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The Northern Khwe

We began our own exploration of the Chobe’s past with an examination of the District’s largest ethnic community, the Vekuhane [Veekuhane] or Basubiya, while noting that the population of both District and wider Zambesi-Linyandi region has long been ethnically heterogeneous.

In modern times the Vekuhane have comprised approximately a third of the population of the Zambezi (Eastern Caprivi) Province of Namibia as well as two thirds of the inhabitants of the Chobe District, along with much of the indigenous population along the northern bank of the Zambezi between Katima Mulilo and Kazungula in western Zambia. Additional Vekuhane concentrations in Botswana are found at Gumare in Ngamiland and the Boteti sub-district around Rakops.

The total Vekuhane population has never been especially large, with Shamukuni in 1972 estimating that altogether they “number well over 16,000”. While exact figures are difficult to come by in the context of “non-tribal” basis post-colonial censuses, as well as their historic status subjects of the Malozi kings and widespread intermarriage with other groups, available documentation indicates roughly similar numbers of Vekuhane now living within Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.

A March 1929 report on the “Native Organisation of Sesheke Sun-District” of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) put the number of Vekuhane at 3,259 “including Mayeye at Katongo”.

In 1922, the total population for the Eastern Caprivi was reported to be 4,249, with perhaps another 2-300 males uncounted due to absence.

The 1921 Bechuanaland Protectorate census put the population of the Chobe District proper at 2,115, divided primarily between Vekuhane and Batawana, but the 1936 census showed the number of Chikuhane speakers in the district to be 3,139.

The 1946 census reported the total population of the Chobe as 5,095, with the predominately Batawana population of Kachikau numbering 1,231, the rest being predominately Vekuhane.

Other indigenous populations long resident in the region include groups variously identified as Matotela, Maschi, Mafwe, Matoka, Mayeye, Wayeyi, Bakgalagari, Hambukushu and Mila (“Mashukulumbane”), while considerable numbers of Malozi (“Barotse”, Aluyi), Makololo and Batswana (Batawana and Bangwato) have migrated into the area since the 19th century.

Although the Mafwe are today the biggest single group in the Caprivi, there is no much evidence of their having been organised into a significant polity prior to the 19th century emergence of the Makololo and Malozi Kingdoms.

Prior to the colonial era the Hambukushu had significant polities in the territory west of the Kwando-Linyandi, in the western and adjacent areas of south-east Angola and north-west Botswana.

Consistent with local oral traditions, all of the above groups, which speak various Bantu languages, are believed to have been preceded by local Khoisan speakers, who can still be found throughout the region.Although divided by dialect, location and social dialect the Khoisan peoples of the Zambesi-Linyandi all belong

to the Khwe or Khoi linguistic sub grouping. Dr. Rainer Vossen, a linguist who has conducted extensive research amongst the northern Khwe has identified //Ani, /Anda, Buga, Danisi, Kxoe, Shua and Ts’ixa as the principal dialectical sub-groupings within the region.

Vossen in collaboration with Sabine Neumann, Christine Patriarchi, Margit Rottman, Rainer Sporl and Beate Vagt, “Khoe Linguistic Relationships Reconsidered” in Botswana Notes and Records no. 20, 1989, pp. 61-76].

The Khwe of Zambesi-Linyandi have a long history of involvement in such varied economic activities as fishing, pastoralism and small-scale arable agriculture as well as the more stereotypical Khoisan pursuits of hunting and foraging.

Indeed a growing body of archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that pastoralism may have been spread to southern Botswana, Namibia and South Africa by Khwe migrants from northern Botswana.

Archaeological evidence from Ngamiland currently indicates the emergence of pastoralism amongst Khwe communities c. 200 B.C., while sites along the Linyandi confirm the spread of Iron Age technology no later than c. 350 A.D.

In more recent times, Khwe speakers have been commonly referred to as “Masarwa” by both Silozi and Setswana speakers and “Bushmen” by Europeans (Afrikaners, English and Germans).

Other external labels include “Makwengo”, “Mabumako” and “Maiye”; the latter term being also applied to linguistically distinct, but geographically and, perhaps, socially related Bantu speaking communities along the Maschi area of western Zambia.

In a March 1899 journal entry the British officer James Stevenson-Hamilton, while at Mamili’s village in the Eastern Caprivi, noted that:  “Mamili sent a couple of Bushmen to spoor, long black fellows, low type of countenance and very dirty...They are the lowest caste here, people call them Maiee and they have to clap their hands and salute to everyone, even women.”

Many of the Khwe living in the Kasane-Kazungula-Leshoma identify themselves as Shua-Khwe. During 19th century one of their headmen named Maruza is said to have moved from Mahabe to the Chobe River to keep away from the Batawana. He is further said to have regularly camped and hunted in the Sedudu valley. This practice was continued by his son Mosesanyane and grandson Montsonyane, who both became tax-paying Bechuanaland Protectorate subjects.

While the name “Sedudu” is said to be derived from a local name for a type of grass common to the region an alternative Shua-Khoe explanation holds that the name is an onomatopoeic rendering of the “dudu” sound of birds who seasonally nest in the area.

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