Botswana's population is made up of eight major tribal groupings, although within this broader framework there are 26 tribal groups in all. The Tswana are the most populous, and all citizens of Botswana – regardless of colour, ancestry or tribal affiliation – are known as Batswana (plural) or Motswana (singular). Almost everyone, including members of non-Tswana tribes, communicates in Setswana, a native language, rather than the official language of English.

Tswana

Botswana means ‘land of the Tswana’ and about 80% of the country’s population claims Tswana heritage. The origins of the Tswana are simple enough. As land-owning agriculturalists, the Tswana ethnic group has clearly defined areas of influence. The Bangwato are centred on the Serowe area, the Bakwena in and around Molepolole, and the Bangwaketse near Kanye. A later split in the Bangwato resulted in a fourth group, the Batawana, who are concentrated near Maun in the northwest.

Known for being proud, conservative, resourceful and respectful, the Batswana have an ingrained feeling of national identity and an impressive belief in their country. Their history – a series of clever manoeuvres that meant they avoided the worst aspects of colonisation – has nurtured a confidence that is rare in postcolonial Africa.

The importance of the family in Batswana society has made the crisis caused by the HIV/AIDS pandemic particularly damaging. At last count, the country had more than 60,000 AIDS orphans (down from more than 90,000 in 2011), a staggering 2.7% of the population. How the country reacts to this breakdown of traditional family networks is one of the greatest challenges facing its people.

Traditional Tswana Culture

In Batswana society, traditional culture acts as a sort of societal glue. Villages grew up around reliable water sources and developed into complex settlements with kgosi (chiefs) ultimately responsible for the affairs of the community. Respect for one’s elders, firmly held religious beliefs, traditional gender roles and the tradition of the kgotla – a specially designated meeting place in each village where social and judicial affairs are discussed and dealt with – created a well-defined social structure with some stiff mores at its core. At a family level, in Batswana village life each family was entitled to land, and traditional homesteads were social places, consisting of communal eating places and separate huts for sleeping, sometimes for several family members.

Even today, as mudbrick architecture gives way to breeze blocks, and villages grow into busy towns and cities, most homes retain traditional features and life is still a very social affair. The atmosphere in family compounds is busy and convivial, although everything is done at a leisurely pace. Likewise, in shops and businesses people spend a huge amount of time greeting and agreeing with each other, and checking up on each other’s welfare.

Historically, the Batswana are farmers and cattle herders. Cattle, and to a lesser extent goats and sheep, are still, in many ways, the measure of a family’s status.

Bakalanga

Botswana’s second-largest ethnic group, at around 11% of the population, the Bakalanga is a powerful land-owning group whose members are thought to descend from the Rozwi empire – the culture responsible for building Great Zimbabwe. In the colonial reshuffle, the Bakalanga were split in two and now some 75% of them live in western Zimbabwe. In Botswana, they are based mainly, although not exclusively, around Francistown.

Herero

The Herero probably originated from eastern or central Africa and migrated across the Okavango River into northeastern Namibia in the early 16th century. In 1884 the Germans took possession of German South West Africa (Namibia) and systematically appropriated Herero grazing lands. The ensuing conflict between the Germans and the Herero was to last for years, only ending in a calculated act of genocide that saw the remaining members of the tribe flee across the border into Botswana.

The refugees settled among the Batawana and were initially subjugated but eventually regained their herds and independence. These days the Herero are among the wealthiest herders in Botswana.

Basubiya & Wayeyi

The Basubiya, Wayeyi (Bayei) and Mbukushu are all riverine tribes scattered around the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers and across the Okavango Panhandle. Their histories and migrations are a textbook example of the ebb and flow of power and influence. For a long time, the Basubiya were the dominant force, pushing the Wayeyi away from the Chobe River and into the Okavango after a little spat over a lion skin, so tradition says. The Basubiya were agriculturists and as such proved easy prey for the growing Lozi empire (from modern Zambia), which in turn collapsed in 1865. They still live in the Chobe district.

Originally from the same areas in Namibia and Angola as the Mbukushu, the Wayeyi moved south from the Chobe River into the Okavango Delta in the mid-18th century to avoid the growing conflict with the Basubiya. They established themselves around Lake Ngami and eventually dispersed into the Okavango Delta. At the same time, the Bangwato (a Batswana offshoot) were pushing northward and came into contact with the Wayeyi. Over time this relationship became a form of clientship, which many Wayeyi still feel resentful about today.

In 1948 and 1962 the Wayeyi made efforts to free themselves of Batswana rule, but neither attempt succeeded. In 1995 these efforts were renewed in a more concerted manner with the establishment of the Kamanakao Association, which aims to develop and protect Wayeyi culture and language. Following this, the Wayeyi decided to revive their chieftainship and on 24 April 1999 they elected Calvin Diile Kamanakao as Chief Kamanakao I and recommended him for inclusion in the House of Chiefs. The government rejected this proposal, so in 2001 the Wayeyi took the matter to the High Court, which passed judgement that chiefs elected by their own tribes should be admitted to the house. In 2008 the Wayeyi chief Shikati Fish Matepe Ozoo was appointed to the House of Chiefs by former president Festus Mogae. In the meantime, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has pointed out that most Wayeyi children cannot speak their ancestral tongue, one of the keys to maintaining a distinct ethnic identity.

Mbukushu

The Mbukushu (or Hambukushu), who now inhabit the Ngamiland area around the Okavango Delta, were originally refugees from the Caprivi Strip in northeastern Namibia. They were forced to flee south in the late 18th century after being dislodged by the forces of Chief Ngombela’s Lozi empire. The Mbukushu carried on to southeastern Angola, just north of present-day Andara (Namibia). There, they encountered Portuguese and African traders, who began purchasing Mbukushu commoners from the tribal leadership to be used and resold as slaves. To escape, some Mbukushu headed back to the Okavango Panhandle, where they mixed and intermarried with the Batawana. Many remain in and around the villages of Shakawe and Sepupa.

San

The San are Botswana’s first inhabitants: they were living in the Kalahari and Tsodilo Hills as far back as 30,000 years ago, as archaeological finds in the Kalahari have demonstrated. Some linguists even credit them with the invention of language. Unlike most other African countries, where the San have perished or disappeared through war and interbreeding, Botswana, along with Namibia, retains the remnants of its San communities – barely 100,000 individuals in total, which may include many with mixed San ancestry. Of these, around 60% live in Botswana (the !Kung, G//ana, G/wi and !xo being the largest groups), where they make up just 3% of Botswana’s population, and 35% in Namibia (the Naro, !Xukwe, Hei//kom and Ju/'hoansi), with the remainder scattered throughout South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

For a window on the life of the San, join local hunter !Nqate in Craig and Damon Foster’s film The Great Dance (2000), an inspiring collaborative project that involved the local community at every stage of the filming and editing.

And a word on terminology: in Botswana you’ll often hear the term ‘Basarwa’ being used to describe the San, but this is considered by the San to be pejorative as it literally means ‘people of the sticks’.

The Past

Traditionally the San were nomadic hunter-gatherers who travelled in small family bands (usually between around 25 and 35 people) within well-defined territories. They had no chiefs or hierarchy of leadership and decisions were reached by group consensus. With no animals, crops or possessions, the San were highly mobile. Everything that they needed for their daily existence they carried with them.

Initially, the San’s social flexibility enabled them to evade conquest and control. But as other powerful tribes with big herds of livestock and farming ambitions moved into the area, inevitable disputes arose over the land. The San’s wide-ranging, nomadic lifestyle (some territories extended over 1000 sq km) was utterly at odds with the settled world of the farmers and soon became a source of bitter conflict. This situation was rapidly accelerated by European colonists, who arrived in the area during the mid-17th century. The early Boers pursued an extermination campaign that lasted for 200 years and killed as many as 200,000 indigenous people. Such territorial disputes, combined with modern policies on wildlife conservation, have seen the San increasingly disenfranchised and dispossessed. What’s more, in the modern world their disparate social structure has made it exceedingly difficult for them to organise pressure groups to defend their rights and land as other groups have done. Even so, they have enjoyed a measure of success in fighting their expulsion from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

The Future

Like so many indigenous peoples the world over, the San are largely impoverished. Many work on farms and cattle posts or live in squalid, handout-dependent and alcohol-plagued settlements centred on boreholes in western Botswana and northeastern Namibia, as debate rages around them as to their ‘place’ in modern African society. As such, the outlook for the San is uncertain.

Tourism provides some measure of economic opportunity for the San, who are often employed in Ghanzi- and Kalahari-based lodges as wildlife guides and trackers. But it is also argued that for this race to survive into the 21st century, they require not only self-sufficiency and international support but institutional support and recognition from within the Gaborone government.

For more on the San and the challenges they face in modern Botswana, contact the grassroots bodies such as South African San Institute (www.san.org.za) or Survival International (www.survivalinternational.org).

Books About the San

The Lost World of the Kalahari (Laurens van der Post; 1958) Classic study of the San people, including a haunting section on the Tsodilo Hills.

Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari (George B Silberbauer; 1981) Definitive anthropological study of the CKGR San in the late 1950s and early 1960s prior to their expulsion.

The Harmless People (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; 1989) A 1950s anthropological study of the Botswana San, with updates from the 1980s.

Voices of the San (Willemien Le Roux & Alison White (eds); 2004) Fascinating collection of oral histories from ordinary San people.

The Healing Land (Rupert Isaacson; 2004) Generous and nuanced journey through the lands of the San in modern Southern Africa.

Tears for my Land (Kuela Kiema; 2010) Polemical and compelling treatise on San rights and dispossession.