Tag: identity

Botswanan or Batswana? It’s complicated


Flag of Botswana
Flag of Botswana

I’ve been pondering about the origin and meaning of the two terms, Botswanan and Batswana. How nationals in African countries self-identify and how they identify their fellow citizens can tell us a lot about the level of inclusiveness and nationalism in a country.

According to Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, the correct English term for nationals from Botswana is Botswanan. Therefore, it’s the preferred term by editors and writers worldwide. The majority of nationals from Botswana prefer the use of the complicated term Batswana. The addition of “Ba” meaning “the people of”, seemingly implies that everyone in Bostwana is Tswana. This makes it a term loaded with problematic histories of colonialism, exclusion and ethnic relations.

Who then, is Botswanan?

Botswana’s political borders were formed under colonial rule, bringing together diverse ethnic groups who comprised Bechuanaland. It was renamed Botswana in 1966 when the country gained independence from Britain. Today, it continues to be a multi-ethnic society.

Its main ethnic groups include the Tswana, Kalanga, Batswapong, Babirwa, Basarwa, Bayei, Hambukushu, Basubia, Baherero and Bakgalagadi people. In addition, there are other minority groups including whites, Indians and immigrants from other African nations.

Colloquially, all these ethnic groups are referred to as Batswana. However, applying the term Batswana to them is misleading.

Who then, is Tswana?

Nearly four million people who identify as Tswana live in southern Africa – one million in Botswana and three million in South Africa. It is used to describe the North Sotho, West Sotho, Sotho, and Pedi ethnic groups who have a similar culture and speak the same language.

The West Sotho Tswanas live in Botswana. They consist of eight ethnic groups and together make up a sizeable amount of the inhabitants, comprising roughly 70% of the population.

Due to their numbers, Tswana language and culture dominates mainstream Botswanan society. They have a distinct culture that is different from the other ethnic groups living in Botswana in terms of social organisations, ceremonies, language and religious beliefs. Therefore, a unifying Tswana culture that distinguishes them exists. Culturally, they are arguably more similar to the Pedi and Sotho in South Africa then they are to some ethnic groups within Botswana. Therefore, the term Batswana can be seen as a reflection of the presence of a dominant Tswana culture in Botswana and not a reflection of the multi-ethnic society Botswana actually is.

Botswana does not constitute a homogenous nation with a single language or culture. Therefore, the term Batswana should not be an umbrella term for all of the people within Botswana’s borders which include non-Tswana groups who have a different culture and may speak their own language. Additionally, anyone speaking the Setswana language should not be considered Batswana because this dominant language needed to function in contemporary Botswana where 26 languages are spoken. Therefore, an ability to speak a language doesn’t make a person the ethnicity of the people from which that language derived. As an example, the ability of the Khoi-San to speak Setswana does not technically make them West Sotho nor Batswana.

Who then, is Basarwa?

The Basarwa, who are commonly known as the Khoi-San or “Bushmen”, are often lumped in to this broad category of Batswana. They are made up of Khoi and San people who are further divided into distinct groups with their own languages and culture. They have long resisted being labelled terms such as “Bushman” and even “Khoi-San”. Calling them Batswana would just be the latest name to be forced on a group that has struggled to maintain their identity and culture.

Their identification has always been problematic. They are thought to be the “original” people of Botswana. The government does not award them (nor any other ethnic group) “indigenous” status though – they maintain that all citizens of the country are indigenous in order to promote a sense of “sameness”. In part, this is an attempt by the government to incorporate them in the dominant culture by promoting a strong sense of national identity and “developing” them to fit in with Batswana people who are considered “modern”. By labelling them Batswana they are forced to identify as such or risk being labelled as “backward” or otherwise “othered”, which marginalises them. In part, it is also an attempt at controlling their resources, culture and land – for tourism and diamonds – under the pretext of homogeneity or “oneness”.

Given the aforementioned relations between the Baswara and the Tswana-speaking groups, calling them “Batswana” when they feel their culture is threatened by them is problematic.

Similarly, other groups in Botswana may feel similar offense when being called Tswana for much less severe reasons such as simply not being Tswana.

Who then, is Batswana?

Simply speaking, the term Batswana is problematic for those ethnic groups such as the Khoi-San with their own cultural, linguistic and genealogical identities.

Botswanans need to be more conscious when they identify everyone from Botswana as Batswana in order to be more inclusive of the minority groups. Such a loose term which is meant to unify people can have the opposite effect by further marginalising minority ethnicities.

Next time someone problematises my use of the term Botswanan, my simple response will be, “What then, are the Basarwa?”

Sitinga Kachipande is a blogger and PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech with an African Studies concentration. Her research interests include tourism, development, global political economy, women’s studies, identity and representation. Follow her on Twitter: @MsTingaK


The Rachel Dolezal fiasco: Are we all just playing at race?

Rachel Dolezal. (Pic: AFP)
Rachel Dolezal. (Pic: AFP)

I am a Puerto Rican Jamaican of Chinese decent.  Well that’s not technically true but in a post Rachel Dolezal world it could be.

The recent ‘outing’ of the ex-NAACP Washington branch president who’s been accused of falsely portraying herself as a black woman has the world once again grappling with notions of race, culture appropriation and to what extent Elvis and Eminem stole black music.

After being ‘exposed’, Rachel Dolezal has said that she identifies as black. ‘I definitely am not white’.  She has said that she’s always seen herself as black to the extent she used the ‘brown skinned crayon ‘ when drawing herself as a child. However, her parents refute this claim, saying she probably had not even met any black people during this ‘artistic period’ of her youth.

Her past as a little white girl who possibly knew no black people did not stop her from becoming a pretty prolific ‘black woman’ who went on to lecture about the Black Power movement, release statements on movies about black history and hold a leading role in one of America’s top advocacy groups that champions the rights of African Americans.

Debate has raged on about what it is that can make a person change race – rather than what makes one engage in a gross act of appropriation.  What does it mean to be x race? When Micheal Jackson changed skin colour, was he still black?

When we speak of ‘white trash’ or ‘black excellence’ who is it that are included in these and other racialised categories?

We cannot ignore the fact that to some extent race is very superficial in nature: it is how you look. As much as I may want to be a pretty white blonde girl I cannot be because people will take one look at my mocha skin and be like ‘sugar honey bear you are not a white girl’. I may be able to possibly pull off blonde, but not white.

However, one must also consider the performative aspects of race, the behavioural aspects that are supposedly indicative of a race. For example, when Julius Malema once lashed out at a BBC journalist, saying ‘don’t come here with that white tendency’, many people instantly knew – or thought they knew – what he meant. Of course, not everyone would have the same ideas but the notion of a core group of ideas remains. Personally, I always think of white tendencies as the ability to go from zero to call your manager in five seconds flat, but this could be a side effect of having lived in Cape Town for too long.

Back to the Dolezal matter. What does having the ‘right criteria’ to belong to a certain race entail when there are so many ideas that come with it? To her credit, Dolezal embodied what it is to be a black woman to such an extent that no one called her out on it for over a decade. Her track record is quite impressive. She studied at the traditionally black Howard University and did her Master’s thesis in Fine Art as a series of paintings presented from the perspective of a black male, focusing on the journey of what went on inside the mind of a black male.

Not to mention she kept her hair game on fleek, as the youth like to say.  One friend went on record saying that ‘she would have fooled you too.’

(I haven’t managed three years without being called out on something that would qualify me as being a ‘white girl’, having only now been saved by my dreadlocks and love of smooth jazz.)

However the deeper question is:  has this need to keep the notion of racial traits pure left us with something lacking nuance and depth? For example, to say something is black in nature is somewhat tricky because is it African American or African? Is it Nigerian in nature or Rwandese or North African? Or does it have a Bob Marley Jamaican feel to it?

The Dolezal fiasco makes me question what it means to be a certain race. What does it mean for these fixed categories when some can blur the lines to such an extent?  For all intents and purposes Dolezal had all the makings of a black woman:  the integration into a community, the family, the academic credentials and the lived experience by being at the heart of the black struggle movement. Heck, she even had the hair and we all know how important hair politics are to the average black woman.

Thus in light of all this, did she lie by saying that she was black?

What we should be focusing on is not the way in which race can sometimes be ‘put on’ or ‘taken off’ but the way in which there are consequences to ‘wearing’ this supposedly ‘non-existent’ identity.  Race, like any other identity, does not exist in a vacuum as something one can simply don and or take off with no consequence or context. It exists within a larger framework that works to create a hierarchy, privileging some over others.

The Dolezal case has exposed the fundamental discomfort we all feel: the notion that some people can cross this line, and manoeuvre within this structure at their own ease whilst others remain chained to it, unable escape the consequences of racial societal forces.

When people talk about how race does not really exist they discount the reality that has been borne in notions of racial identity. To do so is to deny the historical and contemporary structure that makes skin bleaching a multibillion-dollar industry, the history that made slavery, apartheid and colonisation possible, and how this history plays out today. It is to deny occurrences such as #BlackLivesMatter and debates that stem from #JeSuisCharlie (or JeNeSuisPasCharlie). It has the possibility of discounting the fact that when millions of Africans die they are simply a number, but when one French couple is murdered it is international news.

It denies the nuances, inequalities and hierarchies in existence that affect people’s lives daily, that mean the difference for some between life and death, being afforded humanity or not.

The Dolezal case not only shows us the ghostly nature of the racial structure but also to what extent many of us are unable to escape this ethereal jail that we have built ourselves.  This is what scares us the most. We have realised we are trapped in something that fundamentally does not exist, but still we have no real way of escaping it. Those who sometimes attempt it do it extremely badly (here’s looking at you, Iggy Azalea) while those who succeed in blurring the lines are met with scorn and suspicion.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of holaafrica.org, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’s identity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter: @tiffmugo

Defining ‘the African woman’: Save your labels for Tupperware

(Flickr: James P. Wells)
(Graphic: Flickr / James P. Wells)

If there is one thing that I love to do it’s organise things. There is something wonderfully joyous about clothes that are sorted according to their colours, shoes organised by heel height and e-mails that are slotted into descriptive categories and archived. It’s systematic. It’s blissful! It’s neat, and to me neat means manageable. I love neat like I love Tupperware, shelves and label makers. The problem with this ritualistic tidiness is that it doesn’t translate so well in the real world. People are by their very nature inconsistent and chaotic yet for some reason we often refuse to acknowledge that. Nowhere – in my experience – is there more labelling and identity policing than in the LGBT community.

If one takes a glimpse into not-so-conforming Black Woman spaces, one will find a mess of labels and rituals. There is very little freedom to manoeuver because, oftentimes, you are exiled to a box that defines your mannerisms, behaviour, speech, style and the people you like. I remember being on a date with a woman when she made a comment like “you femmes have it easy”; it stopped me dead in my tracks. At the time I didn’t quite have the language to tell her my thoughts on the subject other than to say “Uh… I don’t like labels, it’s just not something I do but I will call myself African“. In retrospect, after countless accusations about my gender identity and romantic preferences, I realise that statements like that are inherently selfish. It is selfish to tell people who and what they are based on some measure that you have chosen for yourself.

African women are complicated. How we live and love is complicated. Our politics and ideals are woven into the way we are and not because of an adherence to some ideology. There are numerous pieces written about “fat shaming” and body politics, and these are important, but other people actually live body affirmation. They carry their small breasts and muscular arms with pride and are quick to appreciate the beauty of a short round woman with a full belly and child-worn breasts. They acknowledge womanhood in its various forms and do not need words like feminism, queer-theory, discourse and praxis to do so because they live Black Womanhood. They head households, love their partners, appreciate the power of female friendships and do this all while being driven by something internal and unregulated by the outside world.

I sometimes wonder whether it is this fundamental understanding of our womanhood that creates a sense of cohesion among us. At almost all Black Women gatherings one will find that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t the common denominators. There have been numerous times where I was in “mixed company” – in the sense that we didn’t call ourselves the same things or live the same lifestyles. There would be women snuggling their girlfriends in one corner, engaged women, man-eaters, virgins, masculine women, the odd “down for whatever” girl and decidedly fluid women all in one room politicking and relating, just because. This is something that I think we need to work hard at nurturing and maintaining. African Women’s spaces should not become exclusive clubs where people only gain access by being “radical” or well-versed in anything other than living life in this skin, at this time.

People know themselves and it’s up to them to tell us who they are. Increasingly, African Women are more open about the fluidity in their being(s) so it is important to legitimise that fluidity. Nesting people’s “selfness” under rigidly defined labels isn’t cool and seems so counter-intuitive. There are people who are not sexually attracted to other people at all. There are also people who only find masculinity or femininity attractive and only in certain bodies. If one considers how deeply attraction and gender are rooted in the individual then it’s easy to see that it is not easy at all. It is complicated and not something that should confined within hard lines. People are not objects that can be collected, measured up and sorted. Identity necessarily changes and no matter how contradictory the people you have been are, they make sense in your story.

Culture makes things difficult because there is an archetype of who “the African Woman” is. People would describe her as maternal, strong, patient, traditional, long-suffering, soulful and protective. Her life is not her own, it belongs to her family and community. Think about it for a second… we all know who she is because she is the woman that lies in the cradle of our conscience and makes us wonder why we are the way we are. Still there are problems with who she is. She is the ideal but that doesn’t make her perfect. Nearly all of us know that we are not her and many more of us do not want to be her despite the fact that her voice has taught us how to understand ourselves.

However many of us have figured out that there are numerous ways of being a woman and many more ways of living up to the ideal. Since the nature of our self-exploration(s) is very much determined by our societies, what makes us outliers will be relative. In some cases it may be a person’s gender presentation and in others it could be the fact that they have piercings, tattoos and love FKA Twigs. This state of being “not-quite-” or “not-so-” or “non-conforming” is refreshing and it’s time to acknowledge that while our parents have already given us our names, we are also quite free to rename ourselves and respect that process in others.

Tatenda Muranda is a self-identified suit in a feminist activist. She co-founded HOLAAfrica and currently sits on the advisory committee for FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund. When she is not feministing she happily works in private equity in Johannesburg, South Africa.

How language connects us

When asked what my first language is, I often pause because it is not an easy answer. My first language was Chewa.  I spoke it like a native although I wasn’t one, but it has slowly faded away over time from non-use. I then learnt Bemba, English, Kaonde and Nyanja. At the time I didn’t realise that my experience as a child of foreign diplomats living in Malawi was quite unique. I had adopted the language spoken by my nanny, the cook, the driver and their children instead of English.

It was only at school where I came into contact with other children of diplomats that I was made aware of being different. Why didn’t I speak English? English came to me with time – I must’ve been 5 years old – and with it a whole new set of rules and airs. There were strict rules on enunciation and pronunciation, and it became very clear early on that this new language was considered superior to the languages I had spoken before.

I navigated my way through two worlds, speaking each language exclusively in different settings, but I always felt more at home with Chewa. This was likely because it was my first language but also because it connected me deeply to my family and earliest friends. The people I went home to allowed me to speak it without giving me stern looks or pinching their lips in distaste. Speaking it came without judgment.

The realities of the world we live in dictate that fluency in English and a handful of other European languages are required to be successful in our education systems and in the workplace. I can live with that, to a point, but it pains me to see indigenous languages falling by the wayside because they are not regarded as keys to success. I see evidence of this in Zambia where some parents explicitly tell their children that English is the only acceptable language in the home and then banish them from speaking anything else. This decision is made by parents whose own experiences taught them that “proper” English meant access to good jobs and advanced educational opportunities. The intent may be well-meaning but I’ve seen first-hand the alienation it brings when children are unable to communicate with peers or family members who are not fluent in English.

(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)
(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)

By speaking our languages we are doing more than stringing words together; we also learn about the underlying culture and influences. Honorific speech systems that exist in many Bantu languages are reflective of social structure, traditions and respect accorded to elders. These are intrinsic and complementary elements of culture and language. Furthermore, each language carries with it the history of the people who speak it and the areas it is spoken in.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of those spent at my grandmother’s feet, slowly reading from her KiKaonde Bible and hymn book. In those hours she augmented my reading lessons by teaching me about my maternal family and sharing wisdom through proverbs. Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language; they reflect accumulated knowledge and wisdom from past generations. I’m always in awe of these proverbs because they reinforce the fact that my people had a history before missionaries and colonisers landed on our shores.

This Kaonde proverb encapsulates so well the lessons from my granny: “Fukafuka uja twabakulu talalala wajamo kubulwa.” (Kneeling, you eat with elders; keep standing, you learn nothing.)  It means: “You learn a lot from elders when you are humble but not when you’re rude.”

Wisdom is not exclusive to speakers of foreign languages which continue to enjoy unparalleled dominance. Much of our history remains unwritten and is stubbornly passed down orally, and there is so much to learn and safeguard.

There should be no shame assigned to those who speak indigenous languages. A break from the past is needed; rigid rules in schools that see children punished for speaking their mother tongues only reinforce negative messaging about the hierarchy of languages and assign value to what is considered perfect or acceptable – posh, lightly accented speech.

Language is a key component of our identity and through it we can express our unique worldviews. We should honour multiple language and cultural identities. If we lose our languages we lose a way of life, a way of thought and a means of expression.

Though I often take for granted my fluency in multiple languages, I have come to appreciate the inordinate gift I’ve been given. While language is only one marker of a person’s identity, I consider it to be my most important one. Language ties me to my people and my country, and most importantly allows me to communicate. I miss speaking Chewa. Whenever I can, I spend time practising it or listening to audio. I intend to recapture this language of my childhood and add it to my treasure trove.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter