The ins and outs of the traditional cattle post

The number of herd boys at cattle posts was determined by their herd
The number of herd boys at cattle posts was determined by their herd

It appears there has been little or no research on the role of the traditional cattle post in Botswana and neither on its relationship with migrant labor to the South African mines, driven by the oppressive hut tax levied by the British colonial government against huts occupied by Batswana.

This was a complicated labor supply chain spurred by the symbiotic relationship between the British and the South African mine corporations.  It would appear the traditional cattle post in Botswana was not part of the supply chain, but it unwittingly became a holding ground for migrant workers to South African mines, according to some observers.

Records show that as more girls were sent to school after the introduction of western education in Botswana by Dr. David Livingstone in 1847, more boys lost out to serve as herd boys at the cattle post before enlisting to work at the South African mines and industries when they became of age.  Infect, physical appearance was a more determinant factor than age because only able bodied men were conscripted into the mine labor force. 

This suggests that almost all men who went to the mines from Botswana had received formal and informal education on their culture and tradition at the cattle post.  Even during the pre-colonial period, the transmission of indigenous knowledge through the cattle post system existed and its curriculum included teaching a boy child survival skills, traditions, legends, tales, procedures and rituals orally under harsh conditions.

Some critics however say, this was promoting child abuse, sarcastically referring to the system as “the cattle post mentality,” which denotes backwardness.  Others still believe there was merit in the system, particularly with regard to conservation which is key to our environment today.  As part of their duty, the boys had to know all the trees in their communal area and preserve those that had medicinal properties and other values.

Legendary believes also helped in the conservation of some trees, for example, there was a fear that the cutting down of some trees such as the Buffalo Thorn (mokgalo) and Weeping Wattle (mosetlha) would trigger a hail storm, and therefore there was a strong held taboo not to destroy them.

Generally, traditional cattle post was regarded as an initiation for adulthood and its setting differed from place to place, influenced by cultural values of each ethnic group. In Kweneng District for instance, the traditional cattle post comprised a holding kraal, fenced with thorny branches of Umbrella Thorn Acacia (mosu) or Black Thorn (mongana) and in exceptional cases with the Buffalo Thorn.

The size of the kraal was usually determined by the herd of mixed breed grazing in a communal area with a common well or pond. Even the number of herd boys in a cattle post was determined by their herd and thus forming a team under the most feared boy called moeka or tshimega who was not only oppressive but also cruel.

As boys were not expected to have comfort at the cattle post, they slept under a tree in the absence of a proper shelter. They hung their belongings such as blankets and utensils on a tree, including a wooden milk container called kgamelo. The container was always left with milk as a left over, attracting flies which were never repugnant to the boys as food hygiene was not a priority to them.

The position of moeka was the highest rank in the cattle post hierarchy. It was earned through fierce fighting using Grewia Flava (moretlwa) sticks and the victor was not allowed to nurse his wounds to demonstrate his pain tolerance as a hero.  Fighting was a common event which was properly organised and it drew spectators from a wide area because it was regarded as an entertainment.

After fighting, the victor would be regarded as a hero with unquestionable powers in his communal area. In some cases, he would flex his muscles to deny his boys food, forcing them to live on milk alone. Moeka would also not allow his boys to eat milk-made porridge called legala as a taboo. He used food as a tool to assert his authority, for example, if any of his boys brought a kill from hunting, he would decide who should be excluded from the meal, sometimes including the hunter himself.  

It was also a taboo for a herd boy to be clean or be very happy while sitting next to moeka because this could constitute undermining his authority in the absence of fear. Sadly, the imposition of the oppressive hut tax by the British colonial government in 1909, levied against all huts occupied by Batswana, followed by the arrival of the Native Recruiting Corporation NRC in Botswana in 1912, changed the character of the traditional cattle post to become a discreet migrant labor supply chain.  

This sad reality changed the lives of Batswana to become beggars in their own country because it was regarded as having no economic potential and the absence of able bodied men to engage in agrarian activities exacerbated the situation.  Worst still, even those who came back home were forced to go back because of the hut tax looming over their heads.

Moreri Gabakgore

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