A Brief History of Botswana
The ‘Bushmen’ of Botswana (all the three groups of the Bantu, San and Khoi) originated in the north of Africa and migrated to the south with the Bantu being the first settlers in the Cape area in South Africa in 300 A.D., later followed by the San and Khoi. They were at one point spread over most of Africa, as evidenced in the rock paintings found across the continent. The San were the original inhabitants of Botswana after they were driven out of the Cape area, and they were then followed by the Khoi and Bantu speakers.
Some pockets of Tswana speakers decided to move northwards from the Cape in the 14th century. They came with agricultural, iron-working practices and a different dialect. The San and the Khoi immediately sensed the superiority of the new settlers because they (the Bushmen) still used simple stone-aged technology compared to those more advanced tools owned by the Tswana. This factor contributed to the Bushmen retreating into the Kalahari Desert, a spot not considered the choicest in the region.Wars broke out in the area around the 17th century over trading, land and power which culminated in what is known as the Difaqane, or the ‘break up’ of the Tswana people.
These wars were the major turning point in the region and in the history of the Tswana.
Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries Tswana groups evolved and different tribes were established. Amongst these was the Bamangwato tribe which was led by Khama the Great, an early convert to Christianity among his people through the influence of the London Missionary Society. Born in 1837 at Mosu, a place of historical significance near Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, where there are Khama ruins now, Khama the Great (sometimes called Khama the Good) built a united Botswana nation by bringing together many other Tswana tribes.
Khama the Great was later to seek protection together with other Tswana chiefs Bathoen and Sebele from the British in 1885, as the Tswana were attacked by the Boers and Ndebele. Britain obliged, and Botswana became a British Protectorate on March 31, 1885, under the name ‘Bechuanaland’. The northern part of Botswana was put under direct administration of the British while the southern part of Botswana became a part of the Cape Colony, a part of the North West province of South Africa. It was intended that the southern part of Botswana would later be incorporated into the union of South Africa as a plan to bring together the main British colonies in the region.
Cecil John Rhodes of the British South Africa Company was to be the beneficiary of this incorporation. But the three Tswana Chiefs did not trust Rhodes and sought protection from the British. An agreement was made, with the Tswana conceding some land for Rhodes’ railway.
However, Rhodes attacked settlers of the Transvaal area in what is referred to as the Jameson Raid, which angered the British who decided to change their minds on the incorporation plan.
Further, after South Africa formed a union state in 1910, conducted elections in 1948, subsequently instituted apartheid, and withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, the British made up their minds that Botswana would not be incorporated into South Africa. Simultaneously, the complete refusal by the Batswana [‘Batswana’ is the name of the people of Botswana], represented by their chiefs, to be part of South Africa proved to be the major factor in keeping Botswana from being incorporated into their southern neighbor. Instead, the British themselves continued to govern the Protectorate for the next 70 years.
In 1964 Botswana made further proposals to be an independent state. Once again, Britain obliged, and Botswana began to form a democratic self-government, at which point the country’s name changed from Bechuanaland to Botswana. Since the seat of government for Bechuanaland was in Mafikeng South Africa, it had to be moved to a place in Bechuanaland, and Gaborone was eventually chosen as the more suitable to be the capital. So, in 1965 the seat was moved to the newly established Gaborone capital.
The Botswana constitution, drawn in 1965, led to the first general elections and subsequently to independence on the 30th September 1966. Political parties were formed, and Seretse Khama of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) became the country’s first president in the first political elections conducted in 1965. Khama, who studied law in Britain and married a Caucasian British woman, Ruth Williams, was grandson of Khama the Great and heir to the Bamangwato chieftainship.
Seretse Khama was re-elected twice and stayed president until he died in 1980. Quett Masire took over the presidency at the death of Khama and got re-elected three times in 1984, 1989 and 1994. In 1998 Masire retired from office and Festus Mogae took over and got re-elected twice in 1999 and 2004. Mogae also retired in April 2008 and handed over the presidency to Ian Khama, son of the first president. Ian Khama was elected in 2009 and is the current president of Botswana.[Adapted from KnowBotswana.com][i]
One of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, Botswana is approximately 70% Kalahari Desert, with a population of just over 2 million people, most of whom live along the eastern edge of the country from north to south. The economy is largely based in the diamond industry, with 62% of the countries’ product exports being not-mounted diamonds. Botswana also has the second highest AIDS rate in the world, with an estimated 1 in 6 people being infected with HIV. About 72% of Batswana identify themselves as Christians.
The first missionary to Botswana arrived in the mid-1800s. David Livingstone of the London Missionary Society (LMS), pushed north from Kuruman, Robert Moffat’s mission outpost in South Africa. Livingstone settled in Kolobeng in 1845, and was the first resident missionary in Botswana. It was from here that Livingstone famously observed “the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary had ever been.”[ii] Missionaries were to follow in Livingstone’s footsteps in the decades to come, and the influence of Christianity spread throughout the Tswana peoples. Kgosi (chief) Sechele of the Bakwena converted to Christianity through Livingstone’s influence, through which many other Bakwena did the same. By 1857 Robert Moffat had translated the Bible into Setswana, and it was around this time that Khama the Great became a Christian, making it the national religion of the Bamangwato people in 1875.
Many of the missionaries at this time made trade more accessible as they made forays deeper into territories unknown to Europeans. They were also critical of many of the traditional practices of the Tswana people, and pressured them into adopting European customs and styles of clothing. This benefited the traders who supplied the cloth and other materials for such modes of dress. Agricultural methods and equipment from Europe were also brought by the missionaries and the traders, who often found themselves in something of a symbiotic relationship. As Livingstone wrote, “wherever a missionary lives, traders are sure to come; they are mutually dependent and each aids the other.”[iii]
For good or ill, the missionaries had a great influence on Tswana culture by the early 20th century. As is noted in ‘Building a Nation: A History of Botswana from 1800 to 1910’: “All the Batswana dikgosi [chiefs] had adopted Christianity by 1910 and most of them long before that. Chiefs knew that missionaries brought many benefits with them if they were allowed to operate inside Batswana territory. Missionaries knew a lot about the white so they could explain and give advice to the Chiefs about how to deal with foreigners. Missionaries also encouraged trading and so brought economic benefits to the Batswana. They often brought valuable practical skills with them, whether in irrigation, construction, carpentry, blacksmithing or gun repair. Missionaries also knew how to read and write, and were usually willing to teach Batswana to do the same. So for these reasons, many dikgosi sent messages to the churches asking for a missionary if they did not have one.”[iv]Soon after the LMS settled in Botswana, other mission organizations spread into the territory as well. The Hermannsburg Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed Church, followed by the Catholic Church established themselves in Botswana, and remain there to this day. But by the 1890s, many Batswana began to break away from the mainline churches, which were largely controlled by the whites, in order to begin their own churches. Around 1900, the King Edward Bangwaketse Mission Church became the first African Initiated (also called ‘Independent’, or ‘Indigenous’) Church (AIC) in Botswana. Conflict abounded between the mainline churches, who established territories in which they operated and did not appreciate other denominations encroaching, as well as between the mainline churches and the AICs, who they sometimes saw as illegitimate or cultish. While the mainline churches eventually established themselves, the tensions between the mainline churches and the AICs have persisted through the decades.
Mennonites and the AICs
In June of 1974 Bishop Israel Motswasele of the Spiritual Healing Church of Botswana, one of the larger AIC churches, met with an Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM) delegation from North America in Gaborone to discuss the possibility of a partnership between the African Initiated Churches of Botswana and the Mennonites. For the previous few years, Bishop Motswasele had developed a relationship with the Mennonite Central Committee workers who had been serving in an agricultural capacity in Botswana, and through them the connection with AIMM was made. At this meeting, he articulately appealed to the delegation to help provide Bible training for his congregations, which even the leaders in his church had not had. He stated to them, “For years, now, we have been praying that the Lord would send us some people who would be willing to accept us as we are and to help us as we seek, as a Church, to serve our God. Is it possible that this day our prayer has been answered?”[v]
For the Mennonites, there were immediate questions. As one of the delegates, long-term missionary and historian Jim Bertsche writes, they questioned,
“Who are these Independent Church folk? Are they even Christian? What do they believe? What are their practices? Do we have any idea what this sort of involvement might get us into? If working with them in Botswana is such an opportunity, why has no one else already started to do so? What would we seek to accomplish? How would we approach them…as errant seekers needing correction or as fellow believers needing fuller understanding of the Scriptures?The biggest question of all was one that had to do with missiology. Was not Christian Mission first and above all else a call to evangelism and church planting? And as Mennonites, had it not been our objective for over sixty years to plant a Mennonite Church in Africa? So where, now, did the business of African Independent Churches fit into our role in Africa? If we decided to try to engage in ministry among them, what would be our objective? – – to seek to bring them into the Mennonite fold or simply to accept and affirm them as we find them while trusting joint study of Scripture to accomplish God’s intended work among them?”[vi]
Ultimately, the Mennonite leaders and the first missionaries who were sent, the Weavers, realized the necessity of the latter approach. As Bertsche writes, they decided that they “must approach the AICs not as their instructors but rather as fellow students of God’s Word who, with them, seek a better understanding of the Scriptures and what they have to say to both them and us about faith and life…” Bertsche later goes on,
“There was one more thing: we need to enter our ministry among the AICs fully prepared to allow them to remain who they are – – African Independent Churches, not Mennonite Churches. We owe it to them and to ourselves to work among them without ulterior motives. While we must be open about the North American Church which sends us and to which we have made deep commitments, we want to enable and to equip our students to better serve and lead their own churches. We are not coming to introduce yet another denomination amidst the already cluttered ecclesiastical landscape of Botswana in the mid-1970s nor are we coming to proselytize. We come in the name of Jesus to help them as best we can. And in the process, we are prepared also to learn from them.”[vii]
Beginning with the Weavers, the Mennonites of AIMM and their partnerships began developing relationships with the people of Botswana, largely through involvement in the AICs. This continued through subsequent missionaries who settled in different parts of Botswana, such as the Larsons, the Rempel-Boschmans, the Borns, the Bertsches, the Dirks, the Allison-Jones, and others. A common theme throughout the history of the Mennonites in Botswana has been an eagerness to learn from the AICs, and a subsequent mutual love and respect. The relationship between the Mennonites and the AICs remains to the present, with the continued hopes of searching the Bible together to come to a greater understanding of the person of Jesus, and the pursuit of a life reflecting his own, whether in North America or Botswana.
[i] “The Complete Story – History of Botswana.” http://www.knowbotswana.com/history-of-botswana.html.
[iii] J. Ramsay, B. Morton and T. Mgadla, “Building a Nation: A History of Botswana from 1800 to 1910,” 82.
[iv] Ramsay, 183.
[v] Jim Bertsche, “CIM/AIMM: A Story of Vision, Commitment and Grace,” 469-470.
[vi] Bertsche, 476.
[vii] Bertsche, 481.