Mmegi/The Reporter (Gaborone)

17 November 2009

Botswana: U.S. Gives Old Palapye Church a Facelift

Gaborone — The American embassy in Gaborone is contributing $44,000 for the renovation of a colonial church at Old Palapye, present day Malaka.

The aim is to restore the church built in 1890s to its original state. The director of National Monuments and Art Gallery, Gaogakwe Phorano told a press conference yesterday that the renovated church, formerly of the London Missionary Society (LMS) will be used as a place of worship by the village and museum for Old Palapye, the former Bangwato capital. The US embassy and the department of Museums and Monuments will unveil the $44,000 donation at Malaka, on Thursday. Phorano said they will be empowering the people of Malaka to form a community trust through which the heritage site will be managed in a profitable fashion. He described Malaka as an old city-state, which had a bank, a prison, a trade network with Mozambique and Malawi and a tobacco plantation among other facilities.

Historians say it is an example of organised state formation in southern Africa at the time. Phorano said Old Palapye has over 10 heritage sites. These include a sacred site, Dimomo, Phothophotho waterfalls, the ancient cemetery and masonry tools. Phorano said they want to apply to UNESCO to list Old Palapye as a world heritage site by 2011.

Besides being a former Bangwato capital, Old Palapye used to serve as a temporary capital for Ndebele on their way north. It was a camp for subsequent Ndebele cattle-raiders as late as 1863, according to historian Neil Parsons.

The Bangwato lived in Shoshong for over 40 years but stayed in Old Palapye, for less than 15 years. But it is at Old Palapye that significant infrastructure was built. It is where Kgosi Khama III's famous wife of 25 years, Mma Besi's remains lie.

The town was abandoned in 1902, largely due to calamities that hit the Bangwato kingdom upon settling in the Tswapong area, not far from the sacred Moremi Hills, where the dreaded Tswapong gods are believed to live. It would seem the series of calamities forced Khama III to flee Old Palapye. He nearly died of fever there, the same pandemic that took away his wife, Mma-Besi.

Parsons writes that the event was traumatic in the Khama family. Malaria hit again in 1893, leaving Khama III very sick, while his new wife passed away the following year.

Parsons says that yet another drought and crop failure followed in 1894-1895 and 1895-1896 and then rinderpest, which killed most of the cattle in mid-1896. Drought continued over the 1896-97 agricultural season. Perhaps fearing that the calamities were being caused by Bangwato's continued use of the sacred waterfalls, Phothotho, Khama is said to have forbidden his people from drawing water from the place. Instead they had to go to the next water point three kilometers away.

By April 1898 Bangwato had started plotting how to get away from Tswapong. They eventually moved to other parts of the country and abandoned Old Palapye.

Old Palapye was one of the largest towns in aouthern Africa in 1889, with about 30,000 inhabitants.

Archaeological remains at the site include circular foundations, verandas, several stonewalls, red ochre pottery, iron implements and ruins of the London Missionary Society church. Other sources of attraction include waterfalls, rock paintings, graves, stone cairns and granary bases.

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