Today marks the 125th anniversary of the death of the Bakwena Kgosi Sechele I, whose passing coincided with the birth of a great grandson: Kelebantshe-a-Kealeboga, the future Kgosi Sebele II, as well as the death also in Molepolole of the Bakaa Kgosi, Mosinyi.
Perhaps with an element of hindsight, it has been said that the death of the great Mokwena was accompanied by foreboding signs. A certain Rangwadi prophesied that the end of the dynasty.
Songs of doom were also sung. One of these, “Diremogolo,” spoke of a white man who shouted at the land and would come to steal Bogosi jwa Bakwena. Another song, “Rasekete,” alluded to impending internal divisions, its chorus telling of a kgosi who dies in possession of fine black and white cattle, which then grew grey and developed dangerous horns.
As news of the death spread through Molepolole women invaded the kgotla at Kgosing crying: “Our king is dead, where shall we flee?”
Thereafter, the late Kgosi’s brother Kgosidintsi convened a Pitso ya Lebya where the men gathered to formally sanction the succession of Sechele’s heir, Kgosi Sebele I.
Lebya is a stone or clay mortar in which were fired medicines to strengthen the new kgosi, who would then in turn use the contents to doctor his brothers based on their putative ranking.
At the ceremony, other medicines were boiled in large clay pots and sprayed on all in attendance by a ngaka using an animal tail whisk.
Sechele’s other sons, including Sebele’s half brother, Kgari who would subsequently laid claim to the throne, along with the rest of the Pitso reportedly accepted their medicine, though some with a notable lack of enthusiasm (from the opening stanza of Leboko la ga Sebele I):
“Motshatsha mogakatsa mala, More mojewa o Botlhoko, Mokgalo o botlhoko, monna, Rrapholotshega; Jaana o godile o fetwa fela, O ka jewa ke monna o ka moshomola legano, Mme re o atla fela, re o epile; Ga fela bo-shokgo, bo-magorometsa.”
[“Noxious herb that inflame the bowels, medicine that’s bitter when eaten, the buffalo-thorn is bitter, Rapholostshega; Now, having grown it is even worse, if eater by someone it can injure your mouth; but we just take it having dug it up; other kinds of medicine are finished.”]
Although the location of Sechele’s secret burial site, as well as the distribution of the royal cattle gave rise to internal disputes, outwardly the morafe presented a united front, as reflected accounts and photo of Sebele’s elaborate installation ceremony.
Following the end of the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53, Sechele remained the most important political leader in Botswana, while his followers enjoyed an era of relative peace and prosperity.
There was also an expansion of new activities such as transport riding and, after 1867, cash remittances from the Kimberly area diamond mines.
By 1874, eastern Kweneng’s population had risen to some 65,000, many of whom were refugees from the Transvaal. Prior to Sechele’s founding of modern Molepolole as his capital in 1864, most of his subjects had lived closely together in the Dithejwane hills surrounding his fortress at Dithubaruba.
Thereafter, Molepolole rivalled the Bangwato centre at Shoshong as the region’s leading commercial centre. Although there were virtually no elephants left in Kweneng, ivory remained a major trade commodity.
Every year Sechele organised hunting parties to shoot elephant in the Chobe region. Outsiders also sold their ivory in Molepolole which, by the 1870s, was a base for six trading companies.
Leading Bakwena also profited by selling ostrich feathers, which were mostly brought to Molepolole as tribute from Bakgalagadi and Khoe communities in the Kgalagadi sandveld. Many karosses or wild animals skins were also acquired and traded in this way. Some Bakwena became skilled kaross sewers, and their products were exported as far away as Europe and North America.
The mid-19th century boom allowed at least some Bakwena, as well as others in the region, to enjoy a degree of wealth that would not be duplicated by many of their children or grandchildren. Molepolole’s leading ladies arrived for Sunday services with layers of petticoats under their dresses and imported Tyrolese hats, while their men donned coats and ties.
For his part the Kgosi, who in his impoverished youth had “lived just like a Mokgalagadi”, now resided in a fine European-style home whose drawing room was dominated by a large crystal chandelier. His dining table boasted fine china, silver, and white linen.
There, dressed in his dinner jacket, he would regularly entertain foreign guests for high tea or dinner. With respect to the latter, banquets of wild foul, venison or beef could be served with Worchester sauce, curry, mixed pickles and canned sardines. Such meals were accompanied by brandy with soda water from an in-house fountain and bread baked from flour sourced at the Kgosi’s irrigated wheat field.
Between the Diamond Fields and the Zambezi no other monarch could match Sechele in strategic ambition, as well as the cosmopolitan refinement of his court.