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Botswana Ethnic Groups and Tribes

Ethnicity gives identity to people according to their language, culture and descent. This is so because ethnic identities are articulated around ancestry, culture and language. Similar to most African nations Botswana is a heterogeneous nation as she has more than one ethnic group, with no one ethnic group dominant over the other. In Botswana each ethnic group has a significant degree of cultural autonomy, even though there is a great degree of relations among them all, with some influencing others through a process called ‘assimilation’. This, according to Nathan Glazer (1983) in 'Ethnic Groups In History Textbooks' is a process by which one group adopts some of the cultural features of another group. (Nathan Glazer, 1983)

There are 12 major ethnic groups and 3 distinct mixed settler groups in Botswana. 

Batswana, as the name suggests are natives and descendants of the nation of Botswana. It is a word used loosely to refer to any person who holds a Botswana citizenship. A single person is referred to as Motswana

Nevertheless, the word can be used to refer to a person who belongs to the ‘Tswana’ ethnic group. It is common course that people from Botswana are automatically called ‘Batswana’. This is a generally accepted and adopted national identity.

In all, there are 12 ethnic groups that comprise of the Tswana, Bakalanga, Basarwa, Batswapong, Babirwa, Bakgalagadi, Bayei, Hambukushu, Basubiya, BanokaBahurutshe and Baherero. There are also some mixed settler groups that can be classified into 3 major categories.

1) Tswana

The Tswana who are the largest ethnic group in Botswana is made of 8 tribes originally settled in the southern and central parts of Botswana. 

In the local naming structure, the full nomenclature of the Tswana is Batswana which is a pluralized reference to this ethnic group. However, the use of the word ‘Batswana’ is generally reserved for reference to all citizens of Botswana. 

The Tswana sub-ethnic groups or tribes share the same customs, laws and traditions with little variations in some ways. On their sociopolitical setup, Tswana tribes are made up of clans who were led by chiefs who made laws and were responsible for ensuring that those are implemented, meting out disciplinary action where necessary. The Tswana were also accustomed to the African traditional religion which was mainly made up of ancestral worship. Most of its characteristics were slowly diluted and gradually abolished due to contact with the European missionaries who first settled in Botswana around 1846. They converted the Tswana through their chiefs and Christianity became the Tswana’s main or official religion, and virtually every other ethnic group in Botswana. Since then, most of the laws were abolished to meet the standards of the new religion; Christianity. The most common law and practice that was abolished is polygamy. Botswana law today differs vastly from the traditional system. Some of the features are aligned to global practices such as outlawing polygamy and practicing monogamy.

The 8 Tswana tribes in Botswana are as follows:

  • Bangwaketse are found mostly in Kanye, a principal village of the Bangwaketse. They have also settled in Molapowabojang, Lotlhakane East, Mogonye, Selokolela, Semane, Maisane and Magoriapitse villages among others.
  • Barolong are found in the south-eastern part of Botswana in Goodhope, a principal village of the Barolong, Mabule, Makokwe, Pitsane, Tlhareseleele, Bethel and Metlojaneng  amongst others. Interestingly, some Barolong are found in the north eastern part of Botswana, in Borolong and Matsiloje villages. These Barolong have their origins in Thabanchu, South Africa and have settled in the north east due to inter-tribal conflicts.
  • Bakwena are found in and around the Molepolole region. Molepolole is their principal village, being the most densely populated village in Botswana. Bakwena are also settled in Lentsweletau, Mahetlwe, Gakgatla, Gamodubu, Gabane, Hatsalatladi, Ramaphatle, Kopong, Kumakwane, Lephephe, Boatlaname, Metsimotlhabe and many others. 
  • Bangwato who are settled in the central district of Botswana, are the largest tribe of the Tswana ethnic group. Their capital is Serowe village. They have also settled in Shoshong, Palapye, Mahalapye, Paje, Radisele, Dibete and many others.
  • Batlokwa who are a part of the Bakgatla tribe have their roots in a location called Tlokwe which is modern day Potchefstroom in South Africa, while in Botswana they have settled in Tlokweng, east of Gaborone.
  • Bakgatla are a tribe whose principal village is Mochudi, also in the southern part of Botswana, west of the capital city, Gaborone. They are also settled in Rasesa, Raserura, Pilane, Moshupa, Thamaga and many other neighbouring villages.
  • Balete, also called Bamalete, are found in villages such as Ramotswa, Otse, Mogobane and Metsimotlhabe.
  • Batawana are the only Tswana sub-ethnic group in Botswana that is not located in the southern part of Botswana. They migrated to the Ngamiland area for purposes of crop and livestock farming, hence they have settled around the Okavango delta. They are settled in Maun as the principal village, Kareng, Nokaneng, Sehitwa and many neighbouring other villages.

2) Bakalanga

Bakalanga, also called Bakalaka, are the second largest ethnic group after the Tswana in Botswana. Historically, their lifestyle has been different from that of the Tswana, in their customs and laws. This could have been because they moved a lot, from country to country, more than the other ethnic groups, therefore adopting different cultures along the way before finally settling in Botswana. They first settled in South Africa, however, were also the first Bantu speaking people to settle in Botswana. Meanwhile, there are small groups that were left in Zimbabwe and South Africa. From Mapumbugbwe settlement Bakalanga moved to Masvingo, Zimbabwe and finally to the north eastern parts of Botswana.  Because of their stay in Zimbabwe, their language adopted some traits of the Shona language, which is one of the languages in Zimbabwe. Bakalanga established settlements in villages such as Nswazwi, Maitengwe, Mapoka, Nlapkhwane, Nshakashogwe, Tsamaya, Tshesebe, Masunga, Marobela, Tutume, Masukwane, Mulambakwena, Domboshaba and many others around Francistown. 

Some Bakalanga along with Babirwa and Batswapong were adopted into the Ngwato hegemony, and as a result there are many Bakalanga, often referred to as Batalaote, in central Botswana.

Bakalanga are pastoralists who rear cattle and grow crops as shown by their settlement near rivers like the Shashe and Ramokgwebana. Similar to other ethnic groups such as Batswana, Hambukushu, Subiya, Bakalanga practiced polygamy with variations to their betrothal practices, for until as recent as the latter part of the twentieth century. Likewise, such practices gradually disappeared with the arrival of the European missionaries, though not completely. One distinct feature of theirs is religion; Bakalanga were famous for rainmaking rituals, as they prayed to their ancestors and god Mwali, for rain for a better harvest. They have music and dance associated with this, called wosana and mayile. These are practices that have not vanished due to colonialism, and are still practiced today through ceremonies such as weddings and healing. This involves the performance of mazenge dance by women uttering exhortations to ancestors to heal a person, performing unintelligible ancestral communication, or performing ndazula dance  to celebrate a great harvest.  They have meant the dress code to date when performing their traditional music and dance.  

Their socio-political structure is almost just like that of the Tswana. They are divided into clans that are led by chiefs.

3) Basarwa

Basarwa are the first and oldest inhabitants of southern Africa who have lived in Botswana for over 30 000 years. The name Basarwa has been used extensively by the Tswana to refer to the Bushmen. (Kienna, 2010) However, they are also called the Khoisan. They were initially hunter gatherers and have gradually transitioned because of their interactions with other tribes where they settled. Over and above that, this transition was also influenced by their contact with the European missionaries and traders. The social structure of Basarwa denotes that decision making is distributed equally among the group members regardless of their gender. Furthermore, they have been known for their nomadic way of life. Because of this they have no particular settlement they can be identified with in Botswana. They survived by hunting wild animals for meat and gathering wild fruits. They use the skins of the animals they killed to make clothing (also have European clothing), using natural material only to make these as well as jewellery, weapons and other ornaments. Basarwa are to date known as one of the most powerful traditional healers. They have settled too in Angola, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia Zimbabwe and Lesotho. In Botswana their initial settlement was in the Kalahari desert.

4) Batswapong

Batswapong are one of the three Ngwato minorities, alongside the Batalaote (Bakalanga) and Babirwa, even though they originate from different bantu speaking tribes, hence the variance in their language. The name Tswapong is derived from Letswapo, a Sengwato word referring to the foot of a hill. The name is relevant in that Batswapong settled close to hills as a defense strategy during tribal conflicts. Batswapong cultural and traditional practices include, praying for rain and traditional healing. The practice of praying for rain by Batswapong was known as dikomana. Batswapong believe that their ancestors live in the hills and during drought spells they prayed for rain led by the chiefs and elders. 

Batswapong established settlements in villages in the eastern parts of Palapye and Mahalapye. Most of the villages in this area are surrounded by hills. These include; Moshopha, Machaneng, Ramokgonami, Mokobeng, Lerala, Mosweu, Mokokwana, Lesenepole and Matolwane.

5) Babirwa

Babirwa originated from Transvaal in South Africa and settled in the Tuli block area in Botswana. In this area Botswana and South Africa are separated by the Limpopo River. The lanugage of Babirwa is called sebirwa, which is a Sotho dialect. Babirwa are settled in the eastern part of Botswana with their capital being Bobonong village. They are also found in Molalatau, Kobojango, Tsetsebjwe, Mathathane, Motlhabaneng and other villages all of which are around the Selibe-Phikwe area. There are some Babirwa in Zimbabwe in the Gwanda area. The Bobirwa area in Botswana is famous for its fertile loamy soil which obviously means they are agriculturists who practice crop production and livestock farming. The area is also known to be the home for many game animals hence it has many national parks.

6) Bakgalagadi

Bakgalagadi, also known as Bakgalagari is an ethnic group that is found in southern Botswana within the central region of the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Desert, a place which was named after them. The ethnic group is made of tribes that include Bakgwatheng, Babolaongwe, Bangologa, Baphaleng and Bashaga. Their language is Sekgalagadi, which has many dialects such as Sengologa, Sebolaongwe and Sekgwatheng. The establishment of Bakgalagadi is pinpointed to around 1400 A.D. a period of transition in most parts of Botswana and southern Africa region. They migrated from  the Transvaal area in South Africa into Botswana and settled in the Kalahari Desert and Gantsi area. The origin confirms that Bakgalagadi and all other Batswana tribes come from the same ancestral roots. To date some Bakgalagadi still remain in the Rustenburg area of South Africa. Given that Bakgalagadi live in a desert area inevitably they mainly kept livestock for farming.

7) Bayei

Bayei, also known as Wayei are settlers of the area around Ngami and the Okavango Delta which are in the north western part of Botswana. Immigrating from the Lozi tribe in Zambia, they moved into the area in Botswana around the 1750, well ahead of the Hambukushu. Alongside the Hambukushu and Basubiya, Bayei who all originated from the north areas occupied the northern parts of Botswana. The Wayei are profound fishermen using basket-traps to catch fish. However, much prestige was associated with killing a hippopotamus, an activity Bayei were skilled in. They are also accustomed to ploughing for food, but do not clear ploughing fields of stumps as southern based Batswana do. They believed in a god who lived among them and later got angry and ascended to heaven, according to their mythology. They are great worshipers of gods. Their communities are led by a chief from the royal house, with the chiefdom handed over to the son in the event that the chief dies. The Bayeyi live in the Ngamiland district in areas such as Sehithwa, Gumare, Nokaneng, Toteng, Tsau, Shorobe and the neighbouring settlements.

8) Hambukushu

It is rare to hear the Hambukushu referred to as Bambukushu, a naming structure that is used to refer to ethnic groups in Botswana. In fact, it is even more popular to refer to them as Mambukushu. However, it would not be incorrect to use the Bambukushu reference, because the use of the bi-syllable ‘Ba’ is an adopted root to a plural referent of tribes, communities or groups of people in Botswana.

Hambukushu or the ‘rainmakers of Okavango’ (believed to perform rituals that make rainfall), whose language is called sembukushu,  are a tribe found in the Okavango, which is in north-western parts of Botswana. Their origins are rooted in Angola and Namibia where there are some traces to date, but are also traced to the tribe of Barotse in Zambia, a language that bears similarities with sembukushu. However, specifically in Namibia they settled along the banks of the Kavango, and in Angola along the Cuito River conjunction, both of which feed into the Okavango. Hambukushu are believed to have made their way into Botswana in the 19th century, coming in the footsteps of Bayei who had already occupied the northern part of Botswana. Their socio-political structure is not different from that of other Botswana ethnic groups; they are divided into clans which are led by dikgosi as well. These chiefs are responsible for maintaining order in their societies. 

Hambukushu are pastoralists who settled in the Okavango, because of the availability of water for their animals and crops. Inevitably, because of their settlement being by the delta they have adopted the lifestyle of fishing. As pastoralists they rear mostly cows, used mainly in marriages to pay a bride price. Cows play a huge role in determining social status and class for the Hambukushu. They are known also for their traditional music that they call seperu, a dance that was used initially in rituals as they are ancestral worshipers. This dance is performed by both men and women alike. Hambukushu also have a dance called njangura, which is performed to conduct a healing. They are said to believe in a God called Nyembe whom they worshiped and obviously because of the colonization of Botswana had to abandon that belief and adopt a new religion, Christianity, which led to abolishing most of the religious and cultural practices. There are, nevertheless some Hambukushu who still practice this worship of gods to date. The villages where this ethnic group is found include Gumare, Etsha, Shakawe, Mohembo, Kauxwi, Gowa Xakao, Sekhondomboro, Mogotho, Seronga, Ghonotsoga and Beetsha.

9) Basubiya

Basubiya actually refer to themselves as the veekuhane and their language chiikuhane, although it is commonly known and referred to as sesubiya. Basubiya are a tribe of the Lozi in Zambia, found in the chobe district as well, and needless to say Basubiya have their origins rooted in Zambia. They are still found in Caprivi Strip, to the east of Namibia and around Victoria falls. Just like the other groups, Basubiya also believed in a supreme being who they mention worshiping him using the other gods as intermediaries. Though, that has also evolved with colonialism bringing Christianity into Botswana. They are found in Botswana in the Chobe region, where four countries uniquely meet – Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia. Their capital village is Kasane and along the Chobe River, within other Chobe settlements such as Pandamatenga, Kachikau, Ngoma, Lesoma and Kazungula.

10) Banoka

Banoka (sometimes called Baxanukwi) have generally been referred to as the river Bushmen, whose root name is a translation from the Setswana word ‘noka’ that refers to a river. But a small number of Banoka exist today. They are an ethnic group that co-existed peacefully with the Bayei of the Okavango delta for a long time, as they settled around the Tsodilo hills area. Before they met with the Bayei they also survived by fishing though their level of skill was relatively low and therefore adopted a more skillful way of fishing from the Bayei. Because of this interrelation with the Bayeyi they have adapted most of their way of life. Knowledge on the culture dynamics of the Banoka Is vague due to the fact that few exist today. They have settled in areas such as Gcangwa, Nxau, Nxamasera, Mohembo, Sekhondomboro and Gudigwa.

11) Bahurutshe

Bahurutshe (sometimes referred to as Bakhurutse) are one of the branches of the Bakwena tribe, having moved from north into southern Botswana after crossing the Limpopo River. 

Bakhurutse are an old ethnic group that comes from Mohurutshe. Already explained elsewhere on this website, Masilo is the great ancestor of Batswana. Generations later there was a ruler called Malope, who in his first house had an only child being a duaghter called Mohurutshe. She could not inherit the chieftainship due to gender and patriarchal notions, therefore Kwena the son from the second house could be king. 

Bahurutshe split into many sub groups and hence they settled in different places in Botswana. They are found in villages such as Paje, Mmadinare, Palapye, Nata, Tonota and others.

12) Baherero

Baherero also known as Ovaherero are a tribe that has originated from Namibia (with a minority coming from Angola) before settling in Botswana. They speak Otjiherero. They settled in villages such as Sehitwa, Toteng and Maun and some villages in its surrounding like Sepopa, Etsha, Kareng, Bodibeng and others. Some Baherero are also found in Mahalapye, while some in the Kgalagardi region, around the Tsabong area, Omawaneni, Draaihoek and Makopong. They are famous for their distinct dress code; women wear very long and big ball gown dresses and horizontal headgear, and men wear mostly leather hats and carry a walking stick, which is their signature dress code. These were adapted from the German missionaries who occupied and colonized Namibia, at the time it was still called South West Africa. They are famous for cattle rearing and are meat lovers. Cattle herding is also used to establish status in their communities.

13) African settler groups – Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya 

Botswana has a sizable mixture of African nationals who have settled in the country over the years. There are still cross-border filial ties between Batswana and the countries that surround Botswana, being Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe; but then some relationship ties have been established with people from Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and as far as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The high number of settlers of African descent came about during pre-independence days as the majority of these regularly congregated a lot around the Francistown area which was a travel route to travel to mines in South Africa for employment.

14) British and European settler groups

The British and European settlers in Botswana today make about 0.3% (70,000) of the total population of Botswana. This number is significantly high given that at independence the number of European traders had reduced due to the drying up of minerals in areas such as Tati. However, unlike in neighbouring states where they settled in large numbers, this number has remained small in Botswana.

15) Indians, Chinese and Asian settler groups

Whereas Indians have been in Botswana for the last 6-8 decades, the Chinese have only increased in large numbers as recent as the 1990s. There are Asians in almost every community but more-so in the urban centres. The majority of Asians in Botswana are traders in all economic sectors, including being employed in corporate services.

A discussion of Botswana ethnic groups acknowledges that by nature mankind evolves, and so do ethnic groups. All of the above-stated ethnic groups in Botswana are expected to change over time. Names may not change, but cultural practices that are associated with respective groups will change. Today already, there are discernible traces of emergent communities such as in mixed families arising from instances of bi-racial relationships, which will require a new social (re)classification at one stage. Overall Batswana are a coming together of the major identifiable ethnic groups that have been changing phases over a long time, as a result of human evolution and interrelationships with people from other nations.

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