I grew up in Gaborone, Botswana, a big city with a small town feel and one of the warmest-both the people and climate. I have called it home for almost 3 decades and will continue to call it home because all that I am, all that I have learned; a huge chunk of it was done in here.
A lot of people still confuse Gaborone-even Botswana for that matter, for a province or town within South Africa. This is something many of us have taken offence to but also something that has made me think about why this may be or what in my country or city would and could be linked to South Africa. Actually, off the top of my head I can name a few things: We sort of speak the same language – (Se)Tswana, we have similar cultures and we sort of look the same- a passing privilege I recently came to acknowledge amid the xenophobic outbreaks in South Africa in 2019. So let’s just say there are a few things I could understand about why a lack of geographical understanding would exist but that does not excuse the erasure of an entire country and its people.
It is some of these ways of blending in with a whole other country that has had me questioning some of the things I know now and have adopted as my own, in my understanding of the world, myself and my feminism. From conversation with peers I share certain values with especially in relation to women and how women are disproportionately affected by the existing world order; a lot of us find that we had our inspiration come from similar sources to draw the battle lines when it came to fighting the patriarchy. Many of us looked to our grandmothers, mothers and other matriarchs in our immediate or extended families and hardly from external local sources like teachers, political leaders, artists and a women’s movement.
We have also found our voices and ways to associate and articulate our thoughts and ideas about our stance through people like Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Brenda Fassie, Thandiswa Mazwai, Lebo Mathosa and many other South African women who seemed to be fearless and aware of who they were in a society that was violent to not just black people but more so to black women. These women fed our curious minds growing up, seeing them on various media platforms and reading about them in history books shaped our own views and ideas of womanhood and possibly other minority groups.
Except for the falsified interpretations of how Botswana got its “independence”- a male tale that we are supposed to be grateful for apparently and not question, we consumed a lot of South African media and liberation history and not much of our own. In our history books, women’s role in fighting for freedom, space and leadership are completely blank. We came to know of the women who have played pivotal roles in our education systems, laws, and politics by growing up and associating with certain kinds of spaces and people who necessarily make it their business to find out about lesser known histories. If you ask 80s and 90s Batswana women which Motswana women they think of as the same calibre as, say, Winnie Mandela, we will definitely hear names of women who made it to Beijing in 1995 – a strong hold of political activists who swooped in and made pertinent submissions about the roles of women and women’s rights in Botswana on an international forum. Pre 1995, are undocumented contributions of women leaders such as Dr Gaositwe Chiepe (Mma Chiepe as we fondly call her), who was the first ever female cabinet minister and had a great deal of influence in the education sector and her role in international affairs representing the government of Botswana and many women and girls in the early 70s and 80s. Her instance on girl children getting basic education is what set her apart, she had lived the reality of possibly not finishing her schooling and married off at an early age, as was the norm.
We were kept away -whether intentionally or not- from women like Margret Nasha, who pioneered broadcast media, radio in particular, and journalism in the 80s. Her role as a political news reporter provided insight into issues that were hardly taken up by women due to segregation of women’s roles; her work on its own was revolutionary. In her prime years as a politician and Speaker of the National Assembly, her eloquence and smashing of the patriarchy at all corners was always dimmed by misogynistic and sexist jabs about her appearance. A true reflection of learned hatred for women who do not fit molds that men have created in their toxic spaces and executed in groups because mob mentality!
I believe there were more women that have done great for women’s rights in Botswana that were not penned down in our history books because we pride ourselves in erasure. Erasure of the first inhabitants of Botswana (the San and Khoi people), erasure of first Princesses in our villages and denying them their thrones, continued erasure of tribes and their languages, erasure of women freedom fighters and erasure of queer persons. It is this erasure that opened our wandering eyes to the need to reflect on women’s autonomy in our country that has manifested in the quietened expressions of oppression hidden in tones of “botho” and “setho” and has formed part of our growth in our feminism and other identities that seal our sense of belonging in a revolution.
AUTONOMY IS NOT AN ACHIEVEMENT
The understanding of our unique politic and history is a very important one in an era of transformative social change. An embodiment of autonomy should not be seen as an end goal but rather a way of life that seeks to address a myriad of issues societies have been subjected to for centuries. Autonomy is not an achievement, it is a state of thinking, a state of mind and a way of life that has to consciously be nurtured, learned and checked. Feminist theory has room to be adapted and contextualized even the language of feminism can be altered in every context. As a queer Motswana woman, I have witnessed dozens of women live out feminist praxis and not having the language for it. Women who have been relegated to cheerleader positions when it comes to our democracy because of a male-centric storytelling that unfortunately closed off our interactions with heros from our own soil. It is the betrayal of our fathers and forefathers that led us to admire women from across borders when we had a legion of women who embodied leadership and carried Botswana to our 53 years of “independence”.
Perhaps the questions we advance as millennials about being robbed of role models that breathed the same air as us is what has set the tone for the small pockets of radical responses women have had in the past 5 years; carving a more active wave of active citizenship in the advancement of women’s rights and rewriting our experiences of our history, present and the future. The realization of the persistent injustice have led us to speak up about where to find our feet as women of country that hides behind its peaceful demeanor while men kill and rape women and children, queer bodies marginalized and our government prioritizes cattle courts over special courts for survivors of violence.