Don’t just visit Botswana for the animals, talk to the people!

From the outside life looks mundane and slow. There is no hurry, there is chatter everywhere and everybody seems to know everybody. It can be quite surprising especially if you are coming from fast-paced countries, but it doesn’t take long for one to notice the gem that Botswana is. A place that has seen massive growth and progression yet managed to preserve its cultural heritage.

Batswana celebrating their independence (Boipuso)

A peaceful and welcoming people

Botswana is one of the safest countries in the world. Generally the people are welcoming and open to interaction even with strangers. To really appreciate how cool Batswana are, just take a walk through any of their malls and just observe people around. You will quickly pick some common words like “Dumela” which is equivalent to “Hello”. They exchange greetings extravagantly which can again be overwhelming for non-locals.

Male dancers probably performing tsutsube or setapa dance. Source: North Carolina National Guard

A brief history lesson

Botswana is presently inhabited by a people that is collectively called Batswana. Their origins can be traced back to Kgosi (King) Masilo. One account as documented by George William Stow suggestda Kgosi Malope who reigned around 1475 AD near present day Magaliesberg was the oldest son of Masilo and Kwena was younger. Another account claims Malope had a daughter Mohurutse and 3 sons Kwena, Ngwato and Ngwaketse. At the death of Malope a dispute arouse as to whether the chieftainship should go to the oldest child even though she was female. They split and Mohurutse left with her followers to set up a new kingdom. Bakwena split into smaller tribal chieftainships that populates present day Rustenburg.

1816 to 1840 was a period of great strife and wars in Southern Africa. This was the period of Mfecane, which saw multiple wars among Nguni people which forced Mzilikazi, Soshangane and others to migrate northwards. Along the way Mzilikazi fought many battles, subjugating other tribes and assimilating some. He passed through Botswana before settling at Bulawayo in present day Zimbabwe.

Present day depiction of a Zulu warrior

At the tail end of Mfecane, a group of Dutch-speaking colonists started migrating into interior southern Africa in search of land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule. They followed through the paths of Mzilikazi and other Nguni warriors, killing and plundering. This was known as the Great Trek. In 1852, the Boer were getting closer to invading Batswana claiming the lands were uninhabited. The British had already accepted the independence of the Voortrekkers north of the Vaal River.

The Boers were understaffed, wherever they settled they would enslave local black populations and made them to work in the fields for no payment. Most of the enslaved people were Bahurutse. A group of Bahurutshe, led by Kgosi Mangope, escaped and fled north to seek help from Sechele of Bakwena tribe. The Boer followed them. They were ambushed by Sechele’s army and a battle ensured which lasted 7 days. The Boers retreated while Bakwena also moved inland.

Mma Sechele cave in Manyana, Botswana

It was this threat of possible further attacks by the Boers that forced Sechele to try and travel to United Kingdom and plead with the queen for protection. He however ran out resources in Cape Town and returned.

By 1884 a new threat of annexation was imminent following the Berlin Conference. The Boers, Cecil John Rhodes and Germans in present day Namibia were all angling at Botswana. The Boers had already annexed Stellaland and Goshen in Southern Botswana. On 29 October 1884, the British Government appointed Sir Charles Warren as Special Commissioner of Bechuanaland. Warren vanquished the Boers and declared a new country Crown Colony of British Bechuanaland extending all the way through present-day Mafikeng terminating around Lobatse.

In 1885, seeing the threats three Batswana leaders Kgosi Khama III, Kgosi Bathoen I, and Kgosi Sebele I travelled to London to petition the Queen for protection. Subsequently northern Botswana became Bechuanaland Protectorate. This also included the Tati area which was then under Mzilikazi but populated by a Shona subgroup known as Bakalanga. British Bechuanaland was incorporated into present day South Africa.

The monument of the 3 Kings who visited England in 1885

Botswana gained its full independence back in 1966 and was led by Khama III’s grandson Seretse Khama, a new capital was created at Gaborone.

Present day Gaborone

A treasure trove of culture and heritage

The beauty of Botswana lies in that the many tribes have maintained their identity and cultural beliefs which they continue to pass down the generations. The collective history of the country is so fascinating especially when it is dissected individually. On one hand you have the ethnic Batswana from Malope: Bahurutshe, Bakaa, Bakgatla, Bakwena, Bamalete, Bangwaketse, Bangwato, Barolong, Batawana, Batlhaping, Batlharo, and Batlokwa, then you also have other minority groups like Bakalanga, Basarwa (Bushmen), Basubi, Bakgalagadi, Bayei, Bambukushu, and Baherero. As a tourist understanding this history could help you appreciate the subtle differences on cultures and way certain things are done depending on where you are in Botswana.

A lot to see and experience

Given the rich cultural history, there are many places of interest in Botswana that one can explore. If in Gaborone, the Bahurutshe Cultural village, David Livingstone’s tree, what remains of Kolobeng Mission and also the cave that Sechele’s pregnant wife – Mma Sechele – was hidden during the Boer war are some of the coll place to check.

Rock Art Painting in Tsodilo Hills dating centuries and attributed to the San people

If you are into Khoisan history, there are many places to see the ancient rock paintings. One world-famous place is the Tsodilo Hills in North-Western Botswana close to the Caprivi strip just after Gumare.

You can also experience the culture of the Basarwa people of North-Western Botswana in Ghanzi which is  about 670Km North-West of Gaborone the capital of Botswana.

Basarwa people of botswana

Animals galore!

Apart from the cultural experience, Botswana is revered as one of the biggest animal sanctuaries in the world. There are a number of national parks that have the famous Big 5 doted across the country.

Arial shot of the Okavango river near Shakawe

Moremi Game Reserve was established in 1963 as an initiative championed by the local Batawana people of Ngami. It is touted as the first nature reserve created by indigenous people in Africa. What makes the reserve spectacular especially for safaris is the Okavango delta which remains largely undisturbed and a home to some of the unique species of animals and flora.

Crossing the Okavango in a home-made canoe called mokoro

Moremi is juxtaposed to Chobe National Park, there is no fence separating the two rather animals can move across lines maintaining a rich balance and ecosystem.

A herd of elephants in Chobe National Park

So, beyond just the animals, there is a lot to learn for an inquisitive mind. If you are Scottish ask about David Livingstone. If you are Dutch explore the history of the Boer in Botswana. You will leave with a deeper experience and a longstanding appreciation of the country!