Patayamatebele: The cradle of local Catholicism

Catholic pilgrims at the tombs of Fathers Charles Fuchs and Anthony de Wit, Patayamatebele
Catholic pilgrims at the tombs of Fathers Charles Fuchs and Anthony de Wit, Patayamatebele

The recent demise of Bishop Emeritus Boniface Setlalekgosi, the First Motswana Catholic Bishop got us thinking about the earliest traces of Catholic activity in Botswana.

One would think that Forest Hill with its hosting of Moreneng, a convent and St. Josephs College, represents the earliest part of the Catholic Church activity in Botswana.

The present day splendour of hosting the Commerce Park, Game City, Ave Maria Centre and the budding new prime residential location may be a good example of a thriving and affluent Catholic mission anywhere, but it was not the very first.

As 2018 came to an end, just as the previous year, more than1, 000 Catholics crossed the Tati River on foot to the Eden and genesis of Catholic activity in Botswana at Patayamatebele, some 50 kilometres north east of Tonota.

Patayamatebele was a second thought after Khama III declined the Jesuit missionaries request to open a mission in Shoshong. The little mining settlement on the banks of the Chobe river became the indisputable cradle of Catholic activity in Botswana.

The area was by then hosting a small gold mine operation with the local Basarwa, Kalanga and Bangwato mineworkers with Afrikaner managers.

Those miners were a target of this Mission supervised from Grahamstown and its equally new station at Bulawayo. It is here at Patayamatebele, 139 years ago, that the first mass and baptisms of the Catholic church in Botswana took place.

The missionaries in the Bulawayo and Patayamatebele (Tati) stations experienced poor health and high mortality straining the Zambezi mission.

The remoteness of the Bulawayo and Patayamatebele Zambezi missions coupled with the death of several of the key original Jesuit missionaries compelled the Catholic church to purchase a farm that could act as a halfway station from the sending regional headquarters in Grahamstown.

The half way station was acquired in 1884 at Vleeschfontein just across the Tlokweng border in what is now Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.

Two of these original Patayamatebele Jesuit missionaries, Father Fuch and Father De Wit are buried across from Patayamatebele village on the banks of the Tati River.

Their deaths through sickness and a horse falling accident, respectively, coupled with the losses in mining prospects and departure of the mining management affected the policy of the church for the future of Patayamatebele leading to closure of the mission.

The burial of the Jesuit priests at this spot is symbolic in the history of the Catholic church. By virtue of Patayamatebele having been occupied in our shores before 1902, the site is by law an Ancient Monument in accordance with the Monuments and Relics Act of 2001.

The site is located in what used to be a Blackbeard farm now owned by the Botswana Tourism Organisation under the land bank arrangement.

The farm, with other yet to be revealed monumental features is scheduled for development as a destination that will get local and international tourists drinking from the splendour and the river of time immemorial.

*Segadika is a regular contributor to Mmegi

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