Making Botswana: Leatherwork

This series of blog posts is inspired by objects from Botswana which have been researched as part of the Making African Connections project. Many of these were collected by Reverend William Charles Willoughby, a missionary who lived and worked with Tswana people in what was then Bechuanaland in the 1890s. 

a large leather cloak with decorative patches in different shades of leather
R4007/7 cloak, 1890s

Tswana were pastoralists as a people, keeping cattle and also goats. This was an important social identity, so it’s no surprise that leather was a prevalent and important material for clothing, and remains a central part of culture for people from Southern Africa. Leather and skins from herded animals, like cattle and goats, as well as wild animals which were hunted, are part of the story of societal changes in the region over thousands of years.

a leather cloak with a square of darker leather in the centre
R4007/3 Apron / Mothikga, 1890s

Changes in the use of leather

Brighton Museum’s collection includes several large leather skins. By the time Willoughby was collecting in the 1890s, people were wearing a mixture of leather and woven clothing. Willoughby’s photographs from the time show both local and European styles of dress.

two historic photographs:a group of women with pots to collect water, and a group of men and two women outside a brick building
Left: Women fetching water from a spring in Palapye; right: a group of Batswana men and women, in Mafeking, South Africa (administrative centre of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland at the time) c. 1895. Photograph taken by Rev. Willoughby. Image courtesy of Neil Parsons.

This change was partly due to the influence of missionaries like Willoughby and, amongst the Bangwato, chief Khama III encouraged the wearing of European clothing as part of embracing Christianity. People were also becoming consumers in the changing economy created by colonialism. In the decades after Willoughby was collecting, leather skins with more elaborate designs were produced specifically for sale to tourists and collectors. For example, this cloak is from a similar collection to Willoughby’s which was collected 15 years later, now held at the American Museum of Natural History.

museum display of leather goods against a blue background
Goatskin mat and other leather-crafted objects on display in 2019. Courtesy of the Art Division of the National Museum of Botswana

Despite the huge changes since the 19th century, leatherworking as a craft has continued in Botswana. Today leather workers use similar tools, materials and techniques but produce mats for ceremonial use, rather than skins for wearing. Contemporary craft skills are showcased at an annual exhibition held at the National Museum of Botswana in Gaborone.

As part of the project, Khama III Memorial Museum curator Scobie Lekhutile interviewed leathersmith Edwin Keipedile at his home in Serowe. In this clip Scobie translates Edwin’s answers from Setswana to English.

brown goat skin aprons and waistcoats hanging on a market stallWhile leathersmiths like Edwin produce mats, there is still a market for ‘traditional’ looking leather clothing and accessories, which people wear for ceremonies. This image, taken during the team’s visit to Botswana in 2019, shows mass-produced goatskin clothing for sale in Gaborone Market Mall.

 

Herding vs Hunting

Long before the arrival of missionaries contributed to changes in dress, a major change in leather production in the area was in the move from hunted to herded animals. 

The first inhabitants of the Southern Africa area, over 150,000 years ago, were the ancestors of Khoe and San peoples (known as Basarwa in Setswana). They lived off the land, with some livestock, and were adept at hunting and gathering. Later (1,500 years ago) in what is known as the Bantu expansion, other peoples moved into the area who owned and herded large amounts of livestock, especially cattle. 

While San peoples were skilled in hunting, cattle-owning people brought with them a plentiful supply of herded animals. Leatherwork made from the skins of wild animals was prized because it was hard to acquire and demonstrated the skill of the hunter. Leather from domestic cattle did not have the same status attached, but was nonetheless invaluable for making things which could then be used in hunting.

a pair of flat leather sandals with leather thong straps
R4007/73 leather sandals, 1890s

These leather sandals, collected by Willoughby in the 1890s, are made from the skin of a herded animal, using the soft forehead skin of a cow. However this style of sandal was originally made from buffalo and wildebeest which were hunted, and hard to kill, making them a high status item. The sandals are still popular with hunters today, and are called rampechana in Setswana. Scobie explains:

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In the following clip Scobie talks to local elder Tshupo Ntono about his memories of wearing rampechana:

a bag made of the skin of a small antelope, with the hooves still attached
R4007/10 Duiker skin quiver bag / Motsistana, 1890s
several cane arrows and a tubular quiver made out of a hollow root
R4007/101-108 quiver and arrows, 1890s

Willoughby also collected a leather bag made out of the skin of a duiker (a type of small antelope which is the totem of the Bamangwato). This was labelled as a ‘corn bag’, but partners in Botswana thought it was more likely to be part of an arrow quiver, used to transport hunting equipment, and for gathering items en route.

a tan leather belt with a strap and a sealed pocket
R4007/11 hunting belt, 1890s

Another leather object related to hunting is this belt. Described as a ‘bullet belt’ it has pockets and places to attach equipment for easy carrying. This reflects the change from traditional hunting methods, such as the bow and arrow, to the use of guns. Scobie reflected that this object was probably made by a Tswana person who had seen European guns and equipment, and used their leatherworking skills to adapt to their needs: 

“…back then we were just like Basarwa. We were making things out of leather, we were making crude belts like this and taking pride in that …and only a mongwato or some kind of motswana will have a dream of you know, having something like that because they’ve seen the white man and have carried a gun for him. So, [the] next day when I go home, I try to fashion you know, make my own.”

Scobie Lekhutile

The greater availability of guns, and the fashion for big game hunting, has had a negative effect on the wildlife in Botswana. In the following clip, Scobie and Tshupo discuss the animals that were common in the area in the mid 20th century:

Watch the full interview with leathersmith Edwin Keipedile, Meeting Makers:

Rachel Heminway Hurst, Kathleen Lawther and Tshepo Skwambane, Making African Connections project

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