Botswana Travel Guide
Botswana Travel Guide
People and culture
Other social groups

Botswana Travel Guide

Other social groups

The Khoisan

The Khoisan group includes the San people, discussed at length in the previous sections, and the Khoe, covered here.

The Khoe
The San are often described as hunter-gatherers and the Khoe as pastoralists. The distinction is not quite so clear-cut, but it is generally useful. The Khoe, who live in central Botswana and Namibia, have herds of cattle, but continue to source some of their food from hunting and gathering, supplemented by milk products.

The ownership of animals is a mark of status in these groups, so laws are required to protect property and status. Because of the intrinsic value of the animals, the Khoe milk their herds but do not kill them for food; stock animals are only killed to mark special occasions.

The ownership of property (stock) has created a more rigid and complex social structure. Property creates wealth, which can be inherited after the death of the owner, and so laws of inheritance have been developed. Wealth brings with it the power to control others, thus creating leaders. It also leads to a wealth-based economy that depends on the exchange of goods and work that have an economic value. What must be freely given among the San must be bought and paid for among the Khoe.

Little is known about the religious beliefs of the Khoe, though they believe in a Supreme Being and it is thought that some beliefs are similar to the San and can be traced back to a common source.

Bantu-speaking peoples

After a complex history of conflict, a number of tribes of Bantu origin can now be found in Botswana. Today the word 'tribe' has colonial connotations, but unfortunately we do not have a suitable alternative. Likewise, definition by ethnic group is not considered politically correct in Botswana; all people are primarily Batswana, (the people of Botswana) and only secondarily Bayei, or Bakwena or European etc. Tribal names are frequently preceded by Ba – which means 'the people of ...'

Although the same name applies to all the people of Botswana, the Batswana (or Tswana) are also the largest ethnic group in the country. As an aside, colonial partitioning led to three-quarters of the Tswana actually living in South Africa. The name embraces a number of different offshoots. The Tswana speak Setswana, which is the second language of Botswana, English being the official language.

Serowe, a typical Tswana village
Bessie Head's book, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind offers an invaluable and very readable introduction to Tswana culture, Bamangwato style. (The Bamangwato tribe rose to ascendancy over the other tribes, following the Difaquane wars. This was due partly to their prime location for trading contacts and partly to visionary leadership.)

The book gives a wonderful insight into an African village and the lives, knowledge and skills of the inhabitants. Writing in 1981 Head describes Serowe as a typical traditional village. Most people had three homes; one in the village, one at the lands where they ploughed and one at the cattle post where they kept their cattle. The homes were all round, thatched mud huts and people moved from home to home all the time.

We learn how the homes are constructed – that the walls of the mud huts were built and externally decorated by the women, but were thatched by the men. The weaving of grass baskets was a woman's occupation, but tanning hide to make leather Tswana mats and blankets was a man's profession.

The Basubiya, the Hambukushu and the Bayei
Around AD1600 these three groups of river-dwelling people all lived close together in the region to the south of the Chobe River. Their closeness is reflected in the similarity of their customs. Significantly, their system of inheritance meant that wealth and status were not passed to the first son, but through to the children of the father's eldest sister. So a man inherited the chieftancy if his mother was the eldest sister of the chief.

The Basubiya
According to tradition, after a fight over a lion skin the Bayei were defeated by the Basubiya. They moved away to the Linyanti River, but they still came under the rule of the Basubiya.

Meanwhile, the Hambukushu were driven from their homeland by the expansionist and tribute-seeking Chief of the Balozi, whose capital was at Katima Mulilo (now in western Zambia.) To avoid paying the tribute and escape his attentions, the Hambukushu left the Zambezi River and moved nearer to the Chobe and Linyanti rivers, into a region which was already occupied by the Bayei.

The Basubiya eventually grew very powerful and had a large state which stretched from Luchindo on the Chobe river, westwards towards the Okavango. Eventually they were defeated by the Balozi and incorporated into the Lozi empire until its collapse in 1865. According to Campbell, the Basubiya were mainly agriculturalists who also kept some cattle, sheep and goats. They cultivated the flood plains, which they prepared by hoeing in the autumn before the winter floods and planting crops such as millet, sweet reeds and melon when the floods had receded. Today they still live in the northwest and Chobe Districts of the country.

Bayei (and Banoka)
In response to the Basubiya invasion, the Bayei moved away from the Chobe River, into the Okavango, and between 1750 and 1800 they firmly established themselves in the area of the delta around Lake Ngami. This shallower, southern section of the delta perfectly suited the Bayei, who lived mainly from fishing. They also kept cattle, but used them only as pack animals. In the Delta they encountered a group of Khoe, called the Banoka, (otherwise known as the River Bushmen), who had adapted their hunter-gatherer skills to the environment of the delta.

The two peoples seem to have coexisted peacefully and even swapped skills. For example the Bayei taught the Banoka to fish with nets where before they had only used baskets. The Bayei made nets from the twisted fibres of succulent plants, which they then trawled behind their boats, called mekoro. A mokoro (mekoro is the plural form) is a dug out canoe that is poled from the rear. In return the Banoka taught the Bayei how to dig pits, filled with sharp pointed sticks, in the middle of a game trail, to trap unsuspecting animals on their way to the river.

A prize catch for the Bayei was the hippo, which they sometimes hunted from their mekoro. Their method, like the old whale hunters, was to harpoon the hippo from the boat. Instantly the hippo would take flight, towing the mokoro in its wake. The hunters had to kill the hippo with their spears, before it either broke loose or killed them. This they did by attempting to reach the bank in their boats, tying the rope attached to the harpoon to a tree and waiting for the hippo to tire before approaching it with spears. Hippos are notoriously bad tempered and dangerous and are liable to attack if they are surprised in the water. Mekoro today are more likely to be transporting tourists for a spot of hippo watching, and may well be made of fibreglass instead of wood, but they are still often poled by a Bayei man.

Another favourite method of hippo hunting was to place a spear weighted with rocks suspended from a tree over a hippo trail. Hippos live in the water during the day, but come out at night to graze and they tend to keep to the same tracks.

The Hambukushu
Meanwhile the Hambukushu found that settling on the Chobe did not take them far enough from the Balozi tribute seekers, so they moved again and settled in the more northerly, upper reaches of the Okavango Delta. Being agriculturalists as well as hunters and fishermen, they preferred the deeper water there. Unlike the lower regions, this area did not flood when the rains came and so was more suitable for agriculture. They cleared the bush and planted crops along the river, such as millet, sugar cane, pumpkins and root crops.

Like the Bayei, the Hambukushu used mekoro boats, but instead of poling them standing up, they sat down and used paddles to propel them through the deeper water.

Campbell's History of Botswana describes how the Hambukushu hunted for elephants. 'They took the blade of a spear which had a barb in it and fixed this into a heavy piece of wood. They dug shallow holes on paths used by elephants and then set these spear blades facing upwards. The elephant stood on this, driving the blade deep into the bottom of its foot, after which it couldn't walk. When it was weak, men came with axes and slashed the tendons in its back legs so that it fell down and could be speared.'

Today the Hambukushu are most famous for their beautiful hand-woven baskets, which are internationally recognised for their craftsmanship and design. The wide variety of basket types reflects the numerous purposes for which they were traditionally used, ranging from enormous grain storage baskets, to tightly woven beer baskets for holding the local brew. Unfortunately, the baskets are now being produced commercially, which enables the makers to earn a reasonable living, but has led to over-exploitation of the natural resources from which the baskets are made. The Hambukushu are also renowned as rain-makers, another skill which they have exploited commercially by selling their services to neighbouring tribes.

Traditional culture and change
Because he was a deeply committed Christian convert, Khama, the leader of the Bamangwato, began to make changes to the traditional way of life. One of the most significant changes was the abolition of the initiation ceremonies for men and women. He reformed the bogadi tradition, which had meant that a woman's children belonged to her husband, even those children she had after he had died. Khama also laid down laws and regulations for his people to live by, including banning the consumption of alcohol.

One elderly man described the men's initiation ceremony or bogwera: 'Not only was the foreskin cut and the youths put through endurance tests, but one of us had to remain behind. He was killed in a painful way, in the secrecy of the bush. When we came home, it was made out that the youth had died because he could not stand up to the tests. Everyone knew the truth but it was treated as a deep secret. That was why Khama abolished bogwera.'

However, it was still important to mark the passing of boyhood into manhood, so Khama preserved the tradition of 'age regiments'. All young men had their coming of age marked by a gathering with prayers and lectures. Those who came of age at the same time formed an age regiment. From Khama's time on, the age regiments began to volunteer to work on community projects such as building schools or churches and many things were accomplished.

It was also largely due to the efforts of Khama that Botswana became a British Protectorate, known as the British Bechuanaland Protectorate. This probably saved Botswana from becoming another South Africa or Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and resulted in Botswana's peaceful Independence in 1966.

When the Protectorate was finally granted, Khama expressed his gratitude and laid down the following principles of government, in a document which related primarily to the Bamangwato, but was later applied to the whole country.

'I am not baffled in the government of my town, or in deciding cases among my own people according to custom. I have to say that there are certain laws of my country which the Queen of England finds in operation, and which are advantageous to my people, and I wish these laws should be established and not taken away by the Government of England. I refer to our law concerning intoxicating drinks, that they should not enter the country of the Bamangwato, whether among black people or white people. I refer further to our law which declares that the lands of the Bamangwato are not saleable. I say this law is also good; let it be upheld and continue to be law among black people and white people.'

The system of traditional law to which Khama referred in this document was well established. It centered upon the chief, whose position of prestige and power carried with it the obligation that the good of the tribe must be placed above personal desire. The chief held property and land on behalf of the tribe and had always to be available to his people to settle disputes and business affairs.

There was also a tribal court, known as a kgotla to help him make decisions. This consisted of the headmen of the wards into which the village was divided, and of senior tribesmen. Disputes which could not be settled within the ward were brought to the kgotla. There was an obligation for people to be open in all their dealings with each other and to act in the best interests of the community.

The Ovaherero and the Ovambanderu
The Ovaherero and their relatives the Ovambanderu are pastoralists, who keep large herds of sheep, goats, and especially cattle, which have a religious significance for them. According to their oral history tradition they seem to have moved southwest from central Africa, probably to escape the spread of the tsetse fly which spreads sleeping sickness and kills cattle and people.

The religious life of the tribe was of great importance. The tribe was divided into religious clans under a priest/chief. He owned the most cattle and he maintained a sacred herd on behalf of the tribe. On his death the priesthood and the care of the sacred herd passed to his son. The Ovaherero practised ancestor worship, and one of the priest's main religious duties was appeasing the dead relatives of the tribe.

As pastoralists the clans led their herds in search of grazing but each clan had a designated area. Within this area the women built round huts from a framework of branches covered with mud. The huts were built in a circle around corrals for the animals. As well as tending the herds, the men hunted with wooden spears, (their only iron came from trading with the Batswana). The women also collected wild food and made omaere, a kind of sour milk which was their staple food.

Most of the Ovaherero today live in Namibia, though some are also found in Botswana, where they fled following the German-Herero War at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 19th century the Ovaherero were living in what is now northern Namibia, but were becoming increasingly unhappy about their loss of land to the German colonists. In January 1904 their leader, Samuel Maherero, ordered a Herero uprising against the colonial forces.

Initially the Hereros had success in taking many German farms and smaller outposts, and in severing the railway line between Swakopmund and Windhoek. However, later in 1904, the German General von Trotha led a large German force including heavy artillery against the Hereros. By August 1904 the Hereros were pushed back to their stronghold of Waterberg, with its permanent water-holes.

On August 11, the Germans attacked, and the battle raged all day. Though not decisive, the Hereros' spirit was beaten by the superior firepower and they fled east, into the Kalahari and towards Maun. Many perished; the rest settled in what is now northern Botswana.

They had lost their cattle and were forced to work as servants to another tribe, the Batawana. However they soon rebuilt their herds and also learnt agriculture from the Batawana, which they used to supplement their traditional diet of soured milk. The Ovaherero are recognisable today because the women continue to dress in the clothes they were taught to wear by Victorian Christian missionaries, including long bulky dresses and headdresses.

The Bakalanga
The Bakalanga are the second largest population group after the Tswana, despite having been divided by colonial boundaries. Today over 75% of them live in Zimbabwe. Those in Botswana live mainly in the area around Francistown, although they are scattered as far afield as Maun, Palapye, Serowe, Mahalapye and Mochudi. Their origins are unclear, though some of them have probably lived in the region of the upper Shashe River for at least a thousand years. For the last 600 years they have been ruled by other peoples, but interestingly their conquerors have always ended by inter-marrying with the Bakalanga and adopting their customs and language.

The Bakalanga are primarily agriculturalists and this is reflected in their religion and culture, but cattle and goats are also kept, usually by the chief on behalf of his tribe. The chief would give cattle to people who had performed services to the tribe, or those who needed them in order to get married or to sacrifice to the ancestors. The primary importance of agriculture is shown by the traditional marital gifts of specially forged iron hoes that were given to the bride's parents to symbolise the continuity of her livelihood.

The Kagalagari
This name is applied to different people of varied descent who currently live in the Kalahari Desert. There are five major groups who have settled in different areas of the Kalahari. They all have their own tribal names and customs and they speak a variety of languages – the combined form of which is a Sotho language, not a dialect of Tswana.
Of these five groups the Bakgwatheng remain in the east of the Kalahari on the fringes of the desert, which receives sufficient rainfall for their crops of sorghum, melons and beans. They also keep small herds of cattle, sheep and goats, and mine and work iron. As the iron ore was not available in the heart of the Kalahari these factors all restricted them to the desert's fringe.

The Bangologa and the Babolaongwe, on the other hand, are pastoralists with large herds of sheep and goats, and a few cattle. They obtain most of their food from hunting and gathering, so they are not reliant upon agriculture and they trade for iron, so they were able to live a nomadic existence within the desert.


White Botswanans
The current white population of Botswana is much lower than that of her surrounding neighbours, and many of these are not permanent residents. This reflects the unusual history of Botswana; the fact that the country was a 'Protectorate' rather than a colony.

Note that this small numbers of white Botswanans are very different from the expat community (see below), who are often white but simply working in the country on a temporary basis. Many white Botswanans will trace their families back to colonial immigrants who came over during British rule, but most are citizens of Botswana rather than, say, British. This is generally an affluent group of people, a number of whom own and run their own businesses.

Totally distinct from the permanent population of citizens of Botswana who are white, there is also a significant 'expat' community in Botswana. These foreigners usually come to Botswana for two or three years, to work on short-term contracts, often for multi-national companies or aid agencies. Most are highly skilled individuals who come to share their knowledge with local colleagues – often teaching skills that are in short supply in Botswana.

There are also a significant number of foreigners working in the safari industry. These are often residents of other southern African nations who come to guide or manage camps for a few years, although as work permits become increasingly difficult to obtain, numbers of expats in the safari business are slowly starting to fall.

^ Top of page