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Culture & History

The history of Botswana is characterized by migrations of peoples into the country from the north and west and particularly from the east and south, as well as internal movements of groups of people. The group which eventually emerged as most numerous, and dominant, were the Batswana. Their pattern of dividing and migrating saw the formation of numerous Tswana tribes, and they eventually occupied all areas of the country.

The term "Batswana" refers to the ethnic group of people who speak the Setswana language and share the Sotho-Tswana culture. Today, Batswana, in its contemporary usage, refers to all citizens of the Republic of Botswana regardless of their ethnic background. The singular is "Motswana": a citizen of the country. "Tswana" is used as an adjective - for example "Tswana state" or "Tswana culture".

First Inhabitants

The earliest modern inhabitants of southern Africa were the Bushman (San) and the Hottentot (Khoe) peoples. They have lived an almost unchanged lifestyle in the country since the Middle Stone Age.

The physical characteristics of the Khoe and the San are similar. Both tend to have light, almost coppery skin color, slanted, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, thin lips and tufted, tightly curled hair. Both speak click languages, though there are major differences between them. Both hunted and collected wild foods and neither grew crops.

Approximately 60,000 years ago, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa were of one tribe, probably of Khoe/San type. It is believed that the Bantu-speaking people were an offshoot from the Khoe/San tribe. This occurred in the tropical rain forests of equatorial Africa about 10,000 years ago. The Bantu-speaking people gradually developed darker skin pigmentation and different physical attributes because of the different environments they eventually occupied.

The origins of the Tswana tribes

In Botswana, about 1,000 years ago, large chiefdoms began to emerge in the area between Sowa Pan and the Tswapong Hills. Large settlements developed on hilltops. These people are known as the "Toutswe", after the first of their capitals, which was excavated on Toutswemogala Hill. Soon these communities were eclipsed by the Great Zimbabwe Empire, which spread its domain over much of eastern Botswana.

Around 1300 AD, peoples in present-day Transvaal began to coalesce into the linguistic and political groups they form today. This resulted in the emergence of three main groups: the Bakgalagadi, the Batswana and the Basotho, each of which had smaller divisions. Each group lived in small, loosely knit communities, spread widely over large areas of land. They spoke dialects of the same language and shared many cultural affinities.

Two central features of the history of the Batswana are fission and fusion. Groups of people broke off from their parent tribe and moved to new land, creating a new tribe and absorbing or subjugating the people they found there. This is how a single group of Batswana living in the Magaliesberg Mountains in northern Transvaal evolved into the numerous Tswana tribes, which exist today.

In 18th century further movements and split-ups of the Batswana resulted in the Tswana tribes which exist today: Bakhurutshe, Bangwato, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bakgatla, Batlhokwa, Barolong, Batlhaping and, much later, the Batawana.

The earlier farming inhabitants of Botswana - the Bakgalagadi - also split into several groups, namely the Bakgwateng, Babolaongwe, Bangologa, Baphaleng, Bashaga and many smaller groups. This then was how the Tswana tribes came to be living in Botswana as they were until about 200 years ago.

The Difaqane wars

The Difaqane wars were a devastating wave of tribal wars that swept across Botswana and much of southern Africa in the early 1800s.

By the early 19th century, populations in southern Africa had expanded to such a point that most fertile land was occupied. During the 1700s, the slave and ivory trades increased rapidly in southeastern Africa - minor kings were attacking their neighbours and selling their captives to slave traders. Along the Orange River, white bandits began to terrorize people living in the east.

Nguni peoples (Bantu-speaking peoples including the Zulus and Xhosas) began to form themselves into stronger units to resist these pressures. In 1816 King Shaka seized control of the Zulu chiefdom, and, by forcefully incorporating other smaller tribes, rapidly formed a powerful, war-like nation. Conquered peoples, began to move northwestwards in vast numbers (80,000 - 100,000) destroying everything in their path.

Towards the end of the Difaqane wars, tribes slowly began to re-establish themselves. The chiefs, in their efforts to reconstruct, began to exchange ivory and skins for guns with European, Griqua and Rolong traders, who began to infiltrate the African interior at that time.

Missionaries and traders

In the 19th century numerous missionary societies were formed in Europe and America to send out proselytizers around the world. The London Missionary Society was one of the first to preach amongst the Batswana. It set up a mission station at Kuruman (near present-day Vryburg in South Africa) in 1816. The untiring Robert Moffat headed the station for 50 years.

The famous Dr. David Livingstone arrived in 1841, worked out of Kuruman for about two years, and then married Moffat's daughter, Mary. Though much more interested in exploration than missionary work, and later much more involved in the abolition of the slave trade, Livingstone set up a mission station at Kolobeng amongst the Bakwena.

From Kuruman, Christianity very gradually spread to the interior. Missionaries settled amongst the people, often at the invitation of the chiefs who wanted guns and knew that the presence of missionaries encouraged the traders. By 1880 every major village of every tribe in Botswana had a resident missionary and their influence had become a permanent feature of life.

The missionaries worked through the chief, recognizing that the chief's conversion was the key to the rest of the tribe. Chiefs' responses varied - from Khama's (of the Bangwato) wholehearted embrace of the faith, to Sekgoma Letsholathebe's (of the Batawana) outright rejection, which he claimed was in defense of his culture.


It is largely the culture of the Batswana that has dominated that of other minority groups. This is particularly evident with regard to cattle ownership. Cattle, the traditional Tswana source of wealth and status, are now desired by most, if not all groups of people in Botswana. But this exchange of cultural values has not been a one-way affair: minority groups have influenced and contributed to the dominant culture in numerous ways - in Ngamiland, for example, the Bayei fishing methods were adopted by the ruling Batawana.

Recent years have seen the introduction of western culture in the form of western business, technology, consumer goods, tourism and the media. There is a rather circuitous route, which all this takes to get to Botswana. South Africa, heavily influenced by America, Europe and Japan, acquires the latest goods and media items from these countries first; Botswana, in turn, imports nearly all commodities from South Africa. Botswana can well afford to buy in such goods, but personal wealth on the scale that exists for the elite few in Botswana is a new phenomenon.

Life in the urban areas has been most affected by western culture and increasing modernity. In the rural areas many traditions persist and ways of life differ from region to region. Some of the more obvious physical aspects of the different cultures have disappeared (such as traditional clothing, arts and crafts, most ritual ceremonies and some tools and utensils). Others remain important, however, such as cattle ownership, music and dance and
the consultation of traditional healers.

The changes, which have come so rapidly to Botswana, have had their advantages and disadvantages. Better health and education facilities have been provided and increased prosperity has improved the standard of living for some. However, there is a steadily widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Music and Dance

Music is the aspect of culture, which has perhaps best survived the onslaught of western influences in Botswana. Both traditional and modern music of numerous ethnic groups from southern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are heard nearly everywhere you go - in shops, malls, houses, schools, cars, combis, trains, taxis and bars. Music, dance and singing are an integral part of everyday activities and modern-day ceremonies such as weddings and even funerals.

Batswana have incorporated their traditional music into church singing. The result is some of the most stirring, soulful music on earth. There are a lot of church choirs, in both urban and rural areas.

Children are taught traditional music and dance at primary school. Even in secondary schools, morning assembly sometimes begin with singing. Teacher training colleges often have their own dance troupes, some of which have performed overseas. Traditional dance competitions for schools are periodically held, usually in larger towns and villages, and many schools from around the country participate. These school groups also perform for the public on public holidays - in villages, town halls and community centres. The dancers, wearing traditional costumes of skins and beaded jewellery, move exuberantly and energetically. The music is happy, infectious, and full of feeling.


Early tribal religions were primarily cults. The supreme being and creator was known as Modimo. Religious rites included the bogwera and bojale (male and female initiation ceremonies) and gofethla pula or rain-making rites.

Today, Christianity is the most prevailing belief system in Botswana, with well over 60% of the population. It was brought into Botswana by David Livingstone in the middle 19th century who converted Kgosi Sechele I (Chief of Bakwena) to Christianity. The main denominations are - Roman Catholic, Anglican, Zion, Lutheran and Methodist Christian Church.



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