A brief history of motshelo

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Economic diversification has always been a key priority for the sustenance of living standards for many Batswana, even before money became the primary currency of exchange.

In the decades before the economic miracles brought on by the discovery of diamonds and coal, Batswana engaged in cooperative societies commonly known as ‘motshelo’ as a way of helping each other and promoting individual standards of living. 

The elderly used to engage in ‘motshelo’ during the ploughing season where they would take turns helping each other plough fields or harvest. In those days, the host would provide food and traditional beer at a low cost as a way of returning the favour.

As the years progressed and money became the driving force for many households, the traditional motshelo model evolved as Batswana innovated in order to supplement their requirements.

This innovation gave birth to the mushrooming of many other types of metshelo with ‘fancy’ names at times such as the “food top-up’ and “kitchen top up” where kitchenware is bought and exchanged, as well as many others.

However, in this era, the most popular offshoot from the traditional motshelo was the “burial society” which came into full bloom in the early 1960s and 70s when funerals became increasingly expensive for many households.

They became the “in thing” back in the days as families came together to help each other in times of need. Burial societies met under the common goal of helping each other bury loved ones by contributing either food, money or just helping hands.

The economic miracle occasioned by diamond mining resulted in a form of social upheaval characterised by rural urban migration as well as the formation of a class structure where once societies were near egalitarian.

More salaried individuals meant greater demand in growing urban societies, as well as greater financial sophistication in terms of individuals’ tastes in services and goods. Some critics have said the transformation from the agrarian economy to a mining-led one also marked the transformation of simple Botswana to a materialistic society.

This was also reflected in the direction metshelo took, as they further evolved into a demi-world, operating below formal banking structures but offering higher earnings, charging stiffer interests and carrying greater risks.

Today, the loan motshelo is one of the most popular, while the traditional one associated with helping in the fields is slowly fading away. However, the notion of motshelo remains culturally embedded psychologically for most Batswana.

Editor's Comment
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