Clans & Totems: Botswana Culture (Setswana)


Clans & Totems: Botswana Culture (Setswana)

Botswana country got its name from the root ‘Tswana,” which refers to the Tswana speaking tribes, which were once considered the eight main tribes (this has since changed after the amendment of sections [76, 77, 78 & 79) of the constitution that were deemed to discriminate against other, ‘minority tribes. Therefore, it is essential to note from the onset that the composition of clans (tribes) in Botswana can be very complex. One tribe can have as many as ten clans, with some sharing a totem

 or even found living within other tribes’ territories. For example, the Batalaote are found in the Central District (Bangwato territory) and the Northeast District (Bakalaka territory). Different clans of the Basarwa tribe are also found across the country, even though they are predominantly thought to originate from the Kgalagadi area in what is popularly known as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

What is a Totem?
A totem can be defined in simple terms as an icon, sacred symbol, or emblem by which a clan or tribe identifies itself. It is the totem of a particular clan that differentiates it from others, and it is usually used in greetings to show respect and as a source of pride for the clan. In the Botswana context, almost all totems are symbolized in the form of animals. It is, however, of great importance to note that any of the clan members cannot eat their totem. Apparently,  it will give potentially fatal allergies (and so for this reason, the totem is ‘safe’ amongst those that revere it). 

Different clans and their totems.

  1. Bangwato: Phuti (Duiker)- the Bamangwato territory is the largest district in Botswana and encompasses other tribes/clans such as Bataote, Babirwa, and Batswapong. It is, however, considered the Bangwato of Khama III territory since they are the most dominant group. The Bangwato clans all have the duiker as a totem apparently because the animal rescued their chief, Khama when enemy (Bakwena) forces had almost caught up with and surrounded him. The duiker apparently diverted the Bakwena fighter’s attention, and Khama managed to slip through unnoticed. He ran away with a group of followers in defiance of his brother’s (Kgari Sechele of Bakwena) rule. He wanted to be chief himself. He later settled with his people (followers) in Shoshong, where they started a village with the duiker as their totem. NOTE: it is common amongst the Bangwato that some of them still hold on to their totem of (Kwena) crocodile, which was their totem before the split from the Bakwena of Molepolole village. Even in Serowe, the capital of Gammangwato, there is a ward named Mokwena, meaning ‘he who reveres the crocodile.’
  2. Bakwena: Kwena (Crocodile)- The Bakwena are found in the Molepolole village, approximately 45km west of the capital city, Gaborone. It is important to note here that a clan within the Kalanga tribe also has a crocodile as a totem and will be discussed briefly under the Bakalaka totems. However, the Bakwena can be seen as the most interesting and history-rich tribe for many reasons; firstly, the following tribes are offshoots of the Bakwena tribe: Bangwato, Bangwaketse, and Batawana. Secondly, they have a totem that cuts across many tribes because of the above-stated reason, and they have revered the crocodile for a long time: historical records have shown that this has been the case even pre-Mfecane Wars period. It is, therefore, for this reason that it is still a mystery how they came to adopt this animal as their totem.
  3. Bakgatla: Kgabo (Monkey)- The Bakgatla are a tribe living in Mochudi, South East of Botswana, just around 40 kilometers from the capital city, Gaborone. Before discussing their totem, it will be essential to note that the Bakgatla are also broken down into two different groups (though both use the same totem); the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela and the Bakgatla-ba ga- Mmanaana.
    • Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela: this is the principal Bakgatla tribe, and the royalty of the tribe remains with them. The Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela’s totem is Kgabo (monkey). The totem came about after the monkey saved the chief and his entire tribe from pursuing enemy soldiers who were almost catching up. According to legend, this was during a troubled period in Southern Africa (Mfecane wars), and the Bakgatla found themselves at a river they couldn’t cross. As the enemy was getting nearer and nearer, a monkey came into the scene and crossed using a tree-like makeshift bridge, which the Bakgatla saw and followed the monkey across the river. From this time, they started revering the monkey as their tribe’s sacred animal.
    • Bakgatla-ba ga-Mmanaana: this is the same group as the one above. They lived together under the Bakgatla royalty, but this group was chased out of the village after being accused of witchcraft. They ran away towards the west (Bangweketse territory), and since they were scared of the pursuing Bakgatla regiments, they had to make a plan to delay the enemy. They then took a red and white (naana in Setswana) female calf and tied it to a tree. When the enemy came, they saw the calf and ‘waited’ for the owners, who never came back. So as a result, they managed to elude enemy forces and sought refuge amongst the Bangwaketse of Seepapitso IV in Moshopa. It is, therefore, for this reason, that on top of the monkey as their totem, the Bakgatla-ga ga-Mmanaana is also identified by a “red and white calf’, which is usually used in greetings as a form of respect and integrity as well as a sign that differentiates them from the other Bakgatla tribe.

4. Balete: Nare (Buffalo)- The Balete of Kgosi Mosadi Seboko (who is the only female chief in the House of Chiefs) are predominantly found in the village of Ramotswa, just a few kilometers southeast of the capital city Gaborone. They are one of the main ‘Tswana’ tribes. Like all the others, they also trace their origins from the Northwest province of South Africa before being displaced by the Mfecane wars that ripped through Southern Africa. Therefore, it was against this background of conflicts and endless fighting among tribes that the Balete adopted the Nare (Buffalo) as their totem. For the Balete, they chose the buffalo because it is a powerful and aggressive animal. It symbolizes their army’s strength and signifies the ruthless nature of their warriors in battle. So for this tribe, the totem is more symbolic compared to other tribes.

The following describes how the Balete sum up their symbolic relationship with the buffalo:

    • Ke dirobaroba matlhakola; translated to mean ‘those that bring down trees to smaller pieces, and it is likened to an angry or wounded buffalo breaking and crushing anything in its path.
    • Ke makikitsana a maja kgomo, ke magadimana ntweng ga a ja ga a gadimane: this likens the Balete warriors to an army of wild dogs when they attack a cow. When they are fighting a common enemy, it is the only time they cooperate and work as a team. It also symbolizes their ruthlessness and cooperation during wars.

5. Bangwaketse: Crocodile/Hyena/Duiker: the Bangwaketse is one of the unique tribes and clans when it comes to totems. Living predominately in the village of Kanye and the surrounding village, the Bangwaketse, Bakwena, Batawana, and the Bangwato are actually one tribe- the main/original tribe being Bakwena (in the strict sense of the term). They only took different routes when their leaders, who were siblings, disagreed on issues of inheritance and chieftainship. It is, therefore, for this reason that we see different totems under this tribe.

    • Crocodile: As explained by some Bangwato, some Bangwaketse revere the crocodile simply because they did not want to lose touch with the parent tribe. The other reason is premised upon the superstitious beliefs that eating one’s totem will cause a skin disorder similar to smallpox. So, in short, the Bangwaketse decided to follow their chief against the status quo but chose to keep their origins and identity unchanged. Note that this is the most common totem amongst the Bangwaketse.
    • Duiker: This group revere the duiker, a Bangwato totem for a variety of reasons. However, most of them were children who remained behind when their parents left in support of Kgama, the Ngwato faction leader at the time. Some came back as peace and stability returned to the region. To demonstrate support for them, the then chief of Bangwaketse welcomed the idea, created a ward in honour of this group, and named it Phuting ward (literally meaning ‘at the Duiker’). This gesture was seen as a symbol of diplomacy and pardon on the side of the Bangwaketse chief.
    • Hyena: known as phiri in the local language, the hyena is known for its strength, resilience, and never say die attitude. This group of Bangwaketse is thought to have started as captives among the Bangwaketse and eventually drafted in as protectorates within the Bangwaketse territory. They multiplied and intermarried to a point where now they are considered Bangwaketse. Just like the hyena, they survived tough times and the prospect of extinction as they did everything in their power to stay alive.

6. Barolong: Kudu (Tholo): The Barolong are found in the southern part of Botswana, and their capital is a village called Good Hope. They revere the Kudu even though some often claim to revere an iron rod- yes, an iron rod. Legend has it that their earliest royals admired the Kudu for its beauty, especially the spiral horns of the male. The tribe is said to have even used these horns in place of spears. Therefore the horns were important to them. However, the legend states that the Barolong would revere an iron rod during famine and droughts- something the tribe elders just laugh about but never deny.

7. Bakalanga: This is the most interesting tribe when it comes to totems because the Bakalanga are a composition of different clans with different backgrounds but have a similar language (albeit with varying dialects). They have one of the most complex totems arrangements in Botswana. Worth noting also is that for the Bakalanga, each clan has a unique way of addressing both women and men according to their totems. The totems also reflect the clan’s position in the tribal royal hierarchy. The following is an explanation of each clan and its totem, including the way each gender is addressed as a sign of respect, pride, and affection:

  • Baperi (Bapedi in Setswana): Rabbit (shulo in Kalanga)– This clan consists mainly of the Bakalanga who revere the rabbit, and theirs is more symbolic since they admire the animal for its speed and intelligence or, simply put; for its survival skills. For this clan, the different genders are addressed as:
    • Women: Bangwadi or Batjilalu
    • Men: Kadzasha, Ntombo or Sungwasha
  • Badeti (from Boteti): Goat– this clan is said to have its origins in the Boteti area, and they revere a goat (however, some among them are said to revere the cow as a totem. The Badeti can also be found in Zimbabwe, and they are normally referred to as Tjuma
    • Women: Basubula, Bankumbi, Banishakwe, Bambalambi, Bagonde or Bazhanga
    • Men: M’ndambeli, Nibukhwa, Sungwasha or Nkomasha
  • Bawumbe: Tjibelu (wood perker): one of the most prominent Bakalanga clans, the Bawumbe are one of the very few groups that revere a bird. There is no recorded reason for them to have a bird as a totem, but the legend is that they admired how the little bird perks on trees and made a sound as loud as that of the axe. 
    • Women: Bamazebe, Bamakulukusa, Bampengo and Bamisola.
    • Men: Sungwasha or Kadzasha
  • Batalaunda (Batalaote): The Heart: the Batalaunda are the only tribe/clan that reveres a part inside an animal. This clan eats all the edible animals except their HEART only. They have a lot of blood relations with the Shona of Zimbabwe and are also found in the northeast of the country. There are also many of them living amongst other tribes like the Bangwato and Babirwa.
    • Women: Banizwabungwe, Badalaunda, Bameno, Bantjemani or Banithuzi
    • Men: M’ndambeli, Kumbudzi, Sungwasha, Kadzasha, Ndeti or Bhebhe
  • Bayela (Dube): Horse: sometimes called the Tembo or Dubes, the Bayela reveres the horse specifically because they are said to have stayed in hilly, mountainous territories, and therefore the horse was handy to them in both times of peace and of war. 
    • Women: Batjibili, Banikuwana, Banlapo, Banisasa or Babhangale
    • Men: Niswimbo, or M’ndambeli
  • Bakhurutshe: Pig (ngulube in Kalanga): This is another clan of the Kalanga tribe that shares a totem and tribe name with a ‘Tswana’ speaking tribe. They are predominantly found in the Tonota area, just South East of the second city of Francistown. They are also spread across the northeast of the country, and they revere a pig. Their reasons are not documented anywhere on why they have the pig as their totem. The elders confirmed that their not eating pig meat has nothing to do with religion (Christianity). 
    • Women: Banitjale
    • Men: Ntombo
  • Bakalanga be Ngwena: Crocodile (kwena): The Ngwena or Bakwena of Kalanga origin are found originally in the small village of Marobela in the Northeast district of Botswana. There is no known literature on the reasons why they revere the crocodile. What one can deduce from this, however, is that they have once lived along the river banks and, in this case, the Zambezi on the Zimbabwean side. Note here also that they have no blood relations to the Bakwena of Kgosi Kgari Sechele found in Molepolole. And just like all other Kalanga clans, they also address each other in specific ways…
    • Women: Batatjilisa, Bamarape, Bamarobela or Bamenyana
    • Men: Kadzsha, Sungwasha or M’ndambeli
  • Bakalanga be Shoko: Monkey (Kgabo): the Shoko is a clan of the Kalanga tribe that reveres the monkey as their totem (same as the Bakgatla discussed above). The reason for this is the perceived intelligence of the monkey. The Shoko admired the animal and therefore believed by immortalizing it (by making it a totem), their people and clan would be blessed and be given the same intelligence. Ironically, there’s quite a good number of the Shoko people in the legal profession in Botswana currently. The following is how the Bakalanga be Shoko address/ respect each other:
    • Women: Bamalaba, Babingani, Bamatande or Basangweni
    • Phizha, Nizwita, M’ndambeni, Kumbudzi or Sungwasha.

 The following tribes have their totems too, but there is no recorded or known story behind their reasons for choosing the respective animals:

  1. Batlokwa: they are found east of Gaborone, and they are the tribe credited with giving space for the construction of the capital city Gaborone before independence. They revere the Anteater or Tlhakadu in Setswana. 
  2. Bahurutshe: this tribe is found in Tonota as well as in Goodhope, and their totem is the Baboon or Tshwene in the local language
  3. Babirwa: found in the village of Bobonong, just east of the copper town of Selibe Phikwe, the Babirwa revere the buffalo as their totem.

  When looking at the totems of the different tribes in Botswana, one can conclude that they all have a unique way of distinguishing one from the others. Note that the similarities in the totems across the tribes do not necessarily mean they have any form of relations unless otherwise stated in the write-up.