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The Mochudi of 1966 Breaking Down the Old Barriers

The Voice may have asked me to describe Independence day in Mochudi in 1966 for its Boipuso supplement but it wasnĺt quite so keen to know what 1966 itself was like.

A pity; because it was so remarkably interesting. By and large, the Jim Reeves-loving Botswana of 1966 was largely torpid, devoid of major incident and cut off from the world.

Two places were exceptions to this norm. In Serowe, van Rensburg with Leapeetswe’s help, was turning everything upside down. In Mochudi, Naomi Mitchison, with Kgosi Linchwe who was similarly inclined, was doing what she could to challenge, encourage and provoke, as she had previously done elsewhere.

Something of a pet target for her was inevitably the Dutch Reformed Mission which had had the Bakgatla very much to themselves for the previous 90 or so years.

Unsurprisingly, it was caught in a time warp. Although the Mission had its own tennis court, it permitted no play on Sundays. Nor was dancing – that is the popular ballroom variety - allowed on any day of the week, the Mochudi populace being made to understand that the physical proximity involved was immoral, leading as it inevitably did to you know what!

Naomi had a kindred spirit in Brian Egner, the editor of Kutlwano, who was desperate to enliven his rather boring publication.

He recognised that in Naomi he had someone who could, at last, generate debate. The crunch did indeed come with Naomi’s references in one of her Kutlwano contributions to birth spacing, as it then had to be styled, and to, ‘joy giving sex’.

Predictably, there was a horrified reaction from the old hands who Naomi had deliberately tempted to come out into the open, Revs. Bloomfield and Merriweather, and from Dr Teichler. Within a short time, she was also challenged in Kutlwano by a self-important visiting consultant professor from the States.

He, too was dispatched with practised aplomb. And then there was apartheid South Africa and a visit to Mafikeng with Linchwe which provided Naomi with yet another opportunity to generate significant ripples. In Mafikeng’s, central square, as it then was, they sat  side by side on a ‘blacks only’ bench – were benches really provided for blacks! As intended, there was a flurry of activity, the police appearing, warnings issued and Naomi playing both dumb and outraged. I have always been surprised that later commentators failed to recognise that the scenario was so deliberately contrived.

The meeting of the DR Mission/Church with the new Community Centre, and not just with Naomi, did indeed represent, within a small

geographical area of Mochudi, a collision of two hugely different worlds, two institutions, two influences competing to offer their differing wares.

The DR Mission had the advantage deriving from an established presence and from knowing the Bakgatla since the year dot.

The Community Centre, clumsy new comers, had the advantage of offering change, of coming from the north, rather than the south, of offering alternatives of idea, thought, interest, approach. When briefing me in London about Mochudi, Martin Ennals advised me to avoid spending time with the British District Commissioner in Mochudi and to keep away from the whites-only Club in Gaborone.  In the event, his could have been a much longer list because conformity for whites was cemented by set ways of thought and behaviour which had to be experienced by new comers to the country, questioned, challenged, and rejected.

Of course, post Independence, Peace Corps volunteers arrived to help break through those old racial, social, economic barriers. But prior to their arrival, the Community Centre was on its own offering a hope, an opportunity, a challenge, a means of linking up a whole society stuck in the past with ambassadors from England, initially Martin Ennals and Naomi, who came offering a different, more exciting alternative. 

In Mochudi, there was a young Linchwe, recently returned from schooling in England. Despite initial opposition to his assumption as Chief, Linchwe then took two decisions which, in theory, could have upended him.

He told the tribe that Naomi was his adopted mother, and that he had agreed that a transit centre for refugees, and community centre should be established in Mochudi. No other tribal leader agreed to make a similar, public commitment to help refugees from South Africa.

With the recent showing in Gaborone of the strangely titled new film there will now be increased awareness of the remarkable Seretse-Ruth love story. 

Almost forgotten, however, is that other remarkable long lasting black-white relationship between    the elderly white lady  of major repute from Scotland, and the charismatic Kgosi of a major Tswana tribe. 

For her, as an established commentator and historical novelist, the meeting with him had opened the door for an entirely new experience.  For him, the relationship offered options where previously there had been few.

What is it about this country, which at Independence would be enjoying one such barrier-busting relationship in Gaborone and another in Mochudi?

Etcetera II

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