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The Vekuhane Or Basubiya

For years the Chobe District has gained international prominence as a premier tourist destination based on the splendour of its environment.

While the region’s flora and fauna has been and will remain the primary magnet that draws visitors, there is undoubtedly untapped potential in marketing the areas cultural, as well as natural, heritage.

With so much attention focussed on its wildlife and wilderness the fact that the Chobe District boasts a rich and diverse cultural heritage rooted in a unique history is often overlooked.

Yet, local as well as global tourist industry experience provides clear evidence of the value add that can be gained in terms of local job creation and revenue generation through diversification away from the traditional wildlife safari to also incorporate genuine community participation in terms of arts, crafts and other forms of engagement. 

Tangible aspects of local culture are deeply rooted in the region’s diverse history, from its early settlement to its 19th century status as the southern gateway into Central Africa to its subsequent strategic location as a transit centre and at times war zone for a generation of refugees and freedom fighters.

Let us begin our own exploration of the Chobe’s past by starting with an examination of the District’s largest ethnic community, the Vekuhane [Veekuhane], who are also known as the Basubiya. While the latter term is more commonly used amongst outsiders, the former is generally preferred within the community.

While the Chobe has the highest proportion of Vekuhane within Botswana, other historic branches of the community can be found in the Northwest District and Boteti region.

Linguists generally classify their language, Chikuhane, as belonging within the larger Ila-Tonga language cluster, which are widely spoken throughout the central Zambezi basin. Related languages thus include Tonga, Toka, Leya, Fwe, Twa, Shanjo, Totela, Ila and Lenje.

The earliest known written texts in the Chikuhane language appeared at the end of the 19th century with a grammar book (1896) and a textbook containing local folklore and songs (1899) both being produced the French Missionary Edouard Jacottet. An influential, but still unpublished indigenous grammar was produced by Daniel Matengu Shamukuni beginning in the 1960s.

Since the mid-19th century Setswana and Silozi (Serotse) have also been adopted amongst the Vekuhane as additional regional lingua franca.

Prior to 1876, the Vekuhane were united as a relatively small but strategically important polity known as Itenge. The traditional rulers of Itenge were addressed as Munitenge, from “mwina-Itenge” meaning owners of Itenge.

According to Chikuhane traditions, in the past the borders of Itenge extended throughout the modern Chobe District and beyond, including adjacent areas of Namibia’s Eastern Caprivi.

While these claims are plausible, it is

also worth noting that available evidence also confirms that the Chobe has, nonetheless, also long been the home of other independent ethno-linguistic groups.

In 1970, the Vekuhane were reported to constitute some two thirds of the Chobe District’s population. Other prominent groups whose presence in the area can be traced back at least as far as the early 1800s include Bathoka, Balozi, Banabia (a northern branch of the Bakalanga), Batswana and Khoe (Basarwa).

The population of the Eastern Caprivi has also been historically heterogeneous. Although perhaps half of all Vekuhane currently reside in the Eastern Caprivi, another group known as the Mafwe currently outnumbers them. Vekuhane communities are also found in Western Zambia.

While archaeology confirms the existence of early Iron Age settlements along the Chobe by the third century, oral traditions suggest that the Vekuhane emerged as a separate group after settling in the area during by the 17th century. Other traditions trace the group’s origins to the 15th century, when it is said that Ila-Tonga clans were settled along the upper Zambezi from where they migrated southwards, initially to the now submerged Kafue flats.

Some traditions further claim that the founders of Itenge had fled turmoil within the Baluya or Baleya polity in western Zambia, which preceded the emergence of the Balozi kingdom. This is consistent with linguistic as well as oral evidence.

According to the late local historian Matengu Masule, the Chobe migration occurred during the time of Munitenge Ikuhane who was the son of Itenge; thus the names of the people and land respectively. Ikuhane and Itenge also serve as the Chikuhane names for the Chobe-Linyati river system.

Another common tradition holds that the Vekuhane once lived together with Hambukushu and Wayeyi at the Goha Hills some 50 kilometres south of the river. This was during the reign of Munitenge Shanjo, also known as Singongi, who according to existing genealogies lived at least three generations after Ikuhane.

Ikuhane is said to have been followed by Lilundu-Lituu who settled at Mabe. He in turn was succeeded by his sister Mwaale, who is the earliest known female ruler of the group. She settled in Goha hills at a place thereafter known to the Vekuhane as Ngulwa-Mwaale.

During Mwaale’s reign, the Vekuhane experienced at least two breakaways. One group, led by Cheete migrated across the Zambesi, settling in the region of Mosi-oa-thuna or Victoria Falls, which in Chikuhane is rather known as “Chimbwe-namutitima”. Thereafter, another faction led by Sikute settled nearby on the fall’s south bank.

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