Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana's first President, made a call in 1970 for Africans to discover and write their own history, thus overcoming the racist insistence that the past of Africa was a worthless blank, waiting for Europeans. A key passage was "a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul." Botswana's historians and archaeologists, and other scholars who study the past, have always held these words in great honour as a statement of their objectives.
However, these words are frequently misquoted. In particular, the quotation has been hi-jacked by a more general process noted by Prof. Neil Parsons in a 2006 article, (2) by which interest in history has shifted to emphasis on "culture". Prof. Parsons writes:
As in other African countries, the idea of regaining our history was immensely popular in Botswana during the 1960s and 1970s, but has declined and been replaced by rhetoric about culture and heritage.(3)
Comparing a 1925 Setswana dictionary and a 1993 one, he shows how dingwao has shifted sense from "histories" to "cultures".(4) He continues:
Hence President Seretse Khama's famous statement of 1970, "We should write our own history books ... because ... a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul", is today conventionally rendered in official pronouncements without any reference to history as "A nation without a culture is a nation without a soul".(5)
Such a declaration recently appeared on screen, on BTV.
There would be no problem in using such a declaration as a statement inspired by Sir Seretse Khama, or to regard the phraseology as proverbial though originating in his speech. But what is remarkable is that this altered form is described as being what Sir Seretse Khama said, which it is not. This transformation is an interesting example of how oral tradition can modify what is transmitted according to the changing assumptions of society.
Of course, none of this means that the promotion of culture is not important too. It would be intersting to see if Seretse Khama raised the issue of preserving culture in some other speech.