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What Was It Like Before Independence?

SANDY GRANT
Fifty years ago, there was a part of the world, more territory than country, called the Bechuanaland Protectorate. It was difficult to reach from the outside world, and was known only as one of the poorest countries in the world and as a result of a famous recent inter-racial marriage.

That  ‘country’, the Protectorate, has  gone, having disappeared from the map of the world and been replaced by  the same place but with a different name, Botswana. Comparing the two is difficult.

There are some similarities, of course, but the differences are enormous.  A capital had recently been established in Gaborone but this was a town of mostly foreign civil servants. Few locals related to it because, never previously having had one, the very motion being unfamiliar and strange.

The two foreign towns, Bulawayo to the north and Mafikeng in the south were adjuncts to the country with the railways ‘towns’ Francistown and Lobatse acting as internal gateways. 

The main north-south road had been deepened by years of bush dragging so that parts turned into canals as soon as it rained. The ox wagon was in widespread use.  There were few cars, people preferring Chevs and Bedford trucks. It was customary to stop for those who had broken down. There were few garages. The people of the country were known either as Africans or identified by tribe and used either the British Pound or the South African Rand. There were no Batswana and there was little sense of national identity. The Chiefs had extensive powers and responsibilities. 

No meeting could be started and thus no decisions taken unless they were present.  The mixed train was used by everyone, the mail train by a privileged few. Local residents took advantage of the long stops at stations to leap on a train, stock up with beer from its bar, and then jump off again. The few hotels still tended to be used by resident whites who came in only five categories - District Commissioners, missionaries, traders, policemen and agricultural officers. Most lived in separate areas known as government camps.   There were no dentists, no resident lawyers and no professional hairdressers. Communication systems were rudimentary with hand cranked phones and party lines. People at one end of the country had little idea what was happening at the other.  There was virtually no industry, little business and no NGOs. Very few people had marketable skills – those in employment tending to be either lower category nurses or clerks.

A significant part of the population was always out of the country being engaged in various forms of migrant labour. 

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Offices of the two recruiting agencies, Wenela and the Native Recruiting Corporation were to be found in most population centres. The Catholic Church and Mission churches predominated. There were no apostolic or fire churches. Serowe and Kanye were said to be two of the largest villages in Africa and the BMC the most modern in the continent. People lived in replicated round houses made of local materials. There were no perimeter walls or burglar bars.  Crime was limited to cattle theft.  Many household items were made by hand. Electricity and piped water was non-existent, generators being owned only by a very few and everyone was dependent on boreholes for water, wells or seasonal pools. . The economy was cattle dependent and the country was frequently compared to the Argentine. Stamping of sorghum was a household routine, ‘kaffir’ beer was regularly made in the home. People were dependent for the food they ate on what they themselves produced.  Unrefined bogobe was a staple which was supplemented by seasonal wild vegetables and fruits. Gardens were non-existent. Milk was available only at the cattle post. In years of good rainfall, people were scattered at their lands and the villages were largely depopulated for many months of the year. There were no bars in the tribal areas, alcohol previously denied, to the general populace, becoming slowly available in shebeens where people drank nips, a half jack, a dop or a straight. 

There was no display of wealth – large herds of cattle being distant and out of sight -but much obvious poverty. Children were poorly clothed and frequently without shoes. There were numerous old men in ancient army great coats. Poverty was very evident in the townships in Francistown and Lobatse. 

The former was heavily racist and the latter was shamed by the BMC’s bloody effluent which collected in open pools. The health and educations systems were rudimentary. It was common to find 27 year olds in primary school classes.  There were no specialist shops, peoples’ needs being met by general stores. Entertainment was self-generated with football, traditional games, singing and organised ‘concerts’. Game was plentiful throughout the entire country and karosses and animal skin items were routinely made. Men frequently wore skin caps. Favourite radio stations were the BBC and Lourenco Marques.



Etcetera II

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