17 August 2007

Botswana: Mahalapye - Ko Diponeng

Gaborone — Mahalapye Deputy Kgosi Frank Tshipe, remembers being a child in Mahalapye and going to the then Rhodesian Railway Station to stand under the only electric lights in the village to see his shirt change colour.

Something about the bulbs of the lights caused colours to appear different than they actually were and for the young Tshipe and his cohorts, this was a cause for fascination. Those very lights, the only ones outside of Lobatse in the whole of the then Bechuanaland, gave the village the nickname, "Ko Diponeng", the place of lights.

Looking at the many tarred roads lined with endless streets lights and every sort of shop from clothes stores to well stocked supermarkets to the robots and roundabouts of the now very modern Mahalapye, it is difficult to remember a time when a single light might be a topic of fascination for a young boy, but indeed that time was not that long ago since Mahalapye has only been a settlement since the 1920's.

Mahalapye was also, unfortunately, well known for thugs, among them the notorious Brickston and Spur, who operated during the 1970's. "They used to disconnect the head of the train, so they could rob the people in the carriages," Kgosi Tshipe remembers. Tales ran rife of the exploits of the duo. One story has it that Spur, the smaller one, used to be put in a basket and "delivered' to a shop. Once the shop was closed and the owners went home, he'd pop out and let Brickston in so they could be free to do what they wanted until opening time. "They were good at pick pocketing," Kgosi Tshipe said. "They spent most of their time in jail." A relatively reformed Brickston can still be found roaming Mahalapye, but Spur passed away in 2006.

The Beginnings

Mahalapye's origins are intricately linked to the passing railway. In the 1800's when Cecil John Rhodes decided to build a railway line from Cape to Cairo, the seeds for Mahalapye were being sown. According to the 2002 commemorative programme for the 20th anniversary of Xhosa Primary School in Mahalapye written by the school head, Ms L.S. Moloi, when the British South African Company was recruiting staff for the railway, they primarily chose from the Xhosa tribe in Cape Colony in South Africa. As the railway stretched northward into Bechuanaland and Rhodesia, the Xhosa people were carried north with it.

Mahalapye was initially a siding and a place for the train to restock its coal supplies. When it stopped, Batswana from surrounding areas came to the train to sell cattle and milk. Over time, some set up temporary and then permanent homes to do business at the railway station. The Bakaa and Baphaleng from Shoshong were some of the first settlers of the area. The Batalaote, the tribe from which Kgosi Tshipe is from, and Bakonyana, both tribes who had followed Khama III from Old Palapye to Serowe, decided to move back to the Mahalapye area, primarily because they had cattleposts east of the village.

Meanwhile, the now Rhodesian Railways, decided that they needed someone to take care of their various property that they had at Mahalapye Siding and they chose a responsible Xhosa man, Samuel Giddie, the grandfather of the late BNF activist Mareledi Giddie. Giddie soon grew to like the area and travelled to Serowe to ask permission from Kgosi Khama III to be issued a residence permit and some land. Overtime other prominent Xhosa families also moved into the area including Qose Sexaka, Blom Nyoka, and Mr. Jongman. They eventually set up Xhosa 1 Ward in Mahalapye.

The other early settlers of the Mahalapye area were the Baherero, who were refugees from the brutality of the Germans in Namibia. The current deputy chief Kgosi Johannes Maherero is a direct descendent of these settlers.

The first chief of Mahalapye was Kgosi Mphati Segotsi, grandfather to Mahalapye's current chief, Kgosi Duncan Segotsi.

Early Trading In Mahalapye

The first businesses in the area were almost exclusively owned by foreigners. When the first traders of Asian descent arrived in the village in 1964, it was little more than a handful of brick houses and shops located near to the railway station, the rest of the village was made up of only traditional Setswana compounds.

"By that time there were about five shops," said Aneesa Bhamjee, the daughter of Mohammed and Hadjina Bhamjee who owned Mahalapye Stores, a shop that stocked everything from "pins to ploughs". "If you couldn't get it at Mahalapye Stores," Aneesa remembers, "you wouldn't get it anywhere."

The Bhamjees originated from Johannesburg. Aneesa 's father heard that a certain man named Milan had a shop in a village in Bechuanaland that he wanted to sell. Much to the surprise of their family, her father decided that he would move to Bechuanaland and take up ownership of the shop. So he packed up his wife, leaving the children behind with their grandmother so that they could attend school, and he moved to Mahalapye in the middle of one of the most severe droughts in the history of the country, lasting almost seven years. "Until 1970, when the drought broke they had it very tough," remembers the late Bhamjee's daughter.

Aneesa remembers how they used to have to be at the railway station at midnight to collect bread when the train passed. Those same lights that fascinated Kgosi Tshipe so long ago, managed to hide the mould on the bread the Rhodesian bakery tried to pawn off to the Mahalapye residents only to be found in the bright light of morning. Later E. Moolah set up a bakery near where Cash Build now stands which solved the problem for a short time.

Some of those early shops included Hennings Butchery (the family now owns Payless in Gaborone), BB Bazaar, Van Wyngaarat Scrap Yard and K & A Trading run by the Desais. Later Brian Frolich had a wholesaler called Cedcom located along the railway line south of the railway station. Mr. Tarr and Mr Turk had the only petrol station in the village located along the A1 Highway where Engen is now. It had an old style hand pump and a parking lot with dif- breking potholes. They also ran a workshop and a spares store. Kgosi Tshipe remembers Mr. Tarr owning a clay brick making factory in Boseja. People claim those very bricks were exported to South Africa and were used to build Soweto.

The businesses initially got electricity from the railway station but later massive Rolls Royce generators were set up by the Council. They were located where Cashbuild now stands and provided electricity for houses and businesses that were wired.

Transport from Mahalapye to Gaborone was provided by Joe's Transport run by Joe Nwako. The road was treacherous and even on a good day the trip took more than four hours. If you were heading north by bus, your only option was Wright's Transport that ran a bus from Mahalapye to Francistown.

Though most Batswana still made their living at the cattle post and the lands, some were recruited by the Rustenberg Platinum Mines Recruitment Office, located next to Mahalapye Stores on the mall and run by a Mr. Hall. People from Tswapong, Shoshong, Kalamare, Mahalapye and other surrounding areas would sign up for three month stints to work in the mines in South Africa.


Chase Me Inn, now Mahalapye Hotel, was a great place for entertainment for the people who could afford it. It was run by Mr. Chase whose wife was a nurse for the railways. The hotel provided excellent meals and on the odd night outdoor movies in the parking lot, where people pitched up with their lawn chairs to watch the film.

For a short time, there were gravel tennis courts behind Mahalapye Hospital, which was the site of the Mahalapye Tennis Club, started by Mohammed Bahmjee. The team would compete with clubs from Gaborone and Selebi Phikwe. Later, tennis shifted to the Mahalapye Railway Club.

For others there was Dido, a hall located where B & G Hardware is currently operating, that opened in the late 1960's. The hall was owned by Kgalemang Motsete, author of the national anthem, and hosted shows from the likes of Mahothela Queens and the Soul Brothers.

There was the Rhodesian Railway Club, which offered bingo where you might win a slab of chocolate if you were lucky or you could take a swim if you were a member. Families liked to go for picnics along the picturesque Mahalapye Rive or out to the big Mowana tree on a Sunday afternoon.

Football enthusiasts were not left behind in those early days of Mahalapye. In the 1950's, Theo Tamocha started the Queens Park Rangers Football Club, followed in the 1960's by Mahalapye Hotspurs started by former Councillor Ntsosa and businessman, Joe Nwako. In the 1970's, Kgosi Kakabale, deputy Kgosi to the late Kgosi Senai and father to the current deputy chief Frank Tshipe, started Leeds United Football Club.


Tsiamo Tamocha is a person much respected in Mahalapye history. He was an educated man who wanted to pass that education on to others, but there were no schools in the early days of the village. To solve the problem, he opened a school in his home. "In 1938, my father attended school there. They were four in the class," Kgosi Tshipe said.

In 1963, Mahalapye African School was opened. A school dedicated to the man so committed to educating the youth, Tamocha Primary School, opened later in the 1970's. Meanwhile, Madiba Brigades was started by Patrick Van Rensberg and friends in the first years of the 1970's. Dr. Kenneth Koma started Mahalapye Junior Secondary School around the same time with teachers mostly drawn from among his followers including Lenyeletse Koma.

Mahalapye Today

Today, Mahalapye is a massive village of over 43,000 people stretching in all directions from the initial settlement around the railway station. It is now the headquarters of Botswana Railways. There are six junior secondary schools, 12 primary schools and one senior secondary school.

Visitors to Mahalapye will want to stop and see the southern most naturally occurring baobab tree in Africa, the tree where long ago families used to picnic, now declared as a national monument, located at the southern edge of the village just off of the A1 Highway. If you're travelling north you turn left at the first tarred road and then left again at the first gravel road. The towering tree can be seen from the road and easily found. The tree is magnificent, the broken bottles and rubbish blowing all around it not so lovely.

Spending the day among the massive granite boulders in the almost always dry Mahalapye River can be a nice way to occupy your time. A hike up the river with a picnic lunch can make the day memorable.

For eating, there is still the colonial charm of the Mahalapye Hotel, which offers hearty meals at reasonable prices. Be aware though that they are open only around meal times not all day long, so it is wise to check their times before pitching up hungry and finding it closed. The best place for Setswana chicken and fish and chips, if you are not a stickler about grease and the health of your arteries, is Kaytee's, along the A1. There are the chain restaurants Barcelo's, Hungry Lion (opposite the bus rank) and Whistle Stop at Ultra City just as you leave the village. There are also numerous takeaways offering various degrees of cleanliness and taste, among them Botoka and Ja Monate at the bus rank, Southern Fried Chicken and Tswana Take Away located at the Caltex Filling Station.

For accommodation, visitors have numerous options. Along the A1 north of Mahalapye are Gaetsho Lodge and Seduda Lodge. Both offer rooms with air cons and TV's with Gaetsho's rooms starting at P250 per room and Seduda at P385. All rooms at Seduda have computer work stations with printers, though not internet connected. Seduda intends to soon offer camping as well.

Oasis Lodge is located off the Madiba Road. A single room goes for P190 per night. All rooms have air cons, TV's and hot showers. Maeto Lodge is located centrally just opposite the post office. They offer rooms starting from P257 and a family room for P497 fitted with three beds. Maeto also has a swimming pool and a bureau de change.

Located behind Furniture Mart in Borotse Ward is LME Lodge. Their most economical room goes for P150, sharing a bathroom with other visitors, though there are rooms that are ensuite at slightly higher rates. Tshidi Guest House is also located centrally, along the A1 highway just after Kaytee's. It is a quick walk to shops, restaurants and the post office. Their cheapest room is a single sharing a bathroom that goes for P122 per night. All rooms have TV's and air cons.

Modern Mahalapye, though not yet a tourist attraction, can offer a nice rest stop to destinations northward. From its humble beginnings as a stop for the train to re-coal, it is now a modern bustling village.

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