The History and Future of Literature in Botswana: A Dialogue with Barolong Seboni

Barolong Seboni is a poet and writer from Botswana. His works include Images of the Sun, Screams and Pleas, Lovesongs, Windsongs of the Kgalagadi and Lighting the Fire, and several other publications that include a play; Sechele I , and Setswana Riddles Translated into English. He received his BA from the University of Botswana and his Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Botswana. He has completed a translation of Setswana idioms and proverbs into English. He is also co-founder of the University of Botswana Writers’ Workshop and the Writers’ Association of Botswana. He is also the founding chairperson of the Petlo Literary Arts Trust, and founding editor of Mahube literary journal of the Writers’ Association of Botswana. He has creative works in poetry, dramatic writing, newspaper column writing, translation and radio.

This dialogue was held in Gaborone with Gaamangwe Joy Mogami and Bame Mogami.

Gaamangwe: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be part of this dialogue. You are one of the pioneers of Botswana Literature. You have done a lot in terms of growing Literature in Botswana. You have seen the birth and rise of modern literature as we know it now. Botswana is celebrating her 50th year of independence and this naturally invites us to look at our journey, specifically our journey in literature. What are your reflections on the history of literature in Botswana?

Seboni: That’s an interesting question because we have a course here in the University called Botswana Literature, where we explore, investigate, interrogate and teach the literature of Botswana from the mid 70’s up to now. We start from that period because we believe that’s when there was a great flourish of literary activity in Botswana, especially in Gaborone. The establishment of the Writers’ Workshop in 1974/1975 is a marker for this as it became a central point in the discourse of literature in Botswana. Part of the activities of the Writers’ Workshop at the time was to organise and share poetry performances for the community, to organise conferences and workshops on Botswana and African Literature. The other reason for the literature flourishing and burgeoning was because of the establishment of a creative journal called Marang. We do acknowledge that there was Botswana literature even before that but an avalanche of great literary activities began in the mid 70’s. We had more writers writing poetry and short stories. A few writers were also publishing in journals and magazines in Botswana, South Africa and abroad. We had newspapers & magazine interviews and on the BBC and Voice of America. So there was a lot of great activity. And that is why it’s important that as a country we have such institutions. They not only inspire older and younger writers, but they also give them importance, inspiration and some sort of structure they can fall back on. However, before then the most obvious example of written literature is the bible, which was written in English and translated into Setswana. So that inspired not only literacy but also writing as well. When we talk about Botswana Literature, although I am concentrating on the literature that was written in English, we must always know and acknowledge that the original foundation of literature was in Setswana. And before that it was spoken in Setswana, in our folktales and storytelling. But for this course of contemporary literature we start from the 70’s. One of the influencing factors for literature flourishing at that time was of course the war of liberation that was going on all over Southern African countries surrounding Botswana. The direct consequence was the influx of political refugees and other exiles into Botswana. And some of these were notably writers, poets, journalists and artists, in their own right. The war of liberation created impetus for creativity because a lot of the themes at that time were predominantly from the struggle of independence. The language was very fiery and revolutionary, written by Batswana, observing what was going on around them. Even though Botswana was democratic, poets and writers showed concern for liberation in their work, because there was the question of how we were living with refugees and political exiles. There was an exploration of love relationships between Batswana women and South African political exiles. The couple falling in love but having issues of the man being in exile and involved in the liberation struggle.

Gaamangwe: Funny you say this because that theme is back now. There is a theatre play called Born Around Here, produced by Gao Lemmenyane. The play is about the exact scenario you are talking about. The play has been touring in both Botswana and South Africa. And it’s really good. It was just in Cape Town and people are being receptive to it because I think the dialogue of Batswana helping or being part of apartheid is something that many South Africans are unaware of. Or even us Batswana, we are not really truly aware of our role in it. So yes, continue.

Barolong: So, the struggle for liberation ceased towards the mid and late 80’s. Many countries within Southern Africa became independent and black people were ruling themselves except for few civil wars. So what then did Batswana write about? Well, the mid 80’s became the period of introspection for Batswana writers. We then started writing about our immediate environment, within our borders, our communities and our homes. The theme became more domestic, intimate, and introspective but still political and social, especially regarding internal political and social issues. For example, a poem by the late Albert Malikongwa, about a seemingly mundane thing like a train journey from Gaborone to Francistown in a fourth class carriage. And he talked about the deplorable conditions of the state of the carriage. He talked about spit on the walls, dirt everywhere and then he says “This is good for the black man, this is good for you and me”, sarcastically of course. Obviously poking fun at the time where the railways were owned by Rhodesian Railways under Ian Smith. So there were racial issues going on as well, that writers talked about within Botswana. I must admit it wasn’t all peaceful then. In 1985, there was a disruption where South Africa Defence Force marched into Botswana and bombed places in Gaborone. So writers wrote about that. Then we move to the early 90’s, where the literature showed for the first time the social phenomenon of the homelessness of street kids. Children who did not go home at night. That phenomenon started manifesting itself or at least writers, poets and civic societies started noticing and talking about it. Some of the people who started talking about it fearlessly and relentlessly were the women’s organizations. Because they were mothers, of course. So they were saying ; let’s pay attention to this. The writers and journalists were also talking about it in their literature and their newspapers. And the name “Bo bashi” came about, popularized because “Bashi” is every other boy, and at the time street kids were predominantly boys. So writers got on board with exploring issues of juvenile delinquency and homelessness. There was of course always the theme of love in both poetry and the short story. We had the rich boy and poor girl narratives. But we didn’t have a major novel until Andrew Sesinyi wrote “Love on the rocks ” in the late 70s, early 80’s. It did really well. It went into the schools and people talked about it. He then came with the theme of carjacking, which was a phenomenon at the time, in his novel “Carjack”. After Andrew Sesinyi, we had Unity Dow, who introduced a whole new thing of the female hero in the novel. The girl child at the center of society and events, whose story we then followed.

Gaamangwe: I have so many questions. So maybe we can start with the Novel. Because for me as a young person, I have interacted with mostly poetry and short stories from Botswana. But like you said the novel has been there since the 80’s. Even though it’s not so out there. I want to know, where is it now? What is the status for the novel by Batswana writers now?

Barolong: Well the novel has firmly taken root in Botswana and we have Andrew Sesinyi, Unity Dow, Lauri Kubuitsile, Toro Mositi and many others to thank for that. If you look very carefully you will see that some of them dabbled in short stories before they went full-time into the novel. In fact, there is a book entitled Novels of Botswana in English written by Dr Mary Lederer, where she discusses novels written from 1930 to 2006. We should of course also speak about the ones written before independence by non-Batswana. We can claim Sol Plaatjie who wrote Mhudi and other things. He was a Tswana speaking South African in the time before the borders between Botswana and South Africa were defined. So we can even claim him in that sense. He wrote at the turn of the century, the first English novel by a black person in this region. We also have institutions and structures like the Bessie Head Heritage Trust which organizes the annual writing competition and Petlo Literary Arts Trust which has found a niche in publishing Batswana writers . The Writers’ Association of Botswana founded in 1980, which is also linked to members of the Writer’s Workshop, has a huge impact on writing. Some of the people working on the craft of writing are members of the Writers’ Association of Botswana. So organizations like this are important because they have a huge role that they have played historically in sharpening writers on their craft.

Gaamangwe: How about the novelist of now? Because honestly I haven’t seen a novel that has been released by a Motswana writer that is also read by Africa and the rest of the world. If we think of other countries, we can say a lot about NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe, Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria, and Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya. Where is our Botswana novelist?

Barolong: Batswana are very busy writing novels and short stories. It’s just that a lot of people don’t know about it. Because our media doesn’t talk about it. All those foreign writers you talked about, you heard about them on TV or you saw reviews of their books in international newspapers. And you read them because they are available in the bookstore. We have two issues here. The lack of exposure that our writers experience. The media are doing its best but it’s never enough. The absence of non-commercialized and non-multi-corporate educational publishers. The publishers we have here publish only for the school. If it’s not in the schools you will never hear about it. The other problem is the most successful bookstores are foreign-owned. They are multinational franchises controlled in South Africa. And they don’t put anything on their shelves that Cape Town and Johannesburg have not approved. If they are not in the system then it’s so hard to get them into the shelves of this multinational franchises. CNA, it’s impossible to get your titles there as a Motswana. And yet they have shops here. Exclusive Books is a bit better but it’s still not enough. They will limit you to five copies, if you are lucky as a local writer. And there will even put it behind the shelf as the mainstream/ South African authors are right in your face. We have Smiths-Books Botswana, but it’s exclusively an academic book store, where they cater exclusively for University market. They are very good because although they are focusing on the university, they have a lot of titles by Batswana. They support literary competitions and donate to small organizations that want to publish local writers. We have benefitted from the collaboration with them. So that needs to grow. Unfortunately, the only indigenous bookstore that was doing well and exposing Batswana writers was Botswana Book Centre but there are not doing as well as they used to, both in publishing Botswana local writers and selling their works. So these are the problems we are having. So now to answer your question, where are the Botswana writers in the Novel? They are there. There is Lauri Kubuitsile who has recently published “The Scattering”, a novel set in Namibia, and she is also famous for Murder for Profit, the novel which came out in 2008. Although she was born in the United States, is a Motswana, who lives and works in Botswana. There is a novel by Christian John Makgala which came out in 2010 which is called the Dixie Medicine Man. It was quite a thick book, I can’t remember how many pages. And then there is a guy called Nsununguli Mbo who publishes outside Botswana. He is a medical doctor, with published novels such as Wrong Turn, The Crisis of the Heart and others. He has about five or six, so that’s quite substantial. And then we have Phidson Mojokeri’s Curse of the Dream published locally. We have Cheryl Ntumy who did The Crossing. Khonani Ontebetse who did Born with a Husband which was done by Pentagon Publishers in 2008. Pentagon Publishers is also a local publishing company. We have Tshetsana Senau’s Travelling to the sun: the diary of Ruth, Gasebalwe Seretse’s The Pursuit of Xhai and Andrew Sesinyi’s Rose of Birth, which came out in 2010. Yeah, we do have them but they are not out there. And that’s because of the problems that I told you about. They are published by small publishers, trusts or organizations. Some are self-published. And we don’t have a good distribution network like the commercial publishers do. And of course if it’s not in the school lists, it doesn’t get really far. It doesn’t sell.

Bame: So that kind of forces most writers in Botswana to write academic works. So my question is what are the themes that writers are writing about? Because I do read books but I don’t read a lot of Botswana Books because I don’t see them. And if I do read them it’s in school and I don’t think that I like reading in school that much. So I don’t really read with an open heart like “I am really enjoying this book”. So, what are writers writing about?

Barolong: Well from the titles I just read out it looks like writers are writing about all sorts of things. We just need to get the books and read them. We need to encourage the few books that are already here. We need to buy our local books. And now remember, Botswana literature has taken a new twist, well that twist has always been there. There are the indigenous native Botswana writers writing about their experiences in Botswana. And then there are outside, foreign writers who write about Botswana like Alexander McCall Smith from the No 1 Ladies’ detective novels. So there is that divide. Which raises the question; what is Botswana Literature? Which is a whole other conversation.

Gaamangwe: Yes. You spoke about indigenous languages or indigenous literature. Can we explore Setswana language and how that is interacting with the literary world?

Bame: Because like you said, the most known work is the Bible, which was translated from English to Setswana. And some of the things you have done are academic translation, from Setswana to English. So one of the things that I think about is Lost in Translation. Because when you do read a book that’s written in Setswana, and you are fluent in Setswana, you do understand what it means and you do understand what this person is talking about because that’s you. You have grown up in Botswana and you speak Setswana fluently. So the problem now when we come to this time, most people my age speak English and we don’t actually converse in Setswana. But my thing is why can’t we take books from outside and translate them to Setswana. So that we may get a reading culture. Because we were talking about how the publishers are having a problem with distributing your works as writers. So I think again, it’s because Botswana or Batswana do not have a reading culture. If we do read, we only read in a classroom setting and you just want to read that book in the classroom and go home and not think about it. So we have gotten to a point where Setswana is not a language where somebody will want to read the book or a literary work in. Someone will rather read a book written in English. And there is nothing wrong with that. But we are sort of losing ourselves in the process. We are losing Setswana as Batswana, because we don’t get to appreciate it. It seems like Setswana becomes an inferior language to English. My sister is a writer but she cannot write in Setswana but she grew up speaking Setswana. Why can’t she write in Setswana? And many, many other writers. Yet, there is nothing wrong with Setswana. There is a translation project recently done by Jalada Africa, where they turned one of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s short story into over 30 languages of Africa. A short story that was written in English and translated into other indigenous African languages. This included Kiswahili and other indigenous languages in Kenya, Igbo, Hausa, IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, Afrikaans and other languages in Africa.

Gaamangwe: And they are still inviting more people to translate the work to their native languages. Because Bame is right, you have done a lot of translation work, which is really amazing. You translated Botswana proverbs to English. So I think what she is asking is, what do you think about the fact that our translation is usually from Setswana to English not English to Setswana, and how that could actually change a lot in terms of where the literary world is right now. What if all your short stories and anthologies were translated to Setswana? Would that somehow increase or include more people and ultimately improve the reading culture?

Barolong: Well I don’t think so because even the works that are there in Setswana are only read in the schools. When was the last time you went to buy a Setswana novel?

Bame: I don’t remember.

Barolong: Exactly.

Gaamangwe: Because it’s academic.

Bame: And no one likes to read academic novels.

Barolong: No, no. There is a play called Motswasele II. It’s not academic, it’s just a dramatic play about Kgosi Motswasele of Bakwena. There is another one called Diphosophoso, which actually is a translation from the English Shakespearean comedy “Comedy of Errors”. Rre Raditladi wrote in Setswana, Prof M O M Seboni my grand-uncle, wrote in Setswana several works but you don’t see them outside the classroom. There are poems, short stories and novels in Setswana that are available. That’s why I believe that even if you were to translate something from English to Setswana it still wouldn’t sell. Unless it was put on the school syllabus.

Gaamangwe: But what if you were not thinking of the value in terms of only selling but in terms of what it can do to literature? Yes, we are not sure if it will sell, but readership?

Barolong: I still don’t think a lot of people will read them. The fact is there are more books in Setswana than there are in English because Setswana has been written over a longer period of time, but we don’t know about them. Why is that? Bame: Why do you think that is? Barolong: That’s the conversation I want you guys to get involved in. If you are interested in Botswana literature, why don’t you go to the Book Centre and buy a book written in Setswana?

Gaamangwe: I think we were talking about it. I think it’s also about the themes you would find in literary works in Botswana. Most of the works that you find here are usually social commentaries. We are always commenting on what’s going on, whether it’s about the war of liberation or “Bo Bashi”.

Bame: We are writing from the community’s perspective.

Gaamangwe: Yes, and I think currently young people are interested in the individual. We are looking for more introspective works. The intrapersonal rather than the outside. This is why we were thinking if we were to change our narratives especially looking at what is happening right now. When you go to poetry shows, there is a lot of “I” and what is happening to me. The issues that happen to an individual on a personal level. And people do connect with that. So I think there is that need to have stories that are more personal.

Barolong: Why is there that need?

Bame: Because times are changing. The youths are mostly interested in the self. We do know about community lives.

Barolong: Really? Young people don’t know their history, their grandfathers and how they lived. Young people are not interested in anything before 1966.

Gaamangwe: We are. It’s just how you tell the stories. Let’s take Things Fall Apart for example. It was about colonization in Nigeria, this was a book that was written in the late 50’s. With all the books that I have read I still remember Okonkwo because what Chinua Achebe did was take the history of Nigeria during colonization not as this big, bulky thing, but rather individualized everything to Okonkwo and we see colonization through one person’s eye, and you can truly learn about the history of this era and the particular discourse through the individual. So in terms of the books written in Botswana, are they also like that?

Barolong: Well we wrote a historical play called Sechele I. Nobody outside the university knows about it. And yet it’s there. It does exactly what you are saying. It takes the character of Sechele, who was the king of Bakwena, and his encounter with David Livingstone. How Livingstone converted him to Christianity and how he rebelled. It’s the story of Christianity in Botswana. It’s the story of how he unified Botswana. He is considered the first person to unite the Tswana groups into a modern nation, long before Independence, in the 1850’s. He died in 1892. But it’s also a story of how Christianity separated us. Tried to separate us from our culture. And it’s told through this one character. So yes, we do have that. But people don’t know about it. And I wonder why. Well, I know why. We are back to the same thing of distribution of books. It’s only available here in the university. When Book stores order it, they only order ten copies because it’s not in the school curriculum. But then we are back again to what I said before. Are young people interested? Your answer is yes. If they were, they would know about it. Cause it’s all over the media. It was covered in the newspapers when it came out. I talk about it all the time when I get an opportunity.

Gaamangwe: I think it’s also about… you see as the youth we are selfish, so it’s also about taking it to where we are, and that’s social media. When you say newspapers, the youth don’t particularly read print newspapers now, which is sad.

Bame: We are living in a global village. I am not always looking on what’s happening in Botswana only. I am looking on what’s happening in South Africa, UK and America.

Barolong: But shouldn’t you start in Botswana? Should you say, like Gaamangwe said, I want to know more about how we came here. I want to know more about how we became Christians. Surely there must be something that is written. Then you Google it.

Bame: You do Google, but you don’t find anything. I was recently doing research on Land and Minerals in Botswana, and it was one of the most difficult and hardest research ever, because when you research something, about five things come up. But when you research about something in another country about ten thousand things come up. A lot of people comment. It’s not only academic work but also personal, where someone is sitting at home and they say, let me comment on this. So I think one of the problems is where we are coming from. The fact that we do works for academic purposes only. For example, has anyone ever done critical reviews on the Sechele book?

Barolong: You are right. There’s not been a lot of reviews. It’s a drama, nobody has taken the challenge to say “let me show people this on stage”. Sechele is an interesting play as I said, it interrogate the history of Christianity in Botswana. It asks the question; “did Sechele sell out when he converted?”. Because Livingstone made him divorce three of his wives and remain with one. He said if he didn’t do it then he wouldn’t baptize him. He also neglected his duties as rain maker when the people needed him most.

Bame: That’s interesting. So yeah, that’s what we are trying to say. We don’t have many people doing reviews and interacting with such important plays. So here is the thing, barge me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because that’s where I spend most of my time. And I am really, really sorry that, that’s where I spend most of my time but I cannot apologize for that again because I am part of society as much as I am an individual. And right now that’s where I get most of my news and where the community interacts most. I do follow pages that do inform me about books and novels and the literary world on a daily basis, but I do not have pages from Botswana that do inform me about books, book reviews, press conferences and book reading where the novelist comes and shares with us what they were thinking when they were writing their story. So I think that’s the problem, why we don’t have a reading culture. And so I do think that if we did all these things, try translating our works to our languages and engaging with more of the youth in social media then we can change the world. I am being optimistic here but I do think we need more people who elevate and not just people who elevate people who are already elevated. We need more stories that talk about us and our experiences.

Barolong: Do you think if we translated these novels and plays into Setswana, more people would read them in Botswana?

Bame: For me, I think it has to start with the fact that we are writing stories for academic works only. But if we are to translate these works into Setswana and we don’t introduce them as something that you have to read and pass the exam, but we just introduce them as something for leisure. It’s as simple as that.

Barolong: Then they won’t read them, will they?

Gaamangwe: We need to cultivate that culture anyways. I think so. We were talking earlier that our grandmother reads a lot of the bible because I think it’s one of the few texts that is in Setswana, and other than the fact that she is Christian, I do think that she is at an age where she is meditating about life and human existence and whatever her life has been and I think that if she had an opportunity to read your “Windsongs of the Kgalagadi” poetry in Setswana, I think she would be open to that. Right now she can’t because she can’t read English.

Barolong: But why don’t you buy Setswana Books at the Book Center ? The Setswana Books are cheap by the way. Maybe because they are there on the shells for a long time so they reduce the price, or because they are bought in bulk for schools.

Bame: That’s true. But also I think the change has to be big and so we also need to change the narrative. I really do like reading African stories but one book that I think is really good is Across the Bridge by Mwangi Gicheru. It wasn’t about the single story of Africa. You know the usual stories about sufferings, wars, colonization and all those really depressing parts of our realities. And it’s okay, those are part of who we are. We are not saying forget it. But it doesn’t always have to be about that.

Barolong: What was it about?

Bame: It was about a boy who was a criminal who fell in love with a girl. So he didn’t have money to support the girl so he went back to robbing banks because he wanted to impress the girl. At the end of the day it was so beautiful because Mwangi was like he is like “moth to flame”. He keeps going back to the bad things even though he know they are going to burn him. And the girl was his flame. And it was a love story in Africa. Not set in the old times like Lentswe la Baratani. It was just so modern. And they are people like that living in Africa who actually  steal because they want to impress a girl. It’s very well written. It was a simple story.

Gaamangwe: It was also not a social commentary. Also coming from the fact that the story was told from the criminal himself. It just brings a new thing here, because it’s no longer about “oh look at the criminal and what he is doing”. It’s about see the reality of this character, who typically will not be a hero but in this story they are a hero. In this way we get to learn about human existence and human realities. And understand other people. I think Literature is supposed to do that.

Barolong: Yes. It is meant to do that.

Gaamangwe: So bringing this to Botswana, how do we change the state of literature such that we have a lot of people reading our work, people writing novels that become well-received and read by Batswana and other Africans?

Bame: Say someone writes a book and it is so received by Batswana. Obviously one of the other factors is the population in Botswana. But if it is well received and it has great reviews, there is going to be a demand for it to be translated to other languages. Just like the Jalada Translation project. So maybe we need to change our narratives. I think it won’t be easy but it can be done.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Barolong, you have done so much in different platforms for literary works and also interacted with other creatives in different spaces. What have you learnt in this endeavor? What are the pros and cons for literature in Botswana?

Barolong: Yeah, as I have said we have a lot of challenges. Mostly structural and systemic. And they are outside our control. We can only write. Our duty is to write. The other aspects such as book selling, distribution, buying and the economy are beyond our control. All we can do in order to facilitate our writing and our books getting out there is to appeal to the superstructure. And say “what are you doing for the creative industry or let’s partner with you, superstructure”. And create a viable and creative industry. Let’s talk about the economic structure of the creative industry as an alternative to Diamonds and agriculture and other businesses. And also create less dependency on dominant industries by creating alternatives. We have identified that nurturing the creative industry and creating a viable industry is part of the solution to a vibrant economy. Look at the chain of this industry; writer, publisher, printing, distribution, book selling and the reader. If government focused on developing it, by injecting some funds into all these different components, it then becomes a machine that replicates and duplicates itself. Then once the initial injection is done in the next generation it will run itself. I mean Hollywood is running America. That’s the creative industry.

Bame: The arts are very important. I mean even during Hitler’s time the arts were something he was interested in. He is not a great example but Germany in the 20’s and 30’s was great because of that. They believed in the arts and concentrated on that. So America took over after the fall of Germany. So that’s what we know about America, the arts. So we really have to focus.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Another point is that this systemic issue is not just a trend in Botswana. It’s almost all over Africa. You find that some of the writers considered successful have published outside Africa. This begs us to ask, to be successful as a writer do you need to leave Africa and go to America where the literary world is thriving and the system in place is established? Which is not a good thing because I do think that it’s important that we do things by ourselves here at home and try by all means to build this creative art form. But the way things are right now… Successful writers are either based outside Africa or they have been published outside Africa. And this doesn’t apply to established writers only. Upcoming authors are participating in competitions that are outside their own countries. Do you find that this trend is also common here in Botswana?

Barolong: Yes, this looks like a trend because African writers are finding that in order to really crack it big time they have to publish outside. Lauri Kubuitsile’s recent book is published by a multinational corporate, this means it will reach a wider readership. It was launched in Namibia, maybe because it’s set there. Also in Maun. Kubuitsile is one of our most consistent and widely published writers. Wame Molefhe is another, also published outside. So the way to grow this industry is by encouraging the small publishers. Let’s get local works into the syllabus because they are good. And also this will give writers that push.

Gaamangwe: That’s true. Like why it is that Sechele wasn’t studied in school?

Barolong: Who knows? But we did submit it.

Gaamangwe: I don’t know, are they still doing Goggle Eyes in high school? Because this is the other thing, why aren’t we changing our syllabus regularly with new works by Africans, by Batswana writers for our Batswana students to study? This is very important because this is part of our history.

Bame: I also really like your translation of Setswana riddles book. It reminds me so much of our childhood because we used to play this games as kids but I don’t remember any of them now.

Gaamangwe: We didn’t know what they meant as kids. And so it’s amazing when you read something and you get the meaning of what you were saying all along. This reminds me of Khutsie Kasale’s article about how Setswana is a spiritual language. She was saying for example, how we often think of the word Dumela as just hello, when essential it means To Believe. And so when you say Dumela to someone, you are saying I believe in you, I acknowledge you. That is really powerful. Setswana is more spiritual than we realize. And I only learnt this through this creative work. So I do think that meditating and translating our proverbs, riddles and idioms is vital. Also it expands your own understanding of our identity. Where we come from.

Barolong: I agree. We address these concerns through Sechele I. You see here, it is written in English but the English is such that an Englishman will say “what kind of English is this?”. It’s the type of English that is infused with Setswana thinking. The way the character speaks is not in the English of England. It is the English of Setswana. That’s what we are experimenting with. We want to come up with a language which on the surface can be called English but it’s much deeper than that. It is a language like what Chinua Achebe did in Things Fall Apart. It is a language that carries a lot of Setswana and its culture in it. Let me give you an example. The back story is this; Mosielele was the chief of Bahurutshe, those who settled in Manyana. And he was running from the Boers. In those days, there was no Botswana as you know it. It was the land of Sechele. The land of Kgama. The land of Bathoeng. There were actual countries. So the minute you cross the river by Ramotswa, you were entering Sechele’s country. Mosielele was afraid of the Boers so he crossed that river. Sechele then received him but the Boers were after him. So they approached him. So this is how the dialogue goes; Boer Commander: Where is Mosielele? We want Mosielele, why won’t you give him to us? Sechele: We have spoken words between us, me and Mosielele. I have swallowed his words, he has eaten mine. We are not like you white people who have no respect for words. You keep them in paper and capture them and imprison them in the walls of your pens. You drowned them in your ink and create the magic of meaning through papers and books but you have no respect for words. You trap words in trite and agreements and then you unleash them to grab tracks of lands and minerals and cattle that do not belong to you. You hide meaning in the forest of words, in pages of laws but you do not obey this words. You do not honor your own treaties and agreements and laws and, and how can I say this? … And policies. Recently, you have spoken secretly to the British and written an agreement that stops all black people from buying guns without even telling us. Mosielele has taken my words and I have swallowed his. He thrives on the words that I have fed him, in the cradle of my stomach, that is my policy, that is my trite, those are my words. Boer Commander (agitated): Is it war you seek with us? Your actions are only leading to war. Surrender him because we know you have him. Sechele (very slowly and raising his spear and pointing at the commander): Mosielele is in the belly of a cannon. A cannon, you are stoking, a cannon that will soon explode. I am that cannon. He is the sediments that lies at the bottom of the Kolobeng River and you seek to disturb the stillness of his waters. Mosielele is within me. I carry him in my womb like the cow that will give birth to bullocks …. and so on and so forth.

Gaamangwe: Wow. It’s amazing. Oh my God.

Bame: I do get it! Because this is how Batswana speak. So you did a sort of direct translation into how we actually speak.

Gaamangwe: This is amazing. You should also translate it to Setswana and have this play at the theatre because people should know about our history, especially right now. Botswana is going to a new era, the last part of the century. It’s important to know our identity. It’s important to know how this story has affected us, who we are right now. Because most of the time we do not know but our history does affect us right now. So this book is amazing.

Barolong: Yes. And it is based on actual events, although the words are twisted here and there.

Gaamangwe: I do think people will read if it was in Setswana. That question you asked earlier. I think they would. I think if this was in the academic syllabus in high school. I think people might get interested in Literature because this isn’t constrained to just moral education, it’s a very creative work about our history. This is what I was talking about with regards to Things Fall Apart. It’s the same to what Sechele can do. So it’s amazing and exciting that this work exists. And we don’t know about it. Now, let’s talk about Petlo Literary Arts trust, you founded this?

Barolong: Yes. Petlo Literary Arts Trust is a registered trust with government. Its objectives is to support and encourage creative arts in Botswana through workshops. To find a niche in the publishing world and publish creative works by Batswana, on a small-scale. We are also liaising and collaborating with other writers in and outside Botswana. And lastly, we aim to acquire land in Botswana to establish a writer’s village. We have found a piece of land along the Okavango River, can you imagine? So we have the land, we just need sponsorship to build the writer’s retreat village.

Gaamangwe: That is so poetic. That is so amazing because many writers need space to do their creative work. So Okavango River, will just be perfect for this. What Petlo is doing is important because as we discussed we need establishment like this that will help in the process of writing. So you guys are doing a great work. Literature is so vital, for every community because it tells us of who we are. It tells us of where we have been and who we can become. Because you have to look at your past and make an informed decision. Literature can serve as that. Oral storytelling has always been in our culture, but now we also need to document our stories. In Print as well as online. And have Batswana and the rest of the world read our work. So now, tell me about Thinking Allowed?

Barolong: Thinking Allowed is a collection of articles I wrote for a column I had when I was writing for newspapers such as The Guardian, The Gazette and The Sun. It’s basically humor,using satire and sarcasm to comment on the social and political situations in Africa and particularly in Botswana. We published the collection after six years. First publication was in the 1990’s, second time was about 5 years ago, so now it sold out so we need a reprint. Thinking Allowed is a precursor to another column that became popular called Nitty Gritty with The Guardian and Mmegi. It’s also a social column based on an imaginary Shebeen that these characters go to everyday, and they discuss politics, life, religion, sex and relationships. It’s also satirical. We have been doing that for almost twenty years. So now we are planning on publishing it.

Gaamangwe: That’s sounds like important and exciting projects. So my last question. You have done everything, which is very impressive because to strive in this field in Botswana is a big deal. To keep writing in all formats and in all opportunities that you find. You have made sure you keep doing what you love, which is impressive and commendable. So what is your hope for the future? What do you hope for Botswana and for Botswana Literature?

Barolong: I hope that government, and the nation will realize the importance of literature. Literature is a way that we can have the whole world know about us in a truthful way. Literature is the opposite of everything that is propaganda, everything that is not good. Literature is the highest form of civilization. We measure a nation’s progress through its literature. You get to the deeper psyche of the society by reading its literature. Nobody is going to know us through our politics, because that’s temporary. Nobody is going to know us through our economy because that changes every day. The world will know us, who we really are, warts and all, through our literature. Because that’s long lasting, that’s eternal. We know about the ancient Greeks and ancient Rome through their literature and arts and architecture. We are not concerned about their politics and economics. That has fallen and risen and fallen. But their art, that has lived forever. It’s living through their literature. Also, in order to have economic diversification, we need to focus and develop the creative industry. That needs an initial injection from Government. But after that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a self-generating machine that will in the end put bread on the table of lots of Batswana. We talked about the USA and other nations where a major part of the economy comes from the creative industry. And for us Botswana, it is important at this point in time for us to find and explore alternatives to our economic diversity.

Gaamangwe: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for allowing us to hold this conversation on such a vital topic, also on the most important time of our history.

Bame: Thank you for allowing me to be here.


Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, screenwriter, playwriter and founder of Africa in Dialogue. Bame Mogami is a law student at the University of Botswana, I AM AFRICA Fashion Initiator, and guest interviewer for this dialogue.    

8 thoughts on “The History and Future of Literature in Botswana: A Dialogue with Barolong Seboni

  • October 1, 2016 at 5:15 am

    I really loved this Dialogue, you cannot believe i read Shakespear’s comedy of errors in Setswana when i was a in my early teens and i remember most of it to this day, so yes i do agree,it is important to have a Setswana translation for some of the popular books, not just for us but our children as well. And what Bame said is important, in Botswana we have a tendency to elevate those who are already elevated and therefore miss out on a lot in terms of popularizing our literature and our arts, I learnt quite a lot and might just go get Barolong’s book after this

      • October 2, 2016 at 6:22 am

        Thank you Khutsie. I agree that we need to translate our popular stories to Setswana. We need to write our history because few of us actually know about the rich history of our country. Imagine if we read this books in high school? That’s how you start a reading culture. You should definitely get Barolong’s book. Very informative and entertaining!

  • October 1, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    This dialogue is super! Great piece to read and very informative. I think Mosielele was the Chief of Bakgatla ba ga Mmanaana, NOT Bahurutshe of Manyana.

    • October 2, 2016 at 6:26 am

      Thank you for reading the dialogue Olefhile. You are right it’s Bakgatla Ba ga Mmanaana. I will edit this in the dialogue.

      This is great because it’s by writing and reading dialogues about our history that we can learn from each other. We can write and know the right information too!

  • October 3, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    The first step is building to institutionalize art, then collectivism drives forward the mandate of its entire membership to sustain the market (audience/community) Effort is to challenge the very artist/creative to join forces and profile an attractive literary package to offer to the dynamic literary market, for instance, in Chobe, we have established Chobe Alliance for Arts Organisation as a creative-cultural-tourism hub that profiles and packages creative arts to local tour operators as creative cultural travel activities through collaborative (social) business. And as requisite, government MUST infuse in explicit terms ‘art as business’ legalities, forums and consultative networking. And so on. A building block, a process. A three legged pot. Takes time. Ought patient. But a journey worth travel, I believe. Action is louder than said.

    I have had an experience with the ‘book market’ locally and it seem(s) to be a dog-eat-dog kind of thing. I remember that even UB Library or Ministry of Youth (Empowerment) Sport & Culture got very few copies. One has to find his own way to define his/their product market and product mobility opportunities, hence resorting to publish and distribute outside mother country to get the ‘benefits’ of his/her creative work.

    Botswana has got a long way in recognising its own talent, nurturing and supporting such through imperative structures for the creative industry. Re a itshokolela rona bo eseng-mang. Self belief is key but we need such efforts and voices for ALL.

  • December 15, 2018 at 9:47 pm

    I hope I’m not too late to reply. I am a young writer and for a while, I was wondering how can I take my talent out to the world, so the quest evolved and I came across this dialogue, which had my eyes glued to it until the very last full stop.

    My mind has opened and a lot of questions I have been answered, few of them being, do we have local novelists or was I going to be the first. If there are there, who are they and how come we do not know about them because in every bookstore I walk into, mostly its American and European literature, the small corner of African literature is mainly South African, Nigerian and Ghanian.

    Through this dialogue, I am aware of the major challenges local writers face in their career.
    and from my observation, we grow up with a mindset that writing is not a profession it’s a white man’s hobby, something you do to pass time, and if it goes to being a career, you will be a lecture or newspaper article writer, we do not believe one’s career can be a novelists, making living out of it. These are a few errors we have to deal with in order to encourage writers and to cultivate the reading culture.

    I wish to say more, and I would really like to meet the panellists.


    • January 8, 2019 at 2:09 pm

      Dear Neo,

      Thank you so much for reading our dialogue and reaching out! We have the same sentiment as you! There is a huge need to document writing and storytellers in Botswana and Africa. But yes, there are writers in Botswana who are eager and ready to write! Our annual workshop project ‘Writers in Dialogue’ for Batswana writers has shown us this. It will happen this March. I highly recommend you keep checking our website and social media networks for updates on our activities in Botswana. Keep writing. We hope to see you then!


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