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The Orphan And The Ants – Part 2 Modimo Wa Kgale

JEFF RAMSAY
We last left off noting that, in the context of the legend of Matsieng’s emergence at Lowe’s cave, local Sotho-Tswana communities were united by a common origin oath to the lord of the lower world, Tintibane, who was otherwise known as “Ngwana wa Modimo le Mafatshe” (“the child of the Supreme God and of Earth”).

The descendents of Matsieng, generally merafe that would in more modern times be aggregated with the labels Bakgalagari (Bakgalalgadi) and Western Batswana, prayed for Tintibane’s intervention through the mediums of Lowe and/or Thobega-a-Phatswa. The later, identified in his youthful manifestation as Thibela, became immortal after marrying Tintibane’s daughter Mmape. Thereafter, he assumed the status as Lowe’s gatekeeper.

In paying homage to Tintibane, generations of Batswana and Bakgalagari thus affirmed their own status as indigenous occupiers of the ground of Matsieng and Masilo. In this context, Lowe’s cave remained, at least until recently, a place of pre-Christian pilgrimage. Early missionaries and other 19th century European visitors also spoke of its significance. 

Coupled with modern archaeological evidence, which shows continuity in southern African settlement patterns across the centuries, the folklore surrounding legendary figures such as Matsieng runs very much counter to the debilitating counter-myth that black Africans, the so-called Bantu, are relatively recent arrivals in the Southern Africa region.  The origins of the colonial era turned Bantu Education distortion, which sadly survives to this day in crude classroom teaching about the so-called “Bantu Migration” can found in the 1905 tome “A History Of The Intrusion Of The Hottentots And Bantu Into The Hunting Grounds Of The Bushmen, The Aborigines Of The Country” by George William Stow, as posthumously and extensively edited by the George McCall Theal. As asserted in its preface, it was this book that first established the argument that “the Bushmen alone were the true aborigines of the country [south of the Zambezi] and that all stronger races without exception were mere intruders.”

Beyond material evidence of long term continuity and incremental change over the last 2,000 or so years, Stow’s notion that the Cape Khoe as well as the Sotho-Tswana and other Southern Bantu language communities were recent arrivals is rendered all but absurd by even the most modest appreciation of the depth and diversity local heritage as embedded in language and oral culture. This includes what knowledge survives of the region’s pre-Christian cosmology along with its people’s ancient myths and legends.

Before the coming of Christianity Batswana, along with other Sotho-Tswana speaking communities, already believed in a supreme God, whom they knew as “Modimo wa medimo, Modimo wa go tinelela, Modimo wa magodimo” (“God of gods, the invisible God, the God of the heavens”).  Throughout much of Eastern as well as Southern Africa this indigenous concept of a singular supreme deity can be found

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in the collective cosmology of other Bantu language communities, being known by such variations on the name as “Mudzimu” , “Muzimu” , “Musimo” , “Mzimu” , “Molimo” and “Elimu”. Without definite gender, the Modimo of old could be alternately identified as both a mother and father figure. Modimo was further understood as the infinite creator or “Motlhodi” and thus described as the one without ancestry, having no beginning or end (“o sena lotso, ga ona pele le morago”). Although Modimo has been commonly associated with being physically located above (fa godimo) others, when the early missionaries co-opted the name they were told that it was connected with the now archaic verb “go dima”, which was translated as to pass or penetrate through something.

An early Motswana evangelist, Maphakela Lekalake, demonstrated this concept to a missionary colleague, the Rev. John Brown, by dropping oil on a blotting paper. Turning the paper over, he showed how the oil had passed through, further noting that in the past as the present Modimo was he who permeated all things.

Modimo was also known by other names which further described her/his many qualities, such as Montshi (Giver), Modiri (Maker), and Mothei (Founder). These titles set Modimo apart from the medimo, or lesser deities, such as Tintibane, as well as the badimo or ancestral spirits. As such s/he was the ultimate source of royal authority: Ntlha ya kgosi e iwa ke Modimo. As with the ancient Semitic numerology found in the Bible, the pre-Christian Modimo was linked with the number seven. The traditional taboo against pointing one’s seventh finger at someone is said to have been a testament to this fact.

Further roots of Modimo can be found in the relative handful of surviving pre-Christian prayers and hymns. With the beginning of Missionary influence, many came to share a common opening verse: Medimo e mesha e rapelela Modimo wa kgale (New gods, pray for us to the God of old). The following example was said during hard times:

Modimo wa borara, Ke letse ke sa ja, Ke letse le tlala, Ba bangwe ba jele, Ba letse ba kgotse, Leha ele montsho, Le sekomenyana, Nka itumela, Ke bitsa Modimo, Borraro namagola (God of my forefathers, I lie down hungry, though others have eaten, and lie down full. Even if it is but a polecat, or a little rock rabbit, I shall rejoice, I pray to God, Father of my ancestors).



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