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Walking in the footsteps of Ngwaketse conquerors

An era of territorial and cultural expansion and subjugation dating back to the entry of Ba-Ngwaketse into southern Botswana nearly 300 years ago, lies preserved in the ruins of a stone-walled capital near Kanye. Researchers are partnering with the local community to resurrect the site and unlock value for current and future generations. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

A gravel road leads northwest from Moshana Village, from where a donkey-cart path branches off at a gentle northwards angle. On a ridge alongside the Moshana River, a two-kilometre hike takes you to rocky terrain, the unspoilt savanna typical of areas bordering masimo.

 Right before you are the ruins of numerous stone walled structures, built without the use of mortar around 1790 and spreading over a massive area that was once the capital of Ba-Ngwaketse. The ruins lie on the foothills of nearby low-lying hills.

 Nowadays, besides the wildlife, the only signs of life are herdsmen and their livestock. In fact, herdsmen play an important part of this story, having been amongst the first to report sighting the ruins as they led their cattle through. The cattle also play a critical story, as their grazing keeps the grass low enough to view the ruins, unlike other sites which have been choked out of sight – and perhaps out of history – by the bushveld. 

The capital, known as Makolontwane, is unique in being the only known stone ruins located on communal land. The other Ngwaketse capitals stretching to Lobatse where the morafhe first ventured into southern Botswana, are located on private farms and not easily accessible to the general public. Makolontwane has emerged as one of the most exciting projects for local historians and archaeologists, providing a unique opportunity to match oral history with physical evidence and piece together a more complete picture of tribal interactions in 18th century southern Botswana.

 Even more exciting, the project to research and restore Makolontwane to its previous glory holds the promise of a knowledge enterprise for Moshana villagers, as an initiative is underway to establish heritage tourism around the ruins. A local trust committee established for the heritage project is already dreaming of hiking trails, picnics, tours and other activities led by the Moshana community and built on the restored piece of history. The research project is the result of collaboration between the Botswana Society, Moshana Village Development Trust and the National Museum. The venture is funded by the National Environmental Fund and the Society’s own pockets.

 Research by Professor Fred Morton of the University of Botswana’s Department of History indicates Makolontwane was one of five capitals built by early Ngwaketse leader, Kgosi Moleta who ruled roughly between 1770 and 1790. Most of the capitals were located in the hills running south between Lobatse and Kanye and beyond. “Moleta lived at five settlements, Seoke, near Lobatse, where he inherited office, Pitsa eight kilometres away, Makolontwane on the slopes of the hills north of Moshaneng fifty kilometres northwest of Pitsa, the flat and stoneless Mhakane (Mabule) on the Molopo River and Setlhabatshane, where he died,” reads a paper authored by Morton and Dr Stefania Merlo, an Italian archaeologist resident at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Morton’s research suggests that under Kgosi Moleta, the Ngwaketse established themselves as the area’s conquerors, with the ability to raid, gather stock and defend from recapture. The hilly capitals were perfect for “sequestering large quantities of stolen stock, primarily cattle, in stone-wall cattle posts”. 

Today, we join Morton and members of the local Village Development Committee, to make the climb from the donkey-cart path to Makolontwane, the sprawling stone complex of numerous ruin structures. 

The seemingly endless bushveld deceives you into believing there is nothing but stubborn grass and thorn bushes out here. With every step, you expect to come across the ruins and with every step, that anticipation is doused.

 Roughly a kilometre after starting up, a rocky outcrop suddenly gives way to a spectacular view. Numerous stone walled structures, many clearly designed as residences and others as kraals, suddenly appear. From endless bushveld, you literally stumble upon the stone capital and at that moment, it appears the structures are everywhere your eyes can see. Morton and the VDC members have been here numerous times before, but the look of excitement and pride on their faces is unmistakable. 

“We didn’t know it existed although bagolo (elders) had heard something

about it,” VDC chair, Carah Rakgomo tells me, as we balance from rock to rock on our hike.

“There was not much interest in the area, in fact it was the Prof who said this place has much value. In fact, the herdsmen first saw it, but they also never thought there was value.”

 Rakgomo says a recent Kgotla meeting held to update villagers on the project was characterised by rapturous applause.  “Everyone is very excited to learn more about this history and to see us revive this area. The Member of Parliament has already been briefed and he was here as well to see for himself.

“We are thinking of mountain biking, picnics, shelters, campsite and the sale of local arts and crafts here.” Two young custodians from the village have been appointed for the project. The two, one formerly employed by a bank and the other a former UB student, will soon undergo training to empower them to become Makolontwane’s first guides. 

Already, the two young men enthusiastically point out items of interest to us and share their eagerness to see Makolontwane fully resurrected and thriving again.

It is easy to imagine Makolontwane re-animated from rock ruins to life. While Kgosi Moleta chose the area for strategic purposes, Makolontwane is also aesthetically stunning. The unspoilt bushveld set on the ridge provides a panoramic view of the surrounding valley, hills and countryside, allowing you for a second, to step into Kgosi Moleta’s shoes and imagine him surveying his capital and watching out for enemies. While the community is understandably excited about the cultural revival taking place at Makolontwane, the hard work is only just beginning for Morton and other researchers.

 Already, the team has found evidence of ten iron mines in the area, clay asbestos pots, steel chisels, decorated pottery and others. The area is alive with material and as we walk, Rakgomo picks up and examines shards of pottery, before returning them to exactly where he found them. 

“This is a historical site that we can identify from oral tradition as having existed during the time of specific chiefs,” Morton says.“The archaeological evidence and dating will help us firm up the time when it was built. “The evidence may show different types of cultures that were absorbed by Ba-Ngwaketse.

“The idea is to develop this site for archaeology but also develop it as a tourism destination because of its beauty and hand it over to the people of Moshana Village. Hopefully, if we are successful, we can use this model on other sites around the country.”  Morton and his team are eager to begin work on several middens that are clearly evident in the ruins. Middens are old dumps for domestic waste which may contain animal bone, botanical material, shells, pottery, artefacts and others associated with past human occupation.

 “From the midden you can see what the people at the time ate or their diet, which in turn tells you whether they were hunters or crop farmers. You can see their culture from the pottery and beads in the middens and trace the influence or interaction they had with other cultures.

“At Seoke, for instance, we found beads from India and because we know when these beads were made in India, we can estimate the time that Ba- Ngwaketse traded for these beads.

“Middens are little goldmines.” 

Leaving Makolontwane and returning to Moshaneng, we find the village in a buzz. Villagers are gathered to arrange and engage in various works associated with government’s poverty alleviation programmes.

 Poverty is a way of life for many in Moshana village, which has little economic activity apart from a few government posts and the local quarry, formerly an asbestos mine. A Statistics Botswana report classified 988 of the 1,627 villagers as “poor” in 2010 and the evidence is clear. It is therefore ironic that hope should rise from dead stones.

The Makolontwane ruins present an opportunity for the community to reignite pride in its heritage and become custodians of an income generating, sustainable asset.




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