Kgosi in the Kgotla

Botswana has villages.  Everyone in Botswana is from a village – no one is from either of the two cities (Gaborone and Francistown).  You may have been born in a hospital in Gaborone and even live there, but your parents are from a certain village and so that is your village and that is where you tell people you are from.  The people in the big cities are just there for work, they go back to their village on a regular basis, and also spend time on the farms which many have.

You may think of a village as a few hundred people in 30 or 40 mud huts — think again.  Villages may start out small but they inevitably grow larger.  Kanye is our village and its population is in the tens of thousands.  There are very few paved roads and it spreads out in a random way.  Cars and pedestrians share the unpaved dirt paths and roads with cattle, donkeys and chickens.

The villages are still governed by the chief, called the Kgosi (pronounced ko-see).  As villages grow larger they are sectioned off into wards that are governed by chiefs of those wards.  They are called Kgosi as well.  The paramount Kgosi governs the village as a whole.

I found it interesting that the national government is similar to the British form.  Members of Parliament are elected locally, and they form a government and choose their President.  At the village level, the Kgosi are in charge, but the Kgosi are not elected.  The Kgosi pass down their job from father to son within the same family.  Occasionally there will be a family without a son, or a son who does not want the job, and in that case a daughter may take the job.

All Kgosi hold court in a Kgotla (pronounced ko-tluh).  It is an area set aside in the village for this purpose, usually near a large tree for shade.  Usually they will have a building of some sort, open on three sides where people gather under a thatched roof.  The Kgosi sits at the closed end of the structure, with some of his “head men” beside him, and hears disputes between villagers.  The Kgosi of the ward can hear civil disputes; criminal matters are heard by the paramount Kgosi.

Today we got to meet the Kgosi of our ward.  Seven of the trainees and two Botswana employees of the Peace Corps, Tiro and Meshach, went to the Kgotla at around 2:00 pm.  The Kgotla was near a large tree and surrounding it all was a dirt yard.  Kids were playing soccer, and their dogs ran around.  We waited in the shade of the tree for a few minutes until Meshach told us to go into the Kgotla.  We filed in and sat on folding chairs facing the only closed side of the Kgotla.  It was obvious this was where the Kgosi would be.  A few minutes later an old man wandered in and looked around for a seat.  I indicated the open seat next to me.

Shortly thereafter a very old woman came in.  She walked slowly to a chair at the head of the room.  Her face was wrinkled and she wore a rag on her head.  I would guess her age to be at least 80.  Meshach whispered to us that she was the Kgosi.  We were all surprised.  I don’t understand the succession rules for Kgosi, but in this case it turns out that her husband had been Kgosi and when he died she took over for him.  She did not speak a word of English the whole time, just Setswana.  Meshach translated for us.

We asked the Kgosi questions that the Peace Corps had suggested getting an idea of how the Kgosi works with organizations that want to help in development projects.  We all asked at least one question.  With each question Meshach would translate into Setswana, and then the Kgosi would begin answering in Setswana.  When she stopped speaking Meshach would translate.  When all the questions had been answered she made a statement of her own.  Meshach translated her words.  She had said that appreciates the Peace Corps and many years before she had hosted a Peace Corps trainee.  That he had come back to Botswana years later and married the daughter of her uncle.  Shortly thereafter we left.  Normal protocol would be that no one leaves until the Kgosi leaves, but they had other business to attend to and so we were excused.

Sometimes here in Kanye, Botswana, when we walk down the red dirt paths and roads, passing little concrete houses it almost seems we are in a part of rural Georgia with its red clay roads, and we forget that we are in another continent.  But at the Kgotla it was different.  I had never felt more like I was in Africa than while sitting beneath the thatched roof of the Kgotla, listening to the sound of Setswana spoken by a wise old tribal leader who was descendent of no telling how many generations of other Kgosi.

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One Response to Kgosi in the Kgotla

  1. Maria says:

    Wow…. what an incredible post. I read the other day that Kgotla’s are one of the oldest democratic forms. I can’t believe you participated in one and got the chance to talk to the Kgosi–what an amazing experience. ~ Maria

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