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"Glimpses of Bechuana Life"
(May 1890)

by E.P. Mathers

edited by Neil Parsons,
History Department, University of Botswana

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The following article first appeared in four parts in the London periodical called South Africa in October-November 1890. It was published anonymously but is evidently the work of the journal's editor Edward P. Mathers. It exhibits Mathers' characteristic style which, while it owes much the King James' Bible and Shakespeare, owes rather more to Charles Dickens for its quaint accumulations of observation and edges of humour. Its accuracy is no doubt limited by the imperial viewpoint of its author, who frequently compares things with "home" in England. But it is in its way a fine piece of writing, portraying a slice of everyday life more than a century ago.

The chief referred to is Montshiwa (Montsioa) of the Barolong (ruled 1850-1896), and the town referred to is Mafikeng. Montshiwa's eldest son and heir was Kebalepile (1859-1895) who predeceased him. The village subsequently referred to is Disaneng, down the Molopo river, where lived the Batlharo of Jan Masibi (ruled 1865-1896).

The author's friend is almost certainly John Smith Moffat, the son of Robert and Mary Moffat, who had been appointed Assistant Commissioner for the Bechuanaland Protectorate on behalf of the Resident Commissioner based at Vryburg in British Bechuanaland. Moffat travelled at large in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and Matabeleland (Bulawayo) but was based at the Bechuanaland Border Police fort about a kilometre north of Mafikeng, later moving to Palapye when another Assistant Commissioner was appointed at Fort Gaborone (1891-92).

During May 1890 preparations were being made at the police headquarters of "Mafeking" for the advance north to Zimbabwe of the wagon trains and troops of the "Pioneer Column" of the British South Africa Company.

Early in May the kindness of a friend, whose name is as familiar as a household word among the Bechuanas, gave me the opportunity of accompanying him on a visit to the chief of a neighbouring Bechuana tribe. The native town, the capital of this tribe, lay only one mile distant from our-starting-point, but the chief himself, either acting on the principle that "distance lends enchantment to the view" of the sovereign… or else believing that...that the less the people saw of him the more likely they would be to fall into the delusion that he was something greater than they...had...chosen to live, like other sovereigns of our day1, away from the capital, out in the seclusion of the country.

As his country seat lay four miles beyond the town, we had not to go at all out of our way in order to call there first and obtain the services of three of his headmen as escort. The narrow {"streets" between the bee-hive shaped native huts were so blocked up with great smooth boulders that even our South African horses, innocent of the joys of wood pavement and macadam, found no little difficulty in getting along. They managed, however, to bring us without mishap to a small open space in the middle of the town, where, in a corner between two fences, a small group of the chief men of the State were discussing things in general around a small fire of sticks, as they sat in native chairs well wrapped up in blankets. They greeted my friend warmly, and some of them rose to guide him to the hut of the chief's son and heir who, true to the traditions of all heirs-apparent, preferred the gaiety of the capital to the joys of statecraft and seclusion.

When he appeared, we saw a tall well-built man of about thirty, with a handsome face and an air of being fully alive to the dignity of his position. No one could say that he had not dressed up to his rank. He wore cord breeches and well-polished Blucher boots, a long black overcoat, and a bran new sun helmet of a delicate shade of brown.

Two other headmen were to come with us. They presumed not to approach the princely splendour of their future lord in their own raiment. One, a man with an irrepressibly cheery countenance —quite a Bechuana Mark Tapley2 — and with a nose so flat that in profile it was hardly discernible, had on a rough suit of corduroys and a felt Boer hat; the other, evidently one of the leaders of fashion in the town, has quite the air of an "oiled and curled Assyrian bull," whatever that may be; his black hair was brushed and glossy, his hands positively clean, and with a black cap, a long large-checked tweed ulster3 and check trousers, he was clearly an object of intense admiration—to himself.

While their horses were being saddled, the old men came out of the neighbouring huts, and crowded round to shake hands with and talk to my friend.

The Bechuana hut from a distance looks like one of the old-fashioned straw beehives or "skeps." On a closer inspection one sees that the brush-wood thatch projects some feet beyond the wall to be supported by posts at intervals, thus forming a shaded verandah of a primitive kind. The walls are generally made here about of the red clay of the district, kneaded and built up by the hands of women. A circular fence of wattlework or clay surrounds the hut at a distance of some twenty feet from the house wall. The courtyard so enclosed is often paved with red clay, beaten hand, and the outer wall when of clay has a series of loopholes in it at different heights, so that the inmates may see all that is going on outside. The entrance to the court is closed, when necessary, with a neat wattlework screen drawn against the sides of the opening from without, and fastened within.

As soon as the ragged-looking horses of our companions were ready, we set out on our journey to Court, across the shallow river—sole water supply of the district—languidly trickling between steep banks of rich black loam, between the great water-worn boulders that filled its bed, past a few wide fields of Kafir corn, unenclosed (the natives never build a fence save round their own huts), over the desolate stony veldt sprinkled with stunted thorn bushes and covered with greyish brown tufts of coarse grass, the thin soil showing red between them, our horses' hooves now raising blinding clouds of red thickly-drifted dust, now clattering over a rocky stretch of road as hard and bare as London asphalte, till, after half-an-hour's riding, one of the headmen went off at a gallop to advise the chief of our coming, while we checked our horses into a walk, to allow him time to get all ready for our reception.

At last as we topped a ridge, the country seat came into sight just beneath us, an abode truly Spartan in its simplicity, and far more primitive than most of the wattled mansions in the native capital. It consisted of two or three Cape travelling wagons, with their white canvas tilts, standing beside a few wattled huts of an extremely airy order of architecture.

We dismounted, and fastened our horses to a wagon. Two of our companions had already disappeared in one of the huts; the one who had ridden on in front was holding up a tattered blanket which hung across an opening in the wall.

My friend entered, and I followed him, stooping low to avoid striking my head against the brushwood eaves. I found him shaking hands with a perfect mountain of humanity seated on a small native chair, and in another second I was receiving a like mark of favour; then wooden chairs, seated with leather thongs, were placed for us, my friend on the left and myself on the right of the mountain; the son and heir sat next my friend on the fourth and last forthcoming chair; two aged men in corduroy trousers, Boer hats, and blankets sat next to him—one on a heap of beans, the other on the ground. Then came a man of clearly different race, with coarse black hair and skin, with little more upon him than a leather girdle about his loins and a blanket about his shoulders. He was making wire bracelets rapidly, holding the wire taut between his toes as he twisted it swiftly round a coil of horse hair.

One of the old men tried to make me laugh at this cunning craftsman, pointed at him in a jeering way, as if to say, "See, here's a bloomin' foreigner; let's jeer," which he did accordingly, unassisted by me, in a senile sort of way, until the exercise sent him off to sleep, the worker going on quite regardless all the time.

Between him and me the Tapleyan headsman, seated on the ground, infused geniality into the proceedings; while our friend in the check ulster sat back against the wall of the hut, a little to my left. In the midst of this motley circle a tiny fire was burning, made of four sticks on the ground in the figure of a Maltese cross. At the point where their ends met on the heap of ash they were blazing gently. As each burnt away to ash, it was pushed up until all were touching again.

A spirited palaver, eked out by much pointing in this and that direction (I afterwards learned that some question of boundaries was under debate) was now going on in Sechuana, and as that is a tongue I do not understand, the only part which I could play was that of spectator, though whenever the chief appeared to be addressing any of his remarks to me, I of course received them with an air of deep attention, either trying to look as wise as an owl, or beaming out in a cheerful smile, according as I judged that his words had a serious or jocular drift.

And thereby I fell upon making a great mistake, for at first whenever he bestowed upon me the full view of his august and aged countenance, I thought that I clearly saw such a humorous twinkle lurking in every fold thereof that I could not but smile upon him in return in heartfelt sympathy with him in the joke to which I believed him to be giving utterance. Later on, however, I found that his humorous look remained unchanged, even when his pupils showed that he was really intensely serious; but I would defy any one who did not know him well to look upon that chief's full face and that be certain that he was meditating some gigantic jest.

A perfect horseshoe of wrinkles on his forehead stood out on a level with the flat nose and projecting lips beneath, and round these three prominent points the rest of his face was puckered up in a manner indescribable. His eyes still looked out, bright and full of life, from under his grizzled eyebrows; his close cropped hair, revealed on several occasions when the chiefly hat was taken off for minutes at a time in order that information might be sought from prolonged and evidently delightful scratchings of the chiefly head, was quite grey, and so was the stubbly beard about his chin. He wore a somewhat steeple-shaped high felt hat of a faded brown, with a threaded darning-needle and a bit of stick stuck in the ribbon, also a string of painted charms about his neck; the other articles of his apparel were several undershirts vieing in dinginess with the dark skin of his broad chest, a ragged scarlet dressing gown, corduroy trousers, and native sandals, and a couple of far from spotless dark-coloured blankets wrapped about him all over.

He was of great size, and must have been a very fine man when younger. Now, like so many other chiefs, African and otherwise, he was somewhat over-corpulent and afflicted with the gout, and some years ago, when he indulged himself with the civilised luxury of a little war with a neighbouring tribe, being unable to sit upon a horse, he proceeded to the field of battle in a Cape cart, from which he had the pleasure of witnessing the slaughter of the enemy and the victory of his tribe.

There was a keen wind blowing through the walls of the hut, which made me almost envy him his much-stained blankets. The roof was supported at its highest point by the unhewn stem of a thorn tree forked at the top; from this fork poles were laid to the circle of uprights at a radius of 10 feet; on these poles the brushwood thatch had been laid, and the scanty wattling in of brushwood between the uprights made the hut, from a native point of view, complete. I suspect, however, that the chief himself lives chiefly in his wagon, or in some warmer hut, and only appears in this airy building to hold his council or receive his visitors. There is this to be said for such a plan, that, while he follows it, he is not likely to find either his visitors staying too long or his Parliamentary debates lasting until midnight.

Soon after we had taken our seats, one of his favourite wives, a young and rather pretty woman of tawny complexion, and almost "regular" features, entered, and quite unnoticed, and apparently not expecting to be noticed by anyone, took up her seat on the ground outside the circle, where she sat the whole time without speaking, or seeming even to care to listen to the debate, as though she were even now-a-days under the superstition that politics are beyond the feminine intellect. She had on an old brown dress which had seen much service, also a yellow handkerchief tied over her forehead and her hair, in the manner of the Italian peasant woman.

Presently a boy about two years old, and clothed for the most part in spilt milk—for he had clearly just upset a can of milk over himself, and had on nothing else worth mentioning—crawled under the ragged blanket across the doorway, and made his way round the circle to his mother. She languidly wiped a little of the milk off with her dress, but the son and heir came to the succour of the child, partly no doubt from love of it, for he played a good deal with it afterwards, but also, I think, in part in order to let it be understood of the people that he was the proud possessor of that hall-mark of civilised and cultured habits, a real pocket handkerchief of unusual dimensions, and which may possibly have once been white. This he flourished on every occasion, except, be it noted, those for which civilised society demands that pocket handkerchiefs invariably be used. He was quite the representative of the new school of Europeanised Bechuana—wore no native bracelets, but a silver ring, a silver watch, and a silver mounted "briar" pipe. I have seen him since then in all the glory of a white waistcoat.

After some time the old chief signed to a menial in the back of the tent, who promptly disappeared in the wagon, and reappeared with a spoon and a bowl of sour milk; these were offered to us in turn, and declined; then the son set to work upon it, and after him the two headmen, the last of whom made an end of it. Then a great green water melon, eighteen inches long by a foot thick, which had been lying on the ground at the back of the hut, was brought forward, and some delay followed till the menial could be made to understand that, owing to the weakness of the visitors, not just any pan would do to cut it up in, but only a really clean pan. At last, however, a clean pan was brought; the son sliced up the melon lengthwise, and handed pieces round.

The two old men on the other side of the fire had taken little part in the debate, and had soon fallen asleep, one leaning back against the side of the hut, the other dropping his head forward against his bent knees, till a more vigorous nod than usual sent his hat rolling off into the ashes, where he let it lie, staring at it with a comically helpless, dazed, half-asleep look, till the young chief good-naturedly picked the hat up, dusted it, and set it on his head again over his eyes, so that he dozed off peacefully once more till the melon came on the scene. Then he waked up, and became quite lively and eager for the slice that was at last handed to him.

Even the wife got a snap at the melon, and the child got quite the lion's share, while the menial at the back of the hut got the seeds and juice which were left in the pan; and though he made faces expressive of disgust at the absence of any of the melon, he proceeded to make the best of the juice with evidence satisfaction. I was amused to see the man in the checked ulster, who ate his fruit long slice in true native fashion, holding it by each end and biting out the white flesh, alter his plan of action so soon as he saw we ate melon with the help of pocket-knives. So soon as his second piece arrived, he pulled out his pocket-knife also, and, with great awkwardness, and clearly no great comfort to himself, heroically went through his melon in the way in which he had seen us do.

The wireworker, who had occasionally joined with an heir of respectful humility in the conversation, holding up his forefinger before his face and looking deferentially towards the chief, turned out to be a Mashona from Mhambane4, in Portuguese territory, who had come down as commercial traveller to himself, to push his own wire manufactures among the Bechuanas. To him, too, was doled out a scanty slice of melon, and at the completion of the banquet we took our leave, shook hands again, as on entering, with the chief, and rode back alone, leaving his headmen with him.

In the week following this visit I rode over with my friend to a village, twenty-three miles away, where we hoped to able to re-engage some of his old wagon drivers. It was decidedly chilly at eight o'clock that morning, when, after a very welcome cup of coffee, we started to follow the line of the river. The road lay through an undulating country, covered with grass and stunted thorn bushes, drawing a poor living from the thin red soil, through which every here and there the underlying rock crops up bare and brown through wide spaces. The river, in spite of the recent heavy rains, was not a continuously flowing stream; here and there along its reed-grown bed of thick black loam were pools of water; in other places the natives had dug deep pit, in the apparently disappointed hope of finding the river beneath; but there was nothing like a river in the sense used at home. At about ten o'clock we off-saddled, hobbled our horses and turned them loose, and a general browsing ensued—by the bipeds of the party on tinned beef and biscuits, by the quadrupeds, I fear, but on thorns, ants, rocks, and such other nutritious grazing as this splendid country affords.

An ingenuous native came down from a village on the opposite ridge, in the hope of sharing our breakfast. If so, he was grievously disappointed, for a two hours' ride beforehand is the worst preparation in the world for the practices of socialism as to the contents of one's saddlebags, which even in this climate we felt equal to dealing with without the least assistance from native labour. If, however, he came down to make himself generally useful, his wishes were speedily gratified, for we sent him off to drive up our horses after they had had a rest of about forty minutes; and by way of stimulating his loyalty, likely to rust in such an out-of-the-way place, we bestowed upon him before starting a small portrait of his protecting Sovereign, a portrait which perhaps lost none of its charms for him through being stamped on silver.

Then on we went again over the same kind of country, which to the eye of a stranger seems almost monotonously alike, passing through great black and white Kafir cranes standing by a reedy pool, some great black and white crows polishing the bones of a victim of the horse-sickness, while long-winged hawks sailed frequently overhead; in among the grass tufts yellow wag-tails ran unweariedly in chase of flies and long-tailed tits, and a few finches flew from one thorn bush to another. The birds must be weary of thorn bushes. There is hardly a shrub on the veldt which is not well furnished with some armour of the kind. Probably, at a very early stage in the history of these bushes, they were driven to the plain conclusion that, even without their being exposed to the attacks of every grazing animal, their struggle for existence was rendered quite sufficiently exciting by the parched and shallow soil and the beating sun, and so those that were not endowed with the needful needs of defence had hopelessly to give up the weary struggle, and be browsed off the face of the veldt.

The mimosa with its gleaming white needle-pointed spines, often more than two inches long, and giving it at a distance the appearance of a bush covered with white blossom (a striking text for moralisation on not judging by appearances, but I forbear), is by no means the worst foe of the unwary traveller; the waitabit, which has a most harmless green and innocent look, let it once get the least hold of the raiment of the inquiring botanist, will assuredly make him wait, not a bit, but the best part of a day, unless he adopt the heroic remedy of leaving a considerable part of his garments, and perhaps not a little of his skin behind him on the triumphant bush. The thorns of this far too mildly-named representative of all that is grasping and tenacious are short, thick, and curved, with their points set in every direction, so that a movement that carries one clear of one set brings one full on the points of half a dozen others.

It was a little after mid-day when we came to the end of our outward ride and entered a pretty native village, where the short thick grass, shaded by fair-sized thorn-trees, was set off by the brown roofs and red-walls of the hive-shaped huts. The headman's hut was pointed out to us, and he welcomed us at the gate; and leaving our horses to a native, we passed the wattled fences into a small court paved with hard red clay.

Opposite the entrance was the hut door in the clay wall—a wooden half-door with shutter above it, such as one sees in the village cottages at home. On each side was a window without frame or glass. The clay floor of the rather wide verandah was raised an inch or two above the level of the court, which, with two of its walls of the same hard red clay, looked very neat, clean, and homelike. An opening on one side led into the back court, with its wattled fence, where wood-chopping and other such untidy works were carried on.

Three chairs were set for us in a row, half under the shade of the jutting eaves, and we settled down for the coming palaver. By twos and threes the whole population of the village, at that time about eight in all, dropped in to see us, and after shaking hands cordially, squatted down in various attitudes about the floor of the court, all the other men of the village, including those whom my friend had ridden over to engage, were taking advantage of the good wages now obtainable, and were out in different services all over the country.

There was a peculiar manner of shaking hands fashionable in this village. Each man grasped his right forearm with his upturned left hand, and thus braced for the ordeal went through it vigorously.

The headman's brother, a magnificent specimen of a man, alone besides ourselves enjoyed the luxury of a chair. He and his brother were dressed alike in old brown tunics which had once belonged to some member of the Bechuanaland Border Police, with corduroy trousers and lace boots; the costumes of the rest were various, very, ranging from the graceful drapery of a jackal skin kaross to a black billycock5 and black cut-away coat above some corduroy trousers. The owner of the last-described faultless attire was a very old man, who, sitting at our feet, found a cause of inextinguishable merriment in the fact that I know no Sechuana.

We were introduced to Mrs. Headman—to two of her, in fact—each time looking comely and buxom, and of light complexion. Passing in and out and carrying heavy faggots of wood on their heads, and doing other drudgery, were the older wives, who had had to resign the ornamental for the purely useful sphere. They were not deemed worthy of an introduction to us, but did not seem to feel their position. They probably had no notion that old wives were not everywhere and always treated in this fashion. The heir to a chief is by Kafir law the eldest son of the chief wife, whom he generally marries late in life, and who is usually of equal rank with himself, in most cases the daughter of some neighbouring chief. If there is no son from this marriage, some choice of a successor is made by the chief and his headmen; but in such a case the succession is generally disputed, and trouble nearly always follows on the chief's death.

Soon after our arrival a tin mug full of water was brought to us. My friend drank, and passed it on to me. I, forgetting for the moment that he, as an old African traveller, was past all fastidiousness about filtered water, was about to drink also, but as my lips touched the water, something moving in it touched my lip. I put it down and looked, there in the far-from-limpid water, were a round half-dozen boatmen, water-beetles, not to speak of less palpable forms of life. The sight quenched my thirst effectually, and I passed the beetles back. A less objectionable form of refreshment—the native dainty, sour milk—was then brought in an earthenware bowl. It is something like rather fluid cream-cheese, and is very cooling after a hot ride. The headmen finished off all that we left, carefully licking the spoon on every side. Perhaps they were short of water for the washing up.

We had also brought some coffee with us, which the favourite wife brewed for us within the hut. She made it very well, and it was most refreshing. The company, which had dropped out again in twos and threes, no sooner perceived from the aroma of coffee what was going on, than they dropped in once more and took up their positions as before. Nor were they disappointed, the two cups which formed the coffee service being filled and emptied repeatedly, the headmen each time pointing out the man to be next favoured with the treat.

About two o'clock we shook hands all round once more, and rode back, off-saddled to give the horses a rest from four to five o'clock, and reached home at a quarter past six, in time to do justice to dinner with all the appetite which a forty-six mile ride can give.

It may interest lovers of horses to know that the roads were very hard, bare rock in many places; that both our horses were unshod, though one of them had worn shoes until the last ten days; that we rode most of the way at the hand-gallop or rough canter, which is the pace of the up-country horse; and that their hoofs were as perfect at the end of the journey as they were at the beginning.


The article was originally published in four parts in the journal South Africa, 25 Oct. 1890 p.162, 1 Nov. p.201, 8 Nov. p.230, & 15 Nov. p.294. Most of the paragraph breaks were inserted by the present editor, who also deleted parts of the first paragraph marked by ellipses (...).

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