University of Botswana History Department
Among a number of books by early European visitors, David Livingstone's Missionary Travels stands out as a classic. The complete text is available on-line at this site (see Missionary Travels etext). Also well worth reading is John Mackenzie's Ten Years North of the Orange River (discussed in my paper " 'Suppose a Black Man Tells a Story': the Dialogues of John Mackenzie the Missionary and Sekgoma Kgari the King and Rainmaker". In That Tremendous Voice: Essays in honour of Leonard Diniso Ngcongco, ed. Kofi Darkwah (1997, special issue of Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies).
See Neil Parsons' notes on Botswana fiction.
Until the first decade of this century, Botswana literature in English was limited, and the earliest versions of this page attempted something like a comprehensive coverage. But by now the quantity has increased considerably.
At the top of any prospective visitor's list should be Bessie Head's When Rain Clouds Gather, about Botswana on the eve of Independence. The novel has, bizarrely, been criticized as ignoring politics, but in fact offers acute observations about both the transition in Botswana (notably the end of the era of chiefly dominance, and the phenomenon of "lands-settlement") and the possible models for African political leadership. Bessie Head, Botswana's greatest writer (and indeed one of the greatest in Africa) also wrote two other important novels set in modern Botswana, Maru and A Question of Power. Maru is about racism, not against black people but against the Basarwa or San (see note on terminology). It is however a troubled book already showing some of the mental torment which erupts in A Question of Power, a difficult but magnificent voyage through mental disorder to insights on religion, sexuality, and African society. Her last book, A Bewitched Crossroads, is an historical novel. She also wrote a number of short stories, including the collection The Collector of Treasures, and a book about her adopted home, Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind, which includes extensive oral interviews. (The Cardinals, actually written first but published posthumously, is set in South Africa and pre-dates her Botswana experiences.) See also the English Department website for some pages on Bessie Head
Mositi Torontle's The Victims (1993) (not to be confused with a number of other books with the same title) manages to convey a remarkable range of insights into Botswana in the eighties, and is another book that could be recommended as an introduction for visitors, but it is unfortunately out of print. Others among the earlier writers to note include Moteane Melamu, (collected short stories: Children of the Twilight, Living and Partly Living, and The Unweeded Garden and Other Stories), Caitlin Davies (Jamestown Blues, Black Mulberries and other novels), Galesiti Baruti, whose Mr Heartbreaker (1993) sheds a lurid light on the Gaborone of its time, and Andrew Sesinyi, whose Love on the Rocks (1981) probably remains the most popular Botswana novel in English within Botswana.
Unity Dow (otherwise known as a legal scholar and High Court Judge) has published four novels: Far and Beyon', which deals with growing up in the age of AIDS, The Screaming of the Innocent (about muti murder) and Juggling Truths, a portrayal of Mochudi in the sixties as seen by a child. The last is especially recommended to visitors and those interested in understanding Botswana. Her fourth novel, The Heavens May Fall, published at the end of 2006, shows the "seamy side" of Botswana life as seen by a lawyer. Unity Dow is rapidly emerging as a leading Botswana writer.
Another emerging writer is Lauri Kubuitsile. She has mainly written short stories (winning the AngloPlatinum Short Story Prize in 2007), but has also published two detective stories, The Fatal Payout and Murder for Profit. The latter is especially recommended to visitors.
Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and its numerous sequels about the detective Mma Ramotswe have proved very popular in the west, and helped put Botswana on the map. The books should not be made to carry too much weight, and criticisms that they do not deal in depth with Africa's problems are a little unfair: part of the original point of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was to counter western perceptions that Africans were incapable of living ordinary lives and running their affairs, but lived entirely in a state of disaster. The first book is the most interesting.
From 2007 the Bessie Head Foundation conducted an annual literature competition (currently in abeyance). This was given generous support by the Botswana publishers Pentagon Publishers, unfortunately no longer in business. Pentagon not only donated the prize money but published the winners of each year. See the Bessie Head website for information on the competition and for the list of winners since 2007.
See the detailed notes elsewhere on this site, especially Neil Parsons' Select Bibliography on the History of Botswana and Bibliography for Local Studies. Thomas Tlou and Alec Campbell History of Botswana and Neil Parsons New History of Southern Africa are the standard introductions. For the 19th century see J. Ramsay, B. Morton and T. Mgadla Building a Nation : a History of Botswana from 1800 to 1910 and for the 20th century to Independence see Fred Morton and Jeff Ramsay (eds) The Birth of Botswana : a History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1910 to 1966. Fred Morton's When Rustling became an Art: Pilane's Kgatla and the Transvaal Frontier 1820-1902 shows how a middle-sized group managed to establish itself in unpromising circumstances: in the process the book gives new insights into the times. Neil Parsons King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen : Victorian Britain through African eyes deals with the visit of the three chiefs to Britain in 1895 but has a wide ambit. For post-independence politics the best introduction is probably Thomas Tlou, Neil Parsons and Willie Henderson Seretse Khama, 1921-80.
The older books by Anthony Sillery (who had been Resident Commissioner in the late 1940s) are still valuable, but are dated and tend to be limited to the official perspective. (See bibliography.)
Most of the above have a political and economic focus. For cultural and religious history Gabriel M. Setiloane The Idea of God among the Sotho-Tswana, Jean and John Comaroff's two-volume Of Revelation and Revolution and Paul Landau's The Realm of the Word are essential.
For a recent episode in Botswana's public life you might be interested in Caitlin Davies' study of The Return of El Negro. Caitlin Davies has written about her time in Botswana in a powerful memoir, Place of Reeds.
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By Bruce Bennett, email bennett@mopipi... [Click here for full email address]
Copyright © 2000 University of Botswana History Department
Updated 8 June 2010
Updated 13 November 2022 (Bessie Head Literature award in abeyance)