Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

9:    Literature

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Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999

The tradition of publishing in Setswana in the 19th century began with the Holy Bible (completed by 1857) and continued with translations of works such as The Pilgrim's Progess, and other educational as well as evangelical texts. Sol Plaatje and L.D. Raditladi continued the tradition in the 20th century with translations into Setswana of Shakespeare plays, and in the case of Raditladi his own original plays and love poetry. Setswana novel writing has been revived since the 1980s by authors such as Mantsetsa Marope.

19th century published literature in English on Botswana is largely travel literature. The first big-seller on Botswana, reprinted many times in the last half of the 19th century was The Lion Hunter by Roualeyn Gordon Cumming - the archetype of safari adventures much of which, in modern eyes, reads like sheer blood lust. The second big-seller on Botswana was one of the best- sellers of the whole 19th century and has been rarely out of print since - Missionary Travels by David Livingstone (1857). (The complete text is available on this site chapter by chapter).It must be still counted a great work because of the insights it contains on life at that time.

Among pieces on the colonial period, the classic memoirs are those of Sir Charles Rey, Monarch of All I Survey: Bechuanaland Diaries 1929-37 (published by the Botswana Society in 1988). It may be read in conjunction with a volume by the late historian Michael Crowder, The Flogging of Phineas McIntosh, a Tale of Colonial Folly, Bechuanaland 1933 (also 1988). The best written of late colonial official memoirs is No Time Like the Past by Michael Fairlie (1990).

Apart from works by Jules Verne, who incorporated Botswana into his novels Meridiana and Adamantia, the first major work of fiction on or near Botswana was Mhudi by the pioneer Motswana writer Sol Plaatje, originally published in the 1930s - a love story set in the wars of the 1830s. Nicholas Montserrat published two novels on Botswana, The Tribe That Lost Its Head and Richer Than All His Tribe, based on his experience as the official press officer c. 1949-50 trying to manage British colonial publicity over the Seretse Khama marriage crisis. The novelist Carolyn Slaughter has published an autobiographical novel about the 1950-60s, growing up in Maun and being beaten by nuns in Bulawayo, titled Dreams of the Kalahari.

Around the time of independence the Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison discovered Botswana. Her writings about Botswana include her autobiographical Return to the Fairy Hill and the excellent children's novel The Family at Ditlhabeng.

The Botswana citizen best known internationally as an author is the late Bessie Head (1937-86), whose perceptive novels and short stories, written in English, reflect the loneliness of genius and the mores of life in the rural town of Serowe. Her novel When Raid Clouds Gather is clearly set in Serowe. Her novel A Question of Power, about teetering on the edges of 'insanity', has achieved cult status among some feminists. Other novels in English include Andrew Sesinyi's popular Love on the Rocks (1983), and Gaele Sobott-Mogwe's Colour me Blue written for children.

Caitlin Davies' novel Jamestown Blues (1997), set in an isolated salt mining township, tells of expatriate life as seen through the eyes of a young Motswana girl. (Scion of a famous writing family, Maun-based Davies is currently Botswana's liveliest and most productive freelance journalist.) Norman Rush's book of short stories called Whites and his prize-wining novel called Mating do likewise through American eyes. (Rush was local director of the US Peace Corps volunteer scheme in the early 1980s.)

A play by David Pownall (a British writer with Zambian theatre experience) called Livingstone and Sechele, set at Kolobeng in the 1840s, was performed in Edinburgh (at the Traverse) in 1979 and London (at the Lyric, Hammersmith) in 1980.

Among post-colonial works of non-fiction there are political biographies of Seretse Khama and Fish Keitseng, and political autobiobiographies by Mike Dingake and Motsamai Mpho, as well as at literary biographies of Sol Plaatje and Bessie Head.

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Literature Links

Try for above authors and titles on or, or Barnes and Noble or Discount Books , etc. and Yahoo!/Regional/Botswana at" and other search-engines.

The English Department's website is now online at (see especially pages on Bessie Head).

Sol Plaatje's Native Life in South Africa is available as a complete electronic text on this site. See also Project Gutenberg, who created the electronic text as one of the world's classics books collection, at sunsite.doc.ic.

Literary figures in the University of Botswana English Department include the poet Barolong Seboni, the poet and novelist Felix Mnthali, and the dramatist David Kerr.


(9a) Bessie Head, A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1990) ISBN 0 435 90578 3

(9b) David Kerr, African Popular Theatre, (Oxford: James Curry; Cape Town: David Philip; Harare: Baobab; Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1995). ISBN 0-435-08969-2.

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

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Last updated 15 January 2004