In my autobiography, The Magic of Perseverance, I introduce Chapter Six with an epigraph in the form of a quote attributed to Sir Seretse Khama, our founding President, to set the tone for what is to unfold. The quotes says, “A nation without a culture is a nation without a soul”.
Seretse’s exact words, uttered way back in 1970, were these: “We should write our own history books … because … a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.” Seretse alluded not to culture as such as his underlying premise but to our past, our history, and underscored the imperative of documenting this past through the agency of our own people and not through the prism of instinctually jaundiced outsiders. The substitution, in due course, of “history” with “culture” maybe was done in good faith, but it does not crisply drive home the point Seretse was trying to put across.
Seretse was not a historian: he was a trained lawyer-cum-politician. Yet he was aware of the centrality and paramountcy to a nation of being acutely cognisant of its past, without which it would forever be groping in the dark, without which it would be soul-less, meaning it would be without a definitive identity – without unique or peculiar attributes that set it apart from other nations. Sadly, that’s the anonymity into which we’re headed, if we’re not there yet as Seretse’s concern fell on stone-deaf ears. A case can be made that history as a discipline is not only looked at with scorn by the relevant authorities in the structures of government: it’s verging on near-irrelevance. It’s like there’s a systematic and concerted effort on the part of the powers that be to plot into total oblivion the knowledge of our antecedents as if that smacks of treachery or perfidy of some sort.
Why an understanding of history is key
Why is a study of a nation’s history crucial and pivotal to national aspirations? Granted, I could posit a whole catalogue of reasons, but I will only proffer a handful.
History is the ultimate frame of reference in this pilgrimage we call life. It is the compass that helps us navigate the labyrinths, turbulences, snares and other such atrocious terrains of life. If you do not know your history, you will never know how far back your roots reach and therefore will define yourself only parochially and subjectively. You will never know how and why you find yourself in your present existential station within the larger vista of the human ecosystem and whether the direction you are headed is indeed the right one in the greater scheme of things. You’ll simply be drifting along, going with the flow without a proper grasp of your grand purpose in life, even if you may be under the illusion that you are actually the very master of your destiny.
The great African-American writer and author of the once highly acclaimed fact-based novel Roots, Alex Haley, knew the criticality of a reasonable degree of familiarity with his past. Although he was born and bred in the relative utopia that is the US, he still felt a huge identity void and over 12 years of research and intercontinental travel retraced his roots back to his motherland, Africa, where he discovered and reconnected with his kinsmen in a country known as The Gambia. It is these living links with his West African ancestry going back six generations who helped him fill the jigsaw of exactly how he ended up a denizen of America – through the capture of a certain Kunta Kinte, who was torn from his homeland and shipped off to the state of Maryland in the US, where he was sold as a slave in 1767. His book was seminal: it led to a cultural sensation in the US and a radically new mindset on the part of African-Americans as to who they exactly were and how they should henceforth chart their destiny as a demographic.
Our own people take it for granted that Botswana is such an oasis of peace, that it is so economically buoyant by the standards of the Third World, and that democratic governance and the rule of law hold more sway than despotic impulses. Once again, this is all rooted, by and large, in our age-old cultural institutions such as the Kgotla system, which had the dichotomous aspect of regnal absolutism and a pluralistic tolerance of the commoners’ viewpoint, and our innate predisposition as a race to be frugal and not extravagant. Economic prudence and a characteristically peace-loving bent on the part of Batswana are not recently nurtured virtues: they are for practical purposes integral to our genetic make-up. Of course we have over the years seen the emergence of a level of
Popular history must be righted
Returning to classical history, is whatever is taught in the halls of academia forcefully punctuated or underlined? To what extent are efforts made to see to it that certain misconceptions or seeming ambiguities do not hold or are clarified?
For example, why do most Batswana continue to cling to the erroneous position that The Three DiKgosi went to England to ask for British protection when the fact of the matter was that the protectorate – or a profaketorate as I call it – had been imposed on us, suddenly and unheralded, by the British government a decade earlier in 1885 and that the object of The Three DiKgosi’s mission was to register their revulsion at the planned handover of our country to Cecil John Rhodes? Why does the name Khama III straightaway ring a bell to practically every Motswana when that of Sechele, the earliest and most impactful defender of Tswana sovereignty at a time when both the Boers and Anglo-Saxons were intent at strong-arming us into their sphere of influence, rarely strikes a chord? Why does almost every youngster who has done history keep asserting that Khama III was instrumental in “protecting us from the Boers” when it was Sechele who did that at a time when Khama III was a mere teenager?
Newer lights of knowledge must be taken into account
I also note to my dismay that our historians don’t seem to be that keen to give history a re-look in light of newer insights that have emerged regarding our origins as the Tswana race and certain of our totemic dogmas that we have all along taken as gospel truth.
Mmegi newspaper columnist LM Leteane has demonstrated, with awe-inspiring originality, that Setswana is actually a primeval language that go back to the Sumerian civilisation of 6,000 years ago. It explains why Leteane is able to understand and interpret the Sumerian records much more sensibly and convincingly than scholars who trained in the swashbuckling, Ivy League institutions of the Western world. I appeal to our historians and other academics, including those in the scientific fields, to reach out to and compare notes with this remarkable, phenomenally gifted man. The local media, both public and private, should also demonstrate a readiness and keenness to provide a forum for profound historical motions as adduced by such percipient, self-driven pundits of history as Leteane.
All hands must be on deck
If our history is not being effectually embedded in the value orientations of our people, the reason for this tragedy, as I deem it, are legion. They include the indifference on the part of Government itself, which seems to relegate history to the very margins of curricula imperatives; the apathy of the private sector; the corruption of Western acculturation, which is more pervasive today than it was in yesteryears; the tendency to adhere to syllabi that have outlived their shelf life; and the lack of drive on the part of our major university to acquire its own printing press.
In many African societies, the respect for and deference to fallen heroes not only is paramount but palpable. In our case too, kowtowing to the expressed wishes of our leading lights who have long departed the stage must take precedence over everything else.
As such, let us in heed of this moral shine the spotlight on Sir Seretse Khama’s concern and accordingly set about embracing and promoting our history with the zest and gusto he envisaged.
Trust me folks, the socio-economic and political challenges that currently beset us as a nation would be overcome, not necessarily in one fell swoop but incrementally. History would be made and we would become a truly united and proud nation.
*The above is an abridged version of the lecture David Magang gave as part of the University of Botswana’s ongoing lecture series. Magang, a former Cabinet minister, is also a lawyer and founder/chairman of Phakalane Estates