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  • Words of Batswana:Letters to the Editor of Mahoko a Becwana, 1883–1896*
  • Stephen Volz


During the last twenty years, in conjunction with rapid political changes in southern Africa, scholars of the region's history have become increasingly interested in studying the experiences of people whose stories, like their livelihoods, were previously often restricted or ignored by those in power. This scholarly interest initially focused on instances of conflict and oppression, disclosing the violence and injustice that accompanied colonialism and apartheid, but more recent studies have given greater attention to different local and personal histories that do not necessarily share the same preoccupation with broader political issues.1 Rather than define their lives primarily in terms of their relations with Europeans, Africans were often more concerned with affairs within their own families and communities over which they felt that they had some measure of control and responsibility. Those problems were certainly instigated to some extent by European institutions, but they were usually addressed and managed in African terms and along the lines of locally-established norms and practices. Such African-centered historical viewpoints and activities, previously overlooked by scholars, are achieving greater recognition, but there are still numerous important sources that have not yet been fully studied.

The most revealing sources for gaining some understanding of historical African concerns are those that were produced in African languages by [End Page 349] African authors. Whether oral narratives, letters, journals, or other materials, their words reveal perspectives expressed in African idioms that cannot be found in second-hand accounts by European observers. Particularly valuable are those addressed to fellow Africans, dealing with issues that may have been of little interest to Europeans but of great importance within African communities.


Unfortunately, such sources are relatively rare for the nineteenth century. There is evidence of frequent correspondence by Africans to Europeans during that time, as referred to and translated by some missionaries and government officials, but much less of it has been preserved in archives than European writing. Even those materials that do survive have seldom been used by researchers, due either to unfamiliarity with African languages or lack of encouragement and funding.2 Moreover, given the central role played by Europeans in the mediation of African writing during the colonial era, one might question the extent to which any such sources reflect African perspectives or ways of thinking.3

In order to contribute to the store of African nineteenth-century writings available for research, the Van Riebeeck Society of Cape Town has recently published an assortment of letters by Batswana (Tswana people) that appeared in the Setswana (Tswana language) newspaper Mahoko a Becwana, which have been translated and edited by Part T. Mgadla of the University of Botswana and myself.4 The title for the book and this article is taken from the title of the newspaper, which can be translated either as "words" or "news" of the Batswana. The newspaper was edited by missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS) and printed monthly on their press at Kuruman between 1883 and 1896. The LMS was the first European mission agency in the interior of southern Africa, founding congregations in Griqua and Tswana communities during the first decades of the nineteenth century, and they remained deeply involved among western Batswana into the colonial era. Its missionaries, such as Robert Moffat, David Livingstone and John Mackenzie, greatly influenced British public opinion regarding southern Africa through their popular memoirs, and they also produced the first Setswana scriptures. Other mission societies, such as the Wesleyan [End Page 350] Methodists (WMS) and Hermannsburger Lutherans (HMS), used the LMS Setswana bible in their own work with other Tswana groups, and by 1880 there were several thousand Batswana attending schools and churches affiliated with various mission organizations in the interior of southern Africa.

The majority of the Tswana writers in Mahoko a Becwana were members of LMS congregations in what are today the Northern Cape Province and Northwest Province of South Africa, but many also wrote from as far away as the Transvaal, Orange Free State, or Bechuanaland Protectorate, including several non-LMS Batswana. Most of the writings were letters to the editor, but their intended audience...


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