which not so long ago were being made by women throughout the country.

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