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Making Botswana: Women’s work

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Making Botswana is a series of posts inspired by objects from Botswana in RPMT’s collections 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 the Bangwato people in what was then Bechuanaland in the 1890s. 

You can read more about the significance of the collections in the first blog in the series. Each blog will explore connections between the objects in RPMT’s collection and the history and contemporary culture of Botswana. For International Women’s Day, this post explores the role of women in making Botswana.

Women’s role in making Botswana

Women played an important role in the formation of modern Botswana and have made an enduring impact on society, including in the creation of public sector services. Prominent women include Gaositwe Keagakwa Tibe Chiepe, who was the first female cabinet minister in the country, and first woman High Commissioner to represent Botswana in London. The objects that Reverend Willoughby collected show little evidence of women’s role in late 19th century Bangwato society. Unlike some collectors, he did not make notes about the people who he collected from. Despite these stories being ‘missing’ from the collections, the team felt it was important to highlight the important role that women played in making Botswana.

Subtle power 

The running of Bangwato society is traditionally centred around the Kgotla. This is a public meeting headed by a chief where community decisions are made. The Kgotla is democratic, with anyone being allowed to speak, but historically women were not allowed at the Kgotla. 

In this clip project curator Tshepo Skwambane talks about the Kgotla and changes in Tswana society:

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Women had no direct power at the Kgotla, but were able to have influence in the community in more subtle ways. Within the ruling families, women had an important role in succession planning. You can read about the role of Semane Setlhoko Khama, Khama III’s fourth wife, in a blog by Special Collections staff at SOAS, where the records of the London Missionary Society are held.

Black and white portrait of a woman standing with her hand on the shoulder of a man who is seated

Khama III and his third wife, Sefhakwane, taken in 1896 by Reverend Willoughby. Courtesy of Neil Parsons.

Women’s traditional roles in Tswana society 

In Tswana society there are three significant places: Lelapa (homestead) Masimo (arable lands) and Moraka (cattle post). 

three objects:round basket with a wide neck and flat lid, hoe with a metal blade and wooden handle, knife with a wooden sheath

These objects represent the kind of activities associated with each place, from left to right: Lelapa – R4007/65 Basket used for storing food; Masimo – R4007/87 Hoe, used to cultivate soil and remove weeds; Moraka – R4007/98 Knife, a multi-purpose tool used at cattle posts. The cattle post was the domain of men and boys, while women maintained the homestead and did most of the arable farming work.

black and white photos of women wearing long cotton dresses, working on thatching and agriculture

Women at work in the homestead, thatching roofs and stamping mealie (maize), and returning from working on the arable lands, Palapye, c.1895, photograph taken by Rev W. C. Willoughby.

How was society changing in the late 19th century?

black and white photograph of a large group of young people standing outside. Handwritten caption reads: Some of the Native school-children in front of the mission Home, Palapye. 1896

School children gathered outside the Mission House in Palapye, 1896. Photograph taken by Rev. Willoughby. Image courtesy of Neil Parsons.

Colonial powers and missionaries, with their Victorian patriarchal attitudes, reinforced the gender divide in Tswana society. Missionaries like Willoughby were based in the towns, where the homesteads were. This meant that, as men spent a lot of time away from home at the cattle posts (and later as migrant workers), women had more contact with the missionaries. Because of this, many women became heavily involved with the church, helping to set up church schools. In the younger generation, this meant that while boys were working at cattle posts, girls were more likely to receive an education. Lily Mafela, of the University of Botswana, has found that by 1910, three times more girls than boys went to the new Church schools. Although more girls were attending, the British education system in place meant that they were taught domestic science while boys were taught practical subjects, reinforcing the gender divide.

As well as being exposed to European missionaries around this time, Tswana society was also influenced by other southern African societies. This included the Herero who were then fleeing to Bechuanaland from German South West Africa. Herero women owned and managed their own cattle, a right which Tswana women were not afforded. The example of Herero social structure illustrated that women were capable of running society. Women’s abilities were also highlighted when men were called away from home for military service or to work as migrant labourers from the 1870s onwards.

From mission to fundraising: women and the church today

The connection between the church and women’s activism has an ongoing legacy. While in Serowe, curator Rachel Heminway Hurst visited the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA). The UCCSA has direct links to the London Missionary Society (LMS), the organisation which sent Reverend Willoughby to Bechuanaland. Willoughby was minister of the LMS Church at Phalatswe (Old Palapye) in the 1890s. The old church (below left) was largely financed by Khama III, who was already a dedicated Christian before Willoughby arrived. Khama later moved the Bangwato capital to Serowe and built what would become the UCCSA church in 1912 (below right, image taken in 2019).

black and white photo of a brick church building, with people gathered outside in the background, and two horse drawn coaches in the foreground, contemporary photo of yellow brick church with simple spire and red roof

While at the church, Rachel recorded an interview with Mopati Serapola, Chair of the Women’s fellowship. Mopati organises the women who raise money for the church and community. They do this by crafting items which they take to regional conferences to compete with other churches. Fundraising through crafts like this has a long history; Tswana women raised money and knitted socks for soldiers in the First and Second World Wars.

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A group of three women and one man standing under a tree in front of two round houses. several young children sit nearby

Women at work in the homestead, wearing European-style long cotton dresses. Palapye, c.1895, photograph taken by Rev W. C. Willoughby.

In the film the women are sewing with German print fabric. Mopati explains that this has long been a popular fabric since it is good quality and easy to sew, and that it is something her mother and grandmothers wore for special occasions. The fabric also has ties to European missionaries, since it was first popularised in Southern Africa by King Moshoeshoe I (also spelt Moshweshwe) of Lesotho, after he was gifted some by French missionaries (it is sometimes called shweshwe after him). European-style dress was promoted by missionaries, and by the time Willoughby arrived in Botswana in the 1890s long cotton dresses were common.

Brighton Museum does not have any examples of 19th century German cloth from Bechuanaland in the collection but collected many examples of contemporary shweshwe as part of the Fashioning Africa project.

Bright orange and pink printed fabric

R6095/13 Contemporary shweshwe / German print fabric from Botswana, owned and donated by Batsho Dambe-Groth.