As COVID-19 has forced people apart, the fireside and kgotla dialogues where Batswana would gather to discuss social issues such as marriages, relationships and others, have migrated online. Mmegi Correspondent, NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE tracks the explosive growth of the ‘digital kgotla,’ the community pages on social media with hundreds of thousands of loyal members
The names are uniquely local and highly relatable. Life Matters, Ask Rakgadi, Motswana Woman are some of the biggest communities on local social media, with hundreds of thousands of loyal members and scores of posts per day on a variety of topical issues.
Where the fireside chats and kgotla meetings require face to face interactions, these pages, and many others like them, provide anonymity. There are no VIPs on these pages, no protocol to observe. Anyone can post their issue or view and within minutes, the ‘community’ responds with their input, suggestions, recommendations or criticism.
Societal ventilation of issues is what Batswana have used since time immemorial to uphold cultural values and norms, a tradition that has become critical in the age of rising vices such as murder, rapes, drunkenness and trends such as divorce, youth indiscipline and others. Social events such as weddings, funerals have also traditionally provided meeting places where communities gather and ventilate various issues affecting them.
As COVID-19 has forced communities apart, these social platforms have become difficult to put together. However, social media pages like Life Matters which was formed around the first national lock down last year, and others that have been there for years now like Ask Rakgadi and Motswana Woman, are breathing life into social dialogue. All over local social media, Batswana have formed groups where members can discuss everything freely such as their HIV status, their COVID-19 experiences, dating advice and others.
People can share what bothers them freely without fear of being victimised or shamed as they can send the managers or ‘admins’ of those groups requests to post their concerns anonymously.
Life Matters Botswana, initially run strictly as a Facebook group, is now a Motswana-owned company administering the page with over 123,000 followers. The page is managed by Goitseone Bakani from Changate village together with a team of four people who comprise two counselors and two legal advisors. The company is based in Gaborone.
The Life Matters page deals with everyday life issues and revolves around relationship connections as well as offering counseling services. Bakani says Life Matters’ establishment was inspired by the escalating rate of passion killings, break ups, suicides issues around cohabitation, child support, single motherhood and gender-based violence that the country has been experiencing.
“I wanted to create a platform where people could vent out their problems without anyone judging them,” he says.
“I receive 100 or so message requests weekly including 30 or so relationship connections and quite a number of people requesting counseling services.
“I run the page full time but there are times set aside for active participation on some activities like posting for anonymous and counseling services that begin at 0730am to 0430pm daily.
“Relationship connections start at 5pm to 10pm daily and on weekends we attend to every issue available up to 10pm.”
Bakani explains that the page was birthed during the first lock-down and became popular during that time. He stated that the page has had a great impact on people’s lives, saying many people point out that it has become a platform for community advice without identities being revealed. Some members have found love again on Life Matters after many disappointments from previous relationships. Marriages have been saved through counseling received from their office. Life Matters has also donated food hampers and clothes to the less privileged.
“We have had positive feedback from our followers because they feel the page has an impact in many people’s lives.
“I am happy to say that we have managed to save many marriages through our counseling services.
It’s not all rosy at Life Matters or any other social media page with a large following. Everyday challenges include not being able to post all the message requests received daily due to overwhelming numbers. In addition, other rival pages have attacked Life Matters page.“It is never easy to control or influence what people choose to post on social media.
“We have different people who have different agendas and all we can do is try to live with those that use social media negatively with the hope that one day they will learn to use it positively.
“It is very important to use social media positively, especially in the harsh world we are living in today because we never know what another person is going through.
“If we learn to be there for other people through social media, you never know how many lives you can save from depression or suicide.”
Bakani is, however, determined to have Life Matters as an agent for positive social change, saying dialogue is important to help people beat depression, seek counseling when they are overwhelmed by life, find true love and happiness. He added that they would love to reconcile families and promote mental health wellness in communities while helping the less privileged under their slogan #ThusaMotswana.Life Matters follower, Gabaakae Kgosietsile, says she first checked out the page after noticing that many of her friends were members. She became impressed after reading and knowing what the page was about.
“I realised that there was counseling available, unity, dating advice and positive feedback.
“What I like the most about that page is that it helps reduce divorce.
“It even helps prevent the spread of HIV and reduces stigma as people in the dating service are required to include their HIV status on their profiles meaning they don’t have to later disclose because their potential partners would have already seen that in their profiles.
“This is better than people staying in relationships with partners whose status they don’t know.
“Potential partners also get to know each others’ dislikes and likes before starting relationships.”
Another follower of the digital kgotla, Kealeboga Seboni, says the social media pages have helped Batswana open up on sensitive issues despite their traditional conservative nature. She explains that generally, it is not easy to talk openly about issues that have been viewed such as sex, deep family secrets, challenging elders or community leaders and others. Batswana online are now able to gain confidence and freedom to voice their true opinions.
“The advantages of asking for advice from strangers is that they don’t know you and so they are not biased,” she says.
“The hope is that some of them have already experienced the same thing and so they can offer solutions to your problem.
“The disadvantage of course is that they won’t always know the full story and thus can only advise on what is revealed rather than the true honest reality of the situation. There are two sides to every story.
“The other thing is that people can offer advice based on their assumptions without having full facts or the right information.
“Thus one ought to do their own research too and not just act based on what they read in the comment section.” Whatever the advantages and disadvantages, the digital fireplace and kgotla appear here for the long term, given the rising memberships of these groups. Even if COVID-19 completely disappears, the pages will likely remain relevant for the country’s increasingly social-media-savvy generations.