Culture & History
People of Botswana
Arts and Crafts
Food and Selected Dishes
People of Botswana
The people of Botswana are called “Batswana” and it is after them that the country is named. Botswana has over twenty different tribes, giving the country a rich infusion of cultural diversity.
This multi-ethnic society includes:
Bangwato, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bakgatla, Barolong, Batawana, Bahurutshe, Balete, Bakalanga, Bayei, Bambukushu, Basubiya, Basarwa, Batlokwa, Babirwa, Baherero, Bakgalagadi, Bakgothu, and Batswapong, among others.
Although all these tribes exhibit obvious cultural differences, the mutual respect for each others’ ways has resulted in harmonious co-existence. In turn, this co-existence has led to inter-cultural assimilation.
Setswana is the national language and English is the official language.
Here are some of the basic phrases in Setswana:
||Ee (Ee, mma - answering a woman, ee rra - answering a man)
||Nnyaa, mma / rra
|Hello (to a woman)
||Dumela, mma (Dumelang, bo mma - plural)
|Hello (to a man)
||Dumela, rra (Dumelang, bo rra - plural)
|How are you?
||Le kae? O tsogile jang?
|Good bye - it is OK
|I do not know
||Ga ke itse ("g" is pronounced as "r" in French)
|Do you speak Setswana?
||A o bua Setswana?
|I speak Setswana just a little
||Ke bua Setswana go le gonnye fela
|I don't speak Setswana
||Ga ke bue Setswana
||Ga gona mathata
|I am fine
||Ke tsogile sentle. Ke teng
||Tsena (Tsenang - plural)
|How much is this?
||Ke bo kae?
|I don't have any money
||Ga ke na madi
|What would you like?
||O batla eng? or O rata eng?
|I want some water
||Ke batla metsi
Botswana is inhabited by people of predominantly Tswana origin (collectively called “Batswana”) whose recorded history can be traced back to the 14th century. They are believed to be descendants of King Mogale who lived in the present-day Magaliesberg Mountains in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. They migrated northwards, at different times and due to different causes, and established themselves in what was then a relatively unexplored territory.
Towards the turn of the 19th century, the people who resided in the area known as Botswana, made up of at least eight ethnic Chiefdoms whose peoples shared a common language and history, co-existed in relative peace.
During this period, Britain was consolidating its military and economic strength as a major colonial power in Southern Africa. At the same time, Dutch settlers calling themselves Afrikaners (Boers) and German settlers in Namibia (then South West Africa) were pushing northwards and westwards, respectively, annexing more and more Batswana lands.
In 1870, three DIKGOSI (Botswana traditional leaders) made representation to the British Government regarding the threat of their territory’s annexation by the Dutch and German settlers. With the earnest support of some local British organisations and individuals, the lobby for protection succeeded in 1885, resulting in the Bechuanaland Protectorate.
After 80 years as a British protectorate, Bechuanaland attained self-government in 1965, becoming the independent Republic of Botswana on September 30, 1966, and maintaining a position of stability and harmony ever since. Sir Seretse Khama was elected the first president and served until his death in 1980.
Since independence, Botswana has maintained a thriving democracy, clean government, an up-right judiciary, peace and stability, and a well-managed economy.
The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been in power since the first democratic elections in 1966, and continues to draw support from a wide range of Botswana's population. Mr. Ketumile Masire served as Botswana's second president, taking over from the late Sir Seretse Khama in July 1980 and continuing a tradition of good governance. He voluntarily retired from office in 1998, and was succeeded by Mr. Festus Mogae. Mr. Mogae finished his second term in 2008 handing over power to the incumbent President Ian Khama.
Traditional Government and Social Order
To achieve consensus in their communities, Batswana have a KGOTLA, which is a traditional court assembly where every individual’s opinion is heard and considered. It is the seat of traditional democratic government. The issues discussed at the Kgotla range from personal to national. Criminal and other cases are heard and tried at the Kgotla, and important issues of tribal and national concern are presided over by the KGOSI and his principal advisors, and decided by consensus.
Since independence in 1966, the Kgotla system has existed alongside the multi-party democratically elected parliament.
A KGOSI is a royal traditional leader of a tribe or village. The Kgosi is not elected but ascends to this position through heredity. A Kgosi commands great respect from his tribesmen and is treated with dignity, even outside his own tribe. Kgosi is responsible for maintaining law and order in the village, with the help of principal advisors who are normally members of the royal family and some village elders. A Kgosi’s abode is the KGOTLA, also a place where disputes and issues of tribal and national concern are considered.
Beliefs, Values and Practices
To date, Christianity accounts for around 80% of the religions practiced in Botswana. Before Christianity was brought to Botswana by missionaries in the 1800’s, people believed in their ancestors, who played the role of “Guardian Angel”. There were therefore various religious practices intended to honour and appease the ancestors; for example, after the harvest, a portion of the crop would be offered to the ancestors as a 'thank you' or to ask them for assistance, such as bringing the rains.
Many people still maintain dual religious practices, between Christianity and traditional religious worship.
The most important value held in Botswana is that of BOTHO (highest respect, honour, esteem that one holds for another human life). The society expects and requires its members to have Botho, which is manifested through good manners, humility, compassion, kindness, respect, gentility and observance of traditional norms and behavioural code. Botho forms the fabric of the Botswana value-system.
Other values which also form the national principles of Botswana include Democracy, Development, Self-reliance and Unity.
Morero (Consultation and Consensus Building)
People of Botswana strongly believe in the value of consultations within the society to ensure peace through consensus. The process of MORERO (consultation) at inter-personal, family, and community levels is considered an invaluable asset in the ability to reach and sustain agreements. Communities and even Government consult at the KGOTLA.
Dingaka (Traditional Doctors)
The DINGAKA (traditional doctors) have a very extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants. The various herbs, roots, leaves, barks and so forth are known to cure a range of illnesses including snake bites, pain, common flu, impotence and many more. Other plants are believed to be excellent aphrodisiacs. The medicinal herbs have been used over the centuries by Dingaka to heal and even cure diseases for which there are no modern medicines.
Moreover, the Dingaka claim to have extraordinary powers, ranging from the power to order lightening to strike someone, providing lucky charms for job promotion, fixing unsteady marriages, etc. Using their divining bones, the Dingaka claim to be able to detect their client's problems and even give protective medicines to solve them.
There is a general recognition of the importance of traditional medicine within the health delivery system of Botswana. Those who wish to practice are required to register with the Botswana Dingaka Association and their practice is regulated. With more exposure to other foreign beliefs and education, however, a growing number of citizens dismiss this type of medicine. Nonetheless, there are others, even amongst the educated, who use the services of the traditional doctors and keep it a closely guarded personal secret.
Arts and Crafts
Botswana's arts and crafts mirror the country's rich cultural diversity which has been brought about by its many tribes. This section is an outline of the country's indigenous arts, crafts, music, food and beverages.
The decorations known as LEKGAPHO on traditional homes are a very impressive art which has been passed through generations. Although the art is slowly dying because many citizens are now building concrete rather than mud houses, a few traditionally decorated houses can still be seen in some rural areas.
Basarwa, whose ancestors are responsible for the rock paintings found throughout Botswana, still display natural artistic skills. Some canvas paintings done by Basarwa artists, who have never been to an art school, show considerable natural talent which can be developed further.
The most famous of all craft products of Botswana is the basket. Integral to Botswana’s agricultural culture, baskets have been traditionally made and used for thousands of years and are still very much in everyday use. Closed baskets with lids are used for storing grain, seeds and sometimes, sorghum beer. Large, open bowl-shaped baskets are used by women for carrying items on their heads and for winnowing grain after it has been pounded.
The main producers of the baskets are the women of the Bayei and Hambukushu tribes in north western Botswana.
The main raw material used in Botswana baskets is the fibre of the Mokola or ‘vegetable ivory’ palm tree and originally, most baskets were undecorated. Gradually, intricate designs have emerged through the introduction of colour and pattern.
Colour is sourced from natural dyes found in the roots and bark of the Motlhakola and Motsentisila trees (browns) and, more recently, from the leaves of the Indigofers shrub (mauve), and the husks of sorghum, the fungus from which provides a lovely pink shade.
The patterns are either one-off abstracts or symbolic of the local environment and wildlife. Various basket designs which have been passed from generation to generation are associated with the nation's traditional lifestyle. There is, for example, a zig-zag pattern known as " the bull's urine trail " which describes the patterns caused by the movement of the bull’s sheath whilst it walks and urinates.
Botswana baskets are woven using the coil method. A thin bundle of palm fibre, grass or a single piece of vine is used for the interior. A small hole is pierced into the previously woven row with an awl and a strip of palm is then inserted into the hole and wrapped around the core. Designs are created by weaving strips of dyed palm at appropriate intervals. Each basket takes up to six weeks to complete.
Botswana baskets are found at:
2-5-17 Takaban, Meguro-ku Tokyo 152-0004 Japan
Tel / Fax: 03-3719-0230
Third World Shop
2-7-10-102, Mita, Meguro-ku Tokyo 153-0062 Japan
Tel: 03-3791-2147 Fax: 03-3792-5395
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Botswana baskets are also found at the OVOP shop in Narita Airport
Various tribes have been making baked clay pots for a number of generations.
The clay pots were used for cooking, water storage, brewing of traditional beer and for religious ceremonies, amongst others.
Unusual, good quality, hand-woven tapestries, carpets, bed covers, jackets and coats are all made from karakul sheep wool. All utilize locally inspired designs and patterns. Oodi Weavers near Gaborone has gained an international reputation for its fine work.
Botswana tapestries are found at:
1-18-10, Nishiogi-Minami, Suginami –ku Tokyo 167-0053 Japan
Tel / Fax: 03-5370-8114
Basarwa are amongst the leaders in beadwork. Crushed ostrich egg shells and imported beads are used to make necklaces, bangles and other decorative items.
The prevalence of a wide variety of trees has facilitated the development of highly impressive wood-craft. Carvings of various animals and birds tend to dominate the craft. However, besides the latter category, many items carved out of wood are used in the home, although many have been replaced by imported mass-produced items.
Amongst the traditional wooden household items are mogopo (wooden bowls), wooden spoons of various sizes, kika (wooden mortar) and motshe (wooden pestle). Communities which stay near the rivers also make wooden mekoro (boats) which are very popular with foreign tourists.
Because of the abundance of the skins of domesticated animals and wildlife, traditional Botswana society developed various ways of processing the skins and making cothing, decorated skin blankets and sleeping mats. The skins are treated with various roots and barks depending on the intended use.
Although clothes made traditionally from leather have been replaced by cloth items, there are still some hunter-gatherer communities amongst the Basarwa (Bushmen) who use leather clothing. Traditional dancing groups also use leather clothing during their performances. Exclusive and fashionable leather handbags, belts and other items are also currently factory-produced to a high standard in Botswana.
The Kalanga tribe which originated from the Wange area of present day Zimbabwe mined iron (the traditional mining method was to make a fire over the iron brick rocks and to shatter the heated iron by pouring water over it).
Kalanga iron-mongers forged iron hoes and traded them with the Tswana-speaking people in exchange for the latter's livestock.
The people of Botswana are very receptive to various forms of traditional, modern, local and foreign music. Botswana's divergent tribal cultures have also enriched the country's music. Various energetic and rhythmic dances are performed with the backing of drums, leg rattles, whistles and hand clapping. Some Botswana traditional groups have performed in international festivals and won international acclaim. Songs that appeal to specific age groups and occasions, such as weddings, initiation ceremonies, harvest, healing, and entertainment, have been passed on through generations.
Other forms of music are performed to the accompaniment of the setinkana (hand piano), the katara (guitar) and segaba (violin). The guitar has found its way into traditional music, and many songs with the 'guitar flavour' have been passed from generation to generation just like segaba music. The music has been sustained by various talented traditional musicians such as Ratsie Setlhako, Ndona Poifo, George Swabi, Ompone "Sheleng" Ositile, Andries Bok, Speech Madimabe, and many others.
Older forms of music known as dikoma are still performed by old men to the accompaniment of various traditional instruments made from the horn of a kudu, called lepatata, and various bones.
As urbanisation and other factors constantly erode the traditional way of life, one of the privileges future generations will miss are fire-side stories told by grandparents. Known as mainane or dinaane, these captivating stories were usually related to grandchildren by their grandmothers in the evenings as the family passed time together after the evening meal.
The stories were related by grandparents who in turn had heard them from their own grandparents and other elderly members of the tribe. Many of the stories were about giants, mythical animals like kgogomodumo (a mythical bird), maruarua (whales), the rabbit and its wisdom, the fox and its cunning tricks, the weak defeating the mighty, and many others.
It is interesting that the Botswana folklore covers, amongst others, animals such as whales, which are not found anywhere in the land-locked country. Could the stories be going back to the times when Botswana had a sea? Were the mythical birds such as kgogomodumo some kind of dinosaurs? Research might reveal an interesting link between the stories and other ages.
Food and Selected Dishes
Botswana's semi-arid climate limits the range of crops. However, there is an abundant variety in the market, either grown locally under irrigation or imported from neighbouring countries. Sorghum and maize are the main staple crops. In addition there is a wide variety of beans and other food crops.
Botswana's small population and abundant land has enabled the country to become a leading producer of high quality beef from naturally raised cattle. Lamb, mutton, chicken and other types of meat are also readily available.
Sorghum, maize, millet, wheat, rice, as well as other types of cereals which are not grown locally are readily available.
There are numerous types of beans readily available such as cow peas, ditloo, letlhodi and groundnuts.
Commercially grown vegetables such as spinach, carrots, cabbage,
onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and others are readily available.
In addition, watermelons, which are widely believed to have originated from Botswana, are abundant during the right season. There is also another variety of melon, known locally as lerotse or lekatane, which is used in various ways and to complement several local dishes. Other types of melons grow wild, particularly in the sandy desert areas, and are an important water and food source for inhabitants of those areas.
Some vegetables which grow in the wild are unfortunately only available seasonally. The latter, the most popular of which are rothwe and thepe, are a welcome addition to the national dishes. Dried bean leaves are also a favourite national dish.
In a good rainy season, there are usually plenty of fruits and tubers, which are a good food source for both man and animal alike. In many parts of Botswana, the following can be harvested seasonally: Moretlwa, Morula, Morama, Motsotsojane, Mmupudu, Kgengwe, Serowa.
However, due to the increasing human population and general environmental degradation, some fruit trees and tubers are slowly disappearing.
Beef is a national favourite and is consumed in large quantities, particularly during weddings and other ceremonies. Goat meat, another national favourite, is followed, in terms of popularity, by free-range chicken and lamb. River fish is also available amongst communities which live along or near rivers.
Drinks and Beverages
A good number of soft drinks and alcoholic beverages is factory-produced in Botswana. The latter include brands such as Castle, Lion and other lagers. Besides the above, milk is readily available. Milk is also fermented and drained to make madila (sour milk), which is a favourite additive to porridge. Madila can also be eaten on its own.
A non-alcoholic home-made drink, Ginger, is a national favourite which is often used in big ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The main ingredients are ground ginger, tartaric acid, cream of tartar and sugar, and it is usually flavoured with pineapple, raisins, or fresh oranges.
There are various traditionally-produced alcoholic drinks. Bojalwa ja Setswana (the beer of Batswana) is brewed from fermented sorghum seeds. Other tribes, like Bakalanga, use lebelebele (millet). A commercially produced and packaged beer, Chibuku, brewed from either maize or sorghum, is a favourite drink particularly in the villages, towns, and in some parts of the city. Chibuku is also brewed in some neighbouring countries such as Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Khadi, which is brewed from various ingredients, the healthiest of which is wild berries, is also a widely consumed alcoholic drink amongst the low income groups, in particular.
There are also a number of other local brews with a remarkably high alcohol content. Although consumption of these is not prohibited by law, they can significantly compromise the health of those who consumers. The most lethal, known as tho-tho-tho, is distilled from a sorghum concoction and can have over 80% alcohol content. Others, which are brewed over-night from mostly yeast and sugar combinations, have such a high alcohol content that they go by ominous names such as o lala fa (you sleep right here!), chechisa (hurry-up!), laela mmago (say good bye to your mother), monna-tota (real man), motse o teng godimo (there is home in heaven), and so forth. Other less harmful brews are made from wild fruits such as morula. They are, however, very seasonal.
Selected Dishes and Beverages
The most popular meat dishes are: seswaa, serobe, chicken, oxtail, segwapa, and barbecue beef.
Seswaa, also known as Chotlho, is the most popular traditional meat dish which is enjoyed in most ceremonies. Meat is cooked (usually by men) in three-legged cast iron pots, then chopped up with a sizeable wooden spoon until it is soft. Only salt and water are added to the dish and any other spices would be 'taboo'.
Another popular dish is serobe. The intestines and selected internal parts of a goat, sheep or cow are cleaned and cooked (together with the trotters, in the case of sheep or goat). They are then chopped up into small pieces and cooked once again until they reach the right consistency.
The traditionally grown chicken is generally considered to be much better tasting than a commercially grown one. Cooking atraditional chicken for a visitor is a memorable demonstration of hospitality towards the person.
The chicken also makes an excellent mofago (food provision for a long journey). Except for occasional chilli pepper, the chicken is cooked with only salt and water. Cooking the chicken over open fire in a three-legged cast iron pot gives it the best taste.
Oxtail cooked in various ways is also one of the favourite meat dishes.
Because of the abundance in Botswana of various types of good quality meat, beef barbecue and sun-dried beef (segwapa) are favourite forms of food for entertainment. The segwapa snack goes very well with alcoholic drinks.
Bogobe (Porridge) Dishes
The basic way of cooking bogobe (porridge) is to add the main ingredient, sorghum, maize or millet flour, into boiling water and to stir the mixture into a semi-soft paste. It is then left to cook slowly. There are,however, various ways of giving the bogobe (porridge) an unforgettable taste as follows:
- Fermented sorghum or maize meal porridge, known as ting, is a popular dish as part of breakfast. It is usually made lighter with milk, and sugar added if it is for breakfast. The heavier version of ting is taken with meat and sometimes with vegetables as a lunch or dinner meal.
- Other favourite ways of preparing bogobe include cooking it with sour milk with a cooking melon (lerotse), or in a combination of sour milk and lerotse. The dish is known as tophi by the Kalanga tribe.
Dikgobe / Lehata (mixed beans)
The dish is a mixture of beans cooked with maize or sorghum or samp (processed maize). Other ingredients are salt, a bit of fat or oil. It can be taken with fresh milk or meat dishes.
The traditional favourite vegetables are cooked and dried bean leaves and two wild vegetables known as rothwe and thepe. Because the three vegetables are only found during the rainy season, they are collected, cooked, salted, dried and stored for use during the dry season. Other traditional delicacies are delele, another wild vegetable, and pumpkin leaves.
There are various ways of preparing the dried vegetables but the most common is to add cooking oil, tomatoes, onions, ground peanuts, hot pepper or other spices to the soaked and boiled vegetable.
Other vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, and so forth are prepared as side dishes for the main bogobe (porridge) dish.
Although bread flour is not part of the staple diet, it has been imported and used in Botswana for a very long time. There are therefore various bread recipes that Botswana can claim as part of its national dishes. The basic ingredients for bread dishes are bread flour, baking powder or yeast, salt, and sometimes sugar.
The most common bread dishes are matemekwane (dumplings), mmasekuku (firewood cooked), diphaphatha (flat cakes),and magwinya (fat cakes). In each case, bread flour is prepared into a dough which is divided up into sizeable cake portions which are then cooked. Each dish will take a different name, like those above, depending on the style of cooking, such as boiling with meat, or in hot oil, baking in charcoal or firewood, and the shape of the cakes.
1. Slice 2kg beef (rump) and cut into 3 x 10 cm pieces.
2. Put the meat in a pot and add water to cover, then boil for two hours over a low flame.
3. Pound the meet with a wooden spoon and season with salt.
4. Serve with rice or maize.
Mogatla (Oxtail Casserole)
- Small oxtail sliced
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Stock cube
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. Brown oxtail in a little oil and set aside.
2. Sauté onions in remaining oil until soft. Add tomatoes, garlic and tomato paste to the onions and mix together.
3. Put the ox tail in a medium sized pot, add water, the stock cube and the tomato mixture.
4. Cover and simmer until meat is tender. Add salt and pepper at the end.
5. Dumplings (recipe below) can be added 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
- 6 cups plain flour
- Pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 1 cup warm water
1. Mix all the above ingredients together to make a fairly stiff dough. Knead well for about 2-3 minutes.
2. Cover the dough and let it stand in a warm place until almost doubled in size.
3. Knead and divide into 10-12 balls.
4. Put dumplings on top of the oxtail casserole 30 minutes before the end of cooking time. Cover and let it cook until done.