Makgabe (Setswana): to decorate or make something ornate.
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 in what was then Bechuanaland in the 1890s.
In addition to examples of crafts such as woodcarving, basketry, and leatherwork, the collection contains objects made from a range of manmade and natural materials including beadwork, metalwork, cocoons, roots, ostrich eggshells, and the hair, skins and teeth of powerful animals.
These items could all be described as accessories or ornaments for the body, but they had diverse uses. Many would have had meanings for their original users and owners, beyond decoration. This is something that was not recorded by Willoughby, but in some cases the significance resonates with people who live in the area where they were collected today. The museum team visited the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe, Botswana and spoke to the curators and local people about the objects.
Items worn for music and dancing
These rattles are called mathoa in Setswana, and are worn around the legs when dancing. They are an example of an object which was once mis-labelled in the museum. They were described as being made of seed pods, but are, in fact, made of the dried cocoons of the mopane worm, filled with small stones to create a rattling sound. Project curator Tshepo Skwambane explains the importance of describing objects from the point of view of the people who made and used them:
The rattles were originally made by Khoi and San people and used in celebrations for a good harvest. They were later adopted by Tswana people and other cultures in the region and are still worn for celebrations and ceremonial occasions. While some are made in the traditional way from cocoons, today they are also made from recycled plastic bottles. The Museum team collected contemporary examples of both types during their visit to Botswana and South Africa.
While visiting the Thapong Visual Arts Centre in Gaborone, Tshepo talked to musician and maker Zachariah Mhaladi about mathoa.
Items worn for health benefits
The collection contains dozens of examples of twisted and braided bracelets made out of copper and other metals. These bracelets also have a purpose beyond adornment – they are worn because copper is believed to have health benefits. Wearing copper is common across many cultures as a complementary medicine for conditions including arthritis and high blood pressure.
There is a long history of mining, smelting and working with metals in Southern Africa. Archaeological records show that copper has been mined in northeastern Botswana for about 1,200 years. An important site was in the Tswapong hills, near where the Khama III Memorial Museum is located, and where Willoughby collected.
While metalwork was produced in the area, there is also a culture of reuse and recycling of materials. Some of the metal used in the bracelets may have been manufactured locally, some could have been repurposed from scrap metal from railway works, or telegraph wires, both of which were introduced in the late 1800s when Willoughby was living in Bechuanaland.
Today people are still recycling metal which would otherwise go to waste. Artist and jewellery maker Martin Ndudzo talked to curator Rachel Heminway Hurst how he makes his bracelets, and explained how he makes use of metal off-cuts which he gets from his friend, who repairs fridges.
Items worn as talismans
Most of the things Willoughby collected were examples of ordinary or everyday objects, as explained in the previous blogs in this series. There are some notable exceptions which can be identified as being important possessions of powerful people. They contain materials taken from powerful animals, which were high status items. One example is this necklace with a leopard’s tooth pendant. Although it was not usual for people to part with such objects, it may have been the case that Willoughby was able to collect these because his association with Khama III and the three DiKgosi’s visit to England meant that he was an honoured member of the community in Old Palapye.
This beaded accessory was described in museum documents as an elephant hunter’s charm. It is made of four discs of elephant hide, onto which coloured glass beads are sewn. Each disc represents one elephant that the hunter had killed. Elephants are very sensitive to death and were known to sense part of another elephant’s corpse on the wearer. Items like this would have been worn as talismans for protection, or to bring good luck.
People wear accessories for many reasons: as part of celebrations, to express their identity, and to bring good luck. These traditions continue today. While interviewing beadworker Emily Botshelo about her crafts, the team discovered that she is a supporter of Township Rollers F.C., a football team based in the capital Gaborone. Emily used her crafting skills to make a beadwork headpiece in the team colours, as well as a crocheted skirt and shoes. The museum bought these accessories from her, along with a new team shirt, to make a complete supporter’s outfit, worn to show identity as a fan, support the team, and bring good luck on game days.
Rachel Heminway Hurst, Kathleen Lawther and Tshepo Skwambane, Making African Connections project team