PALAPYE: It is break time at Ratsie Setlhako Primary School in Boikago ward, Palapye and school children are busy playing an assortment of games clearly not oblivious to the fact that their school has been named after one of the greatest man this country has ever produced, Ratsie Setlhako.
"I was the one who helped locate Ratsie Setlhako's grave so that a tombstone could be erected on it and when government wanted to build a new primary school, I insisted that it should be named after Ratsie Setlhako so as to appreciate the contribution that he made in this country," says one of the village elders, Otaata Shashane.
Palapye is undoubtedly, the adopted village of segaba-player, Ratsie Setlhako, whose name is synonymous with Setswana traditional folk music.He captivated both the young and the old belonging to different generations and today, the artist inhabits the lofty place occupied by some legendary folk music artists such as; Gaotswesepe Robalang, Ndona Poifo, George Swabi, Malefho 'Stampore' Mokha, Taka 'Kwataeshwele' Baponi and Andries Bok among others. As with other illiterate people, it is hard to determine Ratsie Setlhako's date of birth, but one can safely assume that he was born in the 1890s because he belonged to the Ngwato mophato (age-regiment), Masokola inducted in 1912. "When Bangwato left (Old) Palapye for Serowe I was still a young boy," he said in a Radio Botswana interview and this further cements the assumption that he was born in the 1890s. The Bangwato left Old Palapye in 1902. As a matter of fact, the leader of the Masokola regiment, Gasebalwe Seretse* whom the artist mentioned in one of his song as one of his peers was born in 1891. According to author, Modirwa Kekwaletswe, who is also a leading authority on the life of the artist, his parents named him Ratsie after a locust invasion of the area. It is said that the people of GaMmagwato were so repulsed by the invading pest that in retaliation, they crushed the destructive insects and ate them presumably because they had eaten all their harvest. Literally translated, Ratsie means 'a man of locusts,' a fitting name for a baby born during a time of locust invasion. It has been suggested that he came from the village of Mokgware near Radisele where his family still lives. Ratsie Setlhako spent most of his youthful days herding the Khama cattle in Nata. It is clear that he was fond of the Khama family, more especially Sir Seretse Khama whom he refers to as 'morena Seretse,' (lord Seretse) in one of his songs. Since Ratsie Setlhako belonged to a poor family, he worked for the most part of his life as a herd-boy and it is widely believed that he learnt the art of segaba-playing during his days as a herd-boy.
It was commonplace among herd-boys to keep themselves busy while the cattle were grazing and Ratsie Setlhako must have learnt to play and mastered the instrument as a young man not aware that it would make him the legend that he is today. Ratsie Setlhako had a poetic voice that greatly complemented his segaba-playing skill.
So famous is this adoptive son of Palapye that one traveller actually told this writer that one day he heard the man's song being played on a British Airways aeroplane. Did the mostly non-Batswana passengers understand the man's music or were they attracted to it by the melodious singing and the skilful playing of the segaba? Some of the artist's famous songs include A Re Chencheng, Ka Mponwane and Matshwaro. Something that made Ratsie Setlhako outclass his peers was that he could, sing, recite poems and play the guitar in one song. Unfortunately, Ratsie Setlhako lived during an era when artists were not rewarded for their efforts so he lived and died a pauper.
He spent the twilight of his life in the village of Palapye where he used to perform at different drinking holes to earn himself a few cents that we squashed on liquor. Ratsie's story is not unique in the sense that many local folk musicians live and die paupers. According to Kekwaletswe, Ratsie was pencilled to perform at Botswana's 10th anniversary Independence Celebrations in 1976, when a car knocked him down and instantly killed him. He and his companions were leaving Barulaganye Mabengwa's homestead near Madiba ward in Palapye, when a van approached from the left. Naturally, Ratsie and his wife had had a few drinks. The common law wife, Gerelekane and a boy known as Mopati hurdled themselves against the thick moreomotlala (blue gum-tree) fence. Unfortunately, for the semi-blind Ratsie it was too late.
The writer notes that although, Ratise Setlhako's funeral in Palapye was attended by some high-profile people, it was a pauper's funeral. Sadly, his close relatives in Mokgware were not able to attend the funeral so needless to say, they didn't take part in the funeral proceeding. It is commonplace in Botswana for someone's lineage to be narrated at a funeral and had they been able to attend the funeral, they could have perhaps helped with tracing the history of this fine artist.
The relatives revealed in an interview with a local newspaper that they were not able to attend the funeral because the could not afford to travel to Palapye. Fortunately, Ratsie Setlhako sometimes mentioned parts of his history in his songs and this has greatly helped researchers.
It is safe to assume that at the time of his death, the artist was in his 80s. He was man born and named after trying times and led a difficult life which ended tragically. Unfortunately, there are a few photos of Ratsie available today and one of the photos portrays a grey-haired man looking intently at the segaba that he is playing. His etched face tells a hundred and one stories of the miseries and poverty that he faced on earth despite the great talent that he had.
Radio Botswana (now known as RB 1), must be commended for recording the music of this fine artist, more-especially former Radio Botswana worker, Batho Molema who worked tirelessly to preserve the music of the artist.
Fans of the RB1's Sunday morning programme, Dipina le maboko would concur that a programme that does not feature Ratsie is almost half-baked. Today, a number of artists have tried to emulate this great musical icon but sadly, they have mostly failed to come close to being the fine artist that he was.
*The late Gasebalwe Seretse is the author's grandfather